by Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Ph.D.
Republished from the Kumbha Mela Times
The Kumhba Mela is in full swing here in Allahabad. Roads into the city are periodically closed on the busiest bathing days in an effort to reduce traffic of literally millions of visitors expected. Most pilgrims come for just a day or two, take a dip in the Ganga, visit a few specific spots of spiritual importance, and return home. The more serious ones stay for the entire month. In addition to bathing in the Ganga they observe silence, study scriptures, or attend the discourses of saints and scholars. For a few rare seekers, coming to this place is an integral part of their lifelong practice. Here they either begin a special practice or complete it.
This influx of annual pilgrims swells to a flood every twelve years, when the spiritual energy emanating from Prayaga Raja (Allahabad) becomes further concentrated at the time of the Kumbha Mela. Thousands of saints and sages and millions of faithful seekers and pilgrims converge on the banks of the Ganga to bask in this energy field. Twelve of these cycles culminate in a Maha Kumbha Mela, an extraordinary event that occurs every 144 years, as it does this year. The collective consciousness engendered by the special concentration of spiritual energy during a Maha Kumbha Mela brings a radical shift in the destiny of humankind. And this year, this event coincides with the dawn of the new millennium.
What is the origin of the Kumbha Mela? A story told in several of the Puranas reveals the origin of the Mela, and points to its significance in modern times.
Once during a time of material prosperity the higher virtues fell into decline, and as a result the elixir of life almost vanished from this earthly realm. All living beings and all aspects of nature became weak and pale. The Devas pleaded with the Creator to recharge creation with fresh vitality, but were told that the elixir of life now lay buried in the depths of the ocean. The Devas reported this to all living beings, and so it was that gods, demons, and humans of all races and faiths joined forces to find and recover the elixir. They set out to churn the entire ocean (which would cause the elixir to rise to the surface), and churn they did, laboring night and day. But to their dismay the first fruit of their labor was not the elixir they were seeking but a vial of poison so deadly that if it were released from its container it would scorch all creation. The search could not go on until this menace was removed, yet no one had the capacity or the wisdom to dispose of it except Shiva who came forward and drank it at great risk to himself.
The churning resumed. But when the vessel containing the elixir finally appeared, everyone rushed for it, and to prevent it from falling into the hands of those who would keep it for themselves, Dhanwantari, the primordial physician, snatched the vessel and fled. In maneuvering to escape, however, he dropped three drops of the elixir: one fell on the town of Ujjain, one on Nasik, and a third on Haridwar. At Prayaga Raja the crowd caught and overwhelmed Dhanwantari, and in the melee all of the elixir spilled out and disappeared as soon as it touched the ground.
Yet all was not lost. Because Prayaga Raja is a holy place, the elixir manifests its life-giving properties every twelve years when the Sun is in the House of Capricorn. And because the elixir was originally contained in a kumbha (vessel), and the land itself now serves as the vessel, this twelve-year gathering at Prayaga Raja every twelve years is called the kumbha mela, “the spiritual gathering around the vessel.”
This story reminds us that when we attempt to procure elixir we must be ready to deal with poison; we can benefit from gathering around the vessel of elixir only when we realize that poison and elixir go hand in hand. Achieving even the noblest goal entails some degree of pain. And because our natural tendency is to avoid pain, the one who takes it on for the sake of others becomes Shiva, the most auspicious and benevolent of beings.
Anyone with a scientific mind will regard this story as pure myth. Yet it is documented in the sacred literature and has been recited by the faithful down through the ages, inspiring pilgrims to pour into Allahabad every twelfth year when the spiritual energy there is believed to be especially intense. Whether this story is literally true or not, it has created a collective consciousness that has transformed Prayaga Raja into a sacred site. Through intense practice, by both the adepts and the multitude, during the kumbha mela the energy field is intensified to the point that it has the power to transform individual consciousness.
It is not the size of the crowd that comes to Prayaga Raga every twelve years or how loudly religious institutions praise it that makes this place the lord of all holy shrines: it is the quality of the practices undertaken here. Similarly it is not religious sentiment or the thrill of participating in a cultural festival of unmatched size, one that occurs only once every 144 years, that makes the pilgrimage to Allahabad this year of inestimable value: it is the deep understanding of the power of collective consciousness created by the adepts and aspirants in the past and intensified by those in the present. If you are one of the 60 million participants at the maha kumbha mela this month, if you mentally prepare yourself to make the best use of the consciousness that pervades this place, you will come away empowered with a compelling sense of purpose, one that is personally fulfilling to you and nourishing to the bright forces of creation.