Celebrated every 12 years for millennia, the Kumbha Mela is the largest spiritual gathering on the planet. Pilgrims, saints, sages, sadhus, and yogis belonging to many different paths and traditions come to the Kumbha Mela to share their knowledge and wisdom, to intensify their own practice, and to walk together on their spiritual journey. Tens of millions gather at the bank of the river Ganga (Ganges) at a time when the planets, constellations, and other celestial bodies are perfectly aligned, creating a powerful vortex of spiritual energy. This energy is further intensified by the collective consciousness of the saints, sages, and pilgrims who gather here with a single shared intention: inner healing and lasting change.
The word “kumbha” means vessel or container. It refers to the vessel that holds the elixir of life, the sap of immortality. The time and place that holds this liquid life force is called the Kumbha Mela. One of India’s many ancient legends tells us that this elixir of life pours down from heaven every 12 years at the confluence of three rivers—the Ganga, the Yamuna, and the mystical Sarasvati—near the modern-day city of Allahabad in north-central India. For thousands of years, the great sages have undertaken intense group practices at this spiritual locus to channel wisdom into human hearts, and to establish harmony in the physical world.
History and Tradition of the Kumbha Mela
The most ancient scripture in the world is called the Rig Veda, which is at least 5000 years old. There is a verse in the Rig Veda that says, “There are two rivers, one is blue and another is white. By taking a dip in the confluence, where the white and the blue rivers meet, one attains immortality. One attains wisdom and knowledge. And one contributes to the continuous flow of knowledge, wisdom, culture and civilization.” This passage indicates that the Kumbha Mela is at least a 5000 year old tradition.
For over one thousand years, the people of Southeast Asian countries—Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos—have been coming to the Kumbha Mela. There is an old custom in these cultures that when someone from the community is going to attend the Kumbha Mela, there is a festival to celebrate the pilgrimage. Everyone from the community comes and gives whatever they can to support the travelers. When the pilgrim finally comes back after taking bath in the Ganga at the Kumbha Mela there is a great celebration. People come with drums and other musical instruments to greet the person. The pilgrim brings with them a container of water from the Ganga, and the other villagers take turns to have the honor to carry this sacred water. Hundreds of people come just to touch that vessel that was with the water of the Ganga during the Kumbha Mela.
Mythical Origin of the Kumbha Mela
The Kumbha Mela is so ancient that it is hard to determine when and how it first began. However, there are stories, which are now so old they are called myths and legends. Here is one such story:
Once upon a time, our planet was conquered by a group of demons who used to live at the bottom of the ocean. They plundered all the great gems of the earth: love, compassion, kindness, the vitality and healing power that resides in our grains, vegetables, fruits, rivers, and mountains, the healing power that naturally resides in the loving care of our mothers and fathers, and the power of protection that resides in our leaders. These were the gems that the demons stole.
A demon, whose name was Shankhasura, plundered all of these great gems and hid them in the bottom of the ocean. The whole planet started suffering. Mother Earth was sinking in grief. So Mother Earth accompanied by great saints, sages, thinkers and philosophers asked Lord Vishnu for help. Lord Vishnu heard their request, vanquished the demons, and allowed all these great forces, great virtues, and great gems to reemerge.
To honor Lord Vishnu and his service to the world, the saints and sages came and preformed one of the greatest group meditations: a 12-year long continuous group meditation at the bank of the river Ganga in Allahabad. Since then, the Kumbha Mela has been celebrated every 12 years to commemorate this first group practice and to renew our commitment to care for ourselves and for our planet.