Duck Three Times in the River for Salvation
Kumbha Mela Diary Entries:
by Joy Shayne Laughter.
The Jordan River isn't the only one that's chilly and cold, for the body but not the soul.
I slopped into the Ganga at the sangam, a bedspread knotted around my waist and a Ralph Nader for President t-shirt over the rest of me. My hands were unexpectedly full - an empty jug to collect sangam water for friends back home, a little leaf-bowl full of flowers to float down the river as a prayer, and a half-bottle of milk a woman shoved into my grasp at the last minute, to pour into the river as an offering. I left all but the flower boat on the bank, under the watch of a teenage boy who had sold me a little candle for the floating prayer.
I set the flower boat on its way. I settled for faith that the action and intent were enough, since my mind couldn't form an articulate prayer just now. The water was cold. And in motion. And the sandy river bottom seemed to keep shifting under my bare feet. Suddenly balance went south, and I was down on my knees.
Again, I couldn't think of a prayer. I just noticed that the cold water felt awfully fresh for being so muddy. So, tuck the glasses in the bra, plug up the nose and ears, and duck! Duck! Duck!
The shock of the water was like my total immersion baptism at age 11, but this time there were no adult arms heaving me up and down. It was just me, bobbing and spluttering. And then I was done. Still settling for faith that action plus intention equals pilgrimage accomplished.
After I dried off, I felt like I had been through a workout, a sauna, a massage, and a hot shower. Light, as if some internal burden had dropped. Maybe it was the shock of immersion - in water, and in the 4000-year-old magnetic field of focused Human faith. Something was knocked loose and washed away by my dip in the Kumbha Mela's three sacred rivers.
The previous night, I had a chance to roam around the Mela grounds by moonlight.
Many babas have dismantled their camps and gone home, leaving empty lots and stacks of bamboo logs. There are still enough ashrams with huge canvas arches and twirling Christmas-tree lights to make the place look like Las Vegas, but overall the Maha Kumbha Mela feels like the last days of the State Fair. The biggest crowds are villagers watching religious movies on "big screen TVs" rigged of black canvas and white cotton.
I walked across a quarter-mile of empty sand to a mango grove on a hill, and looked back at the fluorescent lamp-lit tent city. This complex temporary community was built in a scant two months. In another five months, the entire plain will be under water, as the monsoon raises the Ganga and spreads its potent sewage over the surrounding farms, as divinely-provided fertilizer. Even better than Shelley's poem "Ozymandias," the Kumbha Mela reminds us that human life and works are fleeting, and soon vanish into the wind, rain and dust.
So, what was actually accomplished here? Were the numbers of pilgrims as high as the hype? Did it really all come off "without a hitch," as the local papers claim? There were a minimum of drowning fatalities, no stampedes, and no terrorist actions. The police clubbed journalists and pilgrims and provided general harassment. And as bulletin board postings to www.kmp2001.com have revealed, people who came with sour attitudes generally had sour experiences.
This Maha Kumbha Mela drew more foreigners to India than any other festival.
The Dalai Lama showed up for an interfaith conference within the Mela. Babas and gurus and simple pilgrims spoke over and over of the underlying message of all religions and paths - compassion, love, doing good for one another and for peace among all people. In its way, the Maha Kumbha Mela became the world's largest interfaith, intercultural, international spiritual festival ever.
As a symbol of the new millennium, that works for me.