Memories of the Allahabad Kumbh Mela: The Swami
About the Kumbh Mela
The Kumbh Mela is the world’s largest religious gathering. Held every 12 years on the banks of the Ganges River in the city of Allahad in northern India, the festival attracts millions of Hindu pilgrims who come to bathe in the sacred waters of the Ganges River and purify their souls. They also come seeking the many swamis, sadhus, gurus, and holy men who erect temples or tents in which to hold lectures and give private audiences to spiritual seekers.
In 1988, I learned of the event while visiting India and decided to come back the next year to see it first-hand. I was fresh out of college, young and idealistic. But I didn't go to the festival to meet a holy man or purify my soul. I went to help distribute free saplings to the Kumbh Mela pilgrims and to witness the spectacle of 35 million people descending upon one city for the singular purpose of taking a dip in a river.
To be honest, I was seeking entertainment more than enlightenment. But it's funny how you can be seeking one thing and find something completely different.
What is Your Question?
I had come to the Kumbh Mela with Trees for Life, a nonprofit organization based in Wichita, Kansas. Trees for Life was distributing free tree saplings to the pilgrims who attended the festival, and I was helping to hand them out.
On this particular day, I was with two others who had come from the US - my friend Balbir, who is the founder of Trees for Life and a native of Allahabad, and Leigh, a filmmaker from New York. Although both Leigh and I had mainly secular reasons for attending the mela, Balbir wanted to make sure we also had the opportunity to experience what the many of pilgrims had come for - an audience with an enlightened holy man. So there I was, on my way to meet a swami.
Thousands of tents lined the makeshift roadway through the festival grounds, and throngs of people flowed by like marigolds floating on the water. There were men with shaved heads. Men with ashes smeared on their bodies. Men with yellow, red or white paint on their faces and foreheads. There were men in tattered rags, and men in flowing robes. All had come become they were believers. I wasn’t exactly a believer, but I came with an open mind, willing to experience whatever came my way.
Finally our car stopped outside one of the many canvas tents set up throughout the Allahabad Kumbh Mela. Balbir told us to wait in the car as he got out and approached three young men standing outside a tent. They spoke briefly in Hindi.
Then Balbir motioned for us to get out and follow him. I walked gingerly across the white sand, trying not to get too much in my tennis shoes as we approached the swami’s tent. This seemed like a very inauspicious place for a powerful holy man. Most of the swamis, sadhus and gurus here seemed to be ensconced in much more elaborate tents and temples strung with garlands of fresh flowers and strings of lights. Devraha Baba, a renowned saint who was purportedly more than 300 years old, had even constructed his own tropical hut on stilts at the farthest edge of the Mela grounds. But the man we were about to meet had a tent that looked no different from the thousands of dusty tents inhabited by the poor peasants who had saved their rupees for months or years to make the trek to the Kumbh Mela.
Balbir took off his shoes, then pulled back the flap and walked into the tent. Leigh and I followed suit, stepping from the bright sun into the shade of the structure. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust. When they did, I saw an overweight man with a pure white flowing beard, bushy white mustache and long white hair lying partially reclined on a charpoy (or twine cot) near the front of the tent. His feet extended from beneath his saffron robe and he rested most of his weight on his right elbow. The swami had a calm face that belied no emotions, but his eyes seemed to burn into our souls.
Balbir touched his head to the man’s feet, a sign of respect, but, not sure whether such a gesture on my part would seem phony or insincere, I simply placed my hands together and said “Namaste.” Leigh did likewise. Then the three of us sat on the straw mat directly in front of the cot. The swami looked at us appraisingly, casting an unreadable glance at Leigh and I as Balbir introduced all three of us in Hindi. A second man with a white beard and a saffron robe sat on a mat at the foot of the swami's cot. He had the gentlest eyes I had ever seen, and his face seemed to radiate peace. Where the swami appeared to be sizing us up, this man’s eyes betrayed only kindness. A look of sheer joy and peace seemed to sparkle in his eyes and dance on his face, as though any minute he could break into a smile. I guessed him to be in his 50s or 60s, but he had the round, joyful face of a child. Half a dozen younger men, perhaps in their 20s or 30s, also sat quietly on mats behind the swami. I assumed these were his followers.
The swami shifted slightly, sitting up as he pulled his robe around him. Balbir told him briefly of the work of Trees for Life and why we were there. The swami looked at each of us in turn as Balbir talked in Hindi. His gaze was impassionate, but I had the odd sense that he was looking right through our bodies and into our souls. It was an eerie feeling. I was oddly convinced that before we ever walked into the tent he knew each of us better than we knew ourselves. But he betrayed no sign of judgment.
After a few minutes, Balbir asked if we had any questions for the swami. Leigh answered right away. He said he knew his purpose in attending the Mela was supposedly to shoot the documentary, but he was sure that there must be some deeper reason. What was his real purpose for being here?
Balbir translated the question.
The holy man pondered for a few seconds, then began to speak. Meanwhile, I was racking my brain. Here I am in the presence of a great master. What can I ask? What is important? Think, think, think. No question came. And the harder I tried, the more blank my mind became. I couldn’t come up with a single question that seemed important enough to ask an enlightened soul. I had studied journalism, a profession based on asking people questions, yet I couldn’t think of a single thing to ask. How ironic was that?
I was a little disappointed with myself. Here I had the chance to ask something profound, and my mind was a giant void. I wanted to keep thinking, to come up with something amazing to ask, but suddenly I could no longer focus on the idea of generating of questioning. The need to ask a question, to come up with something deep and meaningful, slipped away and was replaced with a quiet calmness inside. If I was not meant to ask a question, I was not meant to ask a question.
The swami had finished his answer to Leigh, and Balbir now was translating. I listened to what he was saying without really hearing the words. Balbir finished and then the swami spoke for a few more minutes as we sat silently.
I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, but suddenly tears were threatening to spill from my eyes. I was slightly embarrassed by my reaction. I cannot explain the feeling that prompted my tears. It seemed to spring from a sudden feeling of complete peace that caught me totally by surprise. This was the sort of thing that I thought only happened to other people — people like Shirley MacLaine, who believed in a lot of funky “out there” stuff. Not people like me. Not people who didn’t really believe in that sort of thing. Not objective journalists with inquiring minds.
When Balbir asked me again if I had a question to ask the swami, I still couldn’t think of anything.
Leigh was now asking for permission to film the swami, and I marveled at his audacity. I, too, would have loved to use the camera that was hanging around my neck, but it didn’t seem appropriate to ask. Would you have an audience with the Dalai Lama or the Pope and ask to film the event? It seemed disrespectful, even if the swami didn't have the exalted status of either of those leaders.
As I had expected, the swami said he didn’t want his picture taken. He started talking again and was still talking when one of the disciples came into the tent and handed each of us a piece of an orange. Leigh asked Balbir if the swami would bless the fruit. Even I, who was not well-versed in the ways of Hinduism, knew that this orange wasn’t merely a light snack for the visitors. It was prasad, a holy offering. Balbir told Leigh what I already knew - that the fruit was blessed - and didn't bother to translate the interaction.
After we took the fruit, it was time to leave. Balbir stood first. I followed, but as I wasn’t accustomed to sitting lotus-style for long periods, I discovered my legs were completely numb from the knee down. They were moving, but I couldn’t immediately feel them. The numbness was soon replaced by that pins-and-needles feeling that shocks your limbs back into action after they’ve fallen asleep, and I hobbled outside to put my shoes on. I still was wondering why I hadn’t been able to think of a question.
Balbir told us more about the swami’s words as we drove through the Mela grounds, expanding on the ideas he had only been able to briefly translate during our encounter with the holy man. The core of the swami's message was "As you sow, so shall you reap." He had said the essence of all religions is to teach love for all others. Everyone is taught this from a young age, but most people fail to live up to the teaching. However, some special moments in life can transform your soul, and that is why many people come to the Kumbh Mela.
His words certainly didn’t sound new to me. He didn’t say anything that many spiritual leaders before him hadn’t already said. But I guess there can only be so many truths in life, I thought.
We soon left the mela grounds and continued our daily routine of overseeing the tree distribution. But my lack of a question started nagging at me. Later I mentioned it to Balbir, telling him how I had wanted to ask a question, but none had come to mind.
“It doesn’t matter whether or not you actually ask a question out loud,” he told me. “It will be answered anyway.” To merely be in the presence of such a man was enough, Leigh added. I pondered those statements for awhile, but fell asleep that night wondering what question I could have asked the swami.
The next morning I was excited as we headed off to visit another village. Balbir had told me it didn’t matter if I had voiced a question because it had been answered, even if it hadn’t been asked. Now I knew the question. And I knew the answer.
When we were in the car, headed to the village, I turned to Balbir. “You know how yesterday you said it didn’t matter whether or not I asked a question of Swami Mulananda because it would be answered anyway? Well, I think I know the answer to the question I didn’t ask,” I said. He looked at me expectantly.
“My question,” I ventured, “was ‘Why don’t I have a question?’ And I think the answer is this - there is nothing important I could have asked because all the truly important questions in life have to be answered from within. Those questions can’t be answered by anyone but yourself. You must find your own truth and listen to your own heartbeat. You are the only one who can find your path. Everything you need is already within you, if you choose to recognize it. Each of us has a divine spark that lights our lives, but it’s up to us to keep the spark burning and to follow its light. As Glynda told Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, 'You always had the power.'
"The other reason is because the things that are important in life must be experienced. For instance, love cannot be explained. It must be experienced. Life cannot be explained. It, too, must be experienced. Swamis and gurus and sadhus and even ordinary people on the street can tell you what is true, but it will have no meaning until you experience it.”
I was extremely proud of myself for coming up with such profound insight into the meaning of life. Balbir, however, just smiled. It was the grin of a father whose child had just unraveled one of those giant mysteries in life — things like the alphabet, or shoelaces, or counting to 10. To an adult, these mysteries have been deciphered long ago. But to a child, they are wonderful challenges to be met, mastered, and celebrated. I was like a child who had just learned to tie her shoelaces.
I thought I had made an amazing discovery. Balbir just smiled knowingly.
About the Kumbh Mela
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