All you wanted to know about the Kumbha Mela

  • By Prabuddha Bharata
  • January 2001
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Kumbha Mela of great antiquity will be held at Prayag [Allahabad] next month. Here is a bird’s-eye view of the significance of the event in question-and-answer form.

What is Kumbha Mela?

Mela in Sanskrit means a congregation or gathering: people from different places assemble at a certain place on some special occasion for some special purpose, and such an assembly is a Mela. Melah means an astrological congregation or influence of planets. Kumbha generally means a sacred vessel or pot-in this case one containing nectar. So Kumbha Mela very broadly means a religious gathering at a holy place, connected with the nectarine pot bestowing immortality, at a special time.

What is the tradition behind Kumbha Mela?

What exactly is the meaning of Kumbha Mela? We all know about the famous Puranic story of the churning of the ocean. Bhagavata (8.5-11) describes this it in the Raivata Manvantara, when the gods (Devas) incurred a curse from sage Durvasa and became extremely weak; they suffered terribly at the hands of the villainous demons (Asuras). So the Lord incarnated on the earth as Ajita and decided to make the gods immortal. To make the gods immortal, however, the celestial nectar of immortality (amrta) had to be churned out of the depths of the ocean of milk (ksira-sagara). So He arranged for the churning of the milky ocean in which, according to mutual consent, both the gods and the demons participated. Mount Mandara became the churning rod ‘churning rod’ and the snake-king Vasuki became the ‘rope’ after great effort the doctor of the heavens Dhanvantari finally brought amrta in a golden pot (kumbha). According to Bhagavata it was the Asuras, and according to other Puranas it was the Devas, who took away the sacred pot of immortality to drink it themselves. In the course of carrying it, they placed the pot at four places: Prayag, Hardwar, Ujjain and Nasik. These places thus became sacred because, like the Malaya breeze transforming all trees into sandal wood trees, the touch of the sacred pot made them holy.

The other version of the story is that Indra’s son Jayanta took the pot away and carried it to the gods in heaven. It took twelve days for him to reach heaven, and on the way he placed the sacred vessel at the four places mentioned above, and they became places bestowing immortality.

Therefore bathing in any of these four holy places purifies the soul of all its impurities and makes one immortal. India is a sacred land and, legends or no legends, its soil, waters, and the air it self, are all holy.

What is the significance of Kumbha Mela according to astrology?

The other very important significance of Kumbha Mela is from the astrological point of view. Here again we have two slightly variant versions. The first one (in the case of Prayag) is that in the month of Pausa, when the sun and moon enter the Zodiac Capricorn (makara rasi), and when Brhaspati enters the zodiac Scorpio (vrscika rasi), a unique stellar combination takes place-the sun and moon together at the auspicious sign of Makara and the guru of the gods at vrscika- and this sacred period is called Kumnha Yoga or Puskara Yoga. The second version according to astrological viewpoint is from the Skanda Purana:

Makarastho yada bhanus
tada deva-gurur-yadi;
Purnimayam bhanuvare
ganga-puskara iritah.
Ganga-dvare prayage ca
koti-surya-grahaih samah.

‘When both Sun and Brhaspati (guru) unite at the Capricorn (makara) zodiac on a Sunday which is a full-moon day, the holy river Ganga becomes puskara (nectarine) at two places on such a grand occasion:

Prayag and Hardawar. And such an extraordinary celestial co-incidence is so sacred that it is equal to ten million solar eclipses.’

We know that to the Hindus, celestial occurrences like the solar eclipses are occasions for intense spiritual practice, when bathing in sacred rivers and performing puja, japa, meditation, etc, are considered extremely meritorious. And when a rare occasion arises once in twelve years, which is equal to a million solar eclipses, one can imagine how sacred it could be.

Is there any other version about the origin of Kumbha Mela? In a beautiful article written 71 year ago in Visvavani (Bengali, Magh 1336), Brahmachari Akshaya Chaitanya says: I believe that when Brhaspati enters the Aquariuls zodiac (kumbha rasi), Kumbha Mela is held at Hardwar.

The same name is given to festivals held at other three places also.’ This argument, however, doesn’t appear convincing. In Sacred Shrines and Cities (G Natesan and Co, 1940),it is said: Once a year, when the sun enters the sign of Kumbha there is a big festival called Mahamela which attracts numerous worshippers. Once in twelve years there is Kumbhamela…’ In one another version, Kumbha Mela is considered a fertility festival (see Encyclopedia Britannica, 1973). Informer time’s pots containing grains were dipped into the holy rivers to increase their fertility during the occasion.

Considering all these points, we may define Kumbha Mela as a unique spiritual festival held once in twelve years at different times in four sacred places of India-Prayag, Hardwar, Ujjain and Nasik - when certain rare celestial confluences occur. This festival chiefly concerns ceremonial bathing in the sacred rivers of these places, which purify the soul of its sins and bestow immortality because the sacred nectarine kumbha has touched these places.

What will take place next month is purna (‘complete’) Kumbha Mela, which comes once in twelve years. The divine arrangement is such that within twelve years, at equal intervals, Purna Kumbha Melas at Prayag and Hardwar, which come once in six years. Thus, within a period of twelve years, there will be six Kumbha Melas in different parts of India.

What is the history and tradition of Kumbha Mela? To find the origin of this great event is beyond the scope of history, but that it was being practised even during the pre-Buddhist era is known. The only thing that can be said of its historicity is, Kumbha Mela has been talking place since time immemorial. So far as the tradition is concerned, the main ritual is ceremonial bathing: At the appointed hour, when the celestial kumbha or puskara yoga occurs, people take ceremonial bath in the rivers, purifying their souls of all impurities.

What do we gain by participating in the Kumbha Mela?

First the holy bath. The Matsya Purana says:
Maghe masi gamisyanti  
Ganga- yamuna- samgamam;  
Gavam sata- sahasrasya  
Samyak-dattasya yaatphalam.
Prayage maghamase vai
Tarayagam snatasya tatphalam

‘By taking bath in the holy confluence of Ganga and Yamuna at Prayag for three days in the month of Magha, one attains the same merit as when one donates a thousand cows ceremoniously.’

Second the ceremonial bathing apart, there are spiritual discourses, religious meetings, scriptural readings, worship in temples, kirtan and bhajan singing, Vedic chanting, offering oblations, meditation, prayers, serving the poor, etc. If a sincere soul attends a Kumbha Mela once, the whole event should bring about a great transformation in him or her, and there should be spiritual awakening in the heart. This is because, millions of devotees from different parts of the globe assemble at holy place, and think of God. The air is surcharged with spiritual vibration. It is not an ordinary occurrence at all.

Third, the Hindu ideal is that this human birth is a magnificent blessing, since it is a steppingstone to spiritual illumination and liberation. Immersed as we are in our daily tasks, we tend to forget our ideals and become engrossed in the trap of delusion So we become bound and suffer terribly. Great events like Kumbha Mela, taking place at regular intervals at four different corners of the holy land, bring to our mind that we are here to seek God or Truth.

Fourth, if we can participate in all the four Kumbha Melas within a period of twelve years, we would have covered most of the pilgrim centers of India.

There is another view also: Perhaps there used to be only one Kumba Mela in very ancient times, which catered to the spiritual needs of numerous people then. But as population grew and people spread over to different regions, the sages must have decided to hold Kumbha Melas at different regions to benefit all people.

Fifth, this is the one festival where anyone irrespective of caste or creed can participate. Everyone can take bath in the river.

Sixth, we come to an important merit of participating in the Kumbha Mela now.

What was Sankara’s contribution to Kumbha Mela?

It is said that Sankara, the founder of the dasanami monastic institution, called upon the monks to participate in the Mela so that they could meet monks from different orders, take ceremonial bath, discuss scriptural truths, teach assembled devotees the methods of sadhana and the glory of spiritual life, and themselves become blessed. He wanted sort of a religious parliament to take place occasionally. Monasticism is the heart of religions, especially Hindu, and the presence of the all- renouncing monks and nuns makes any religious event glorious. At every Purna Kumbha Mela, thousands of monks from different orders assemble, go in procession, take ceremonial bath, hold religious seminars and discourses, initiate aspirants into monastic life, inspire people to lead holy lives, and bring about a spiritual fervor everywhere.

What are the different orders of monks that take part in the Kumbha Mela?

Of the different orders of monastics taking part, the dasanami Sannyasins, the Vaishnava Baiaragis, the Nanakpanthi Udasis, the Sikh Nirmalas, the yogis, the Kabirpanthis, etc, are important. The famous Naga sadhus who roam about clad in sky belong to the dasanami group itself. It should be noted that Sannyasubs are divided into two large groups, Paramahamsa and Naga. ‘Naga’ has nothing to do with snakes but it is a derivative of ‘nagna’, to remain naked. The Nagasadhus, who attract attention at every Kumbha Mela, are Advaitines like the Paramahamsas. They say that this so - called fierce - looking and spirited Nagagroup came into being in order to face the terror that alien rulers had created to Sanatana Dharma. The aspirants who are intent upon becoming Naga monks are divided into two groups: Alekhiyas and avadhutas.

The Nagas and Paramahamsas are divided into four (sometimes seven) akhadas or associations. They are: atal, nirvani (to which Ramkrishna Order monks belong), niranjani (worshippers of Lord Niranjana), and juna (worshippers of Guru Dattatreya, who have nuns also within their fold). The other three akhadas are ananda, avahan, and agan (agni).

There is a regular method in which the monks take bath at the appointed time during Kumbha Mela. The monastics (including Paramahamsas and Nagas) of different akhadas divided themselves into suitable groups under a chief (mandalesvara), and go towards the river in a procession.

At Prayag, it is the nirvani akhadas that leads the procession. They are followed by monastics from other orders, like bairagis (who are dualists and belong to at least four schools of philosophy, like those of Ramanuja, Nimbarka, etc), udasis (which sect was founded by Guru Nanak’s son Srichand; udasis are chiefly non- dualists), nirmalas (whose origin relates to Guru Gobind Singhji, and they adore Sri Guru Granth Sahib and sing sabads), Dadupanthis, Kabirpanthis, etc.

What about certain peculiarities we notice at such Melas? It’s a sight for the gods to see when thousands of all-renouncing monastics go in procession, and devotees assemble in thousands to witness this. Undoubtedly, such huge congregations are occasions for frauds, cheats and beggars to mint money, and this is not peculiar to any one religion. However, some westernized puritans feel uneasy at the monks of certain orders move about and behave, especially at Kumbha Melas. These purivans wish these monks to be dignified, with gentlemen’s behavior. To such people, we quote from Swamiji’s famous poem, The Song of the Sannyasin:

Heed then no more how body lives or goes,
…Let one put garlands on, another kick  
This frame; say naught. …Have athou no home.
What home can hold thee, friend?
The sky thy roof, the frass thy bed; and food  
What chance may bring, …judge not.
…Few only know the truth. The rest will hate  
And laugh at thee, great one; but pay no heed.  
Without the fear of pain or search for pleasure, go  
Beyond them both, Sannyasin bold! Say-
“Om Tat Sat, Om!”

What is the importance of Prayag or Allahabad?

This time’s Kumbha Mela is being held at Prayag (prayaga). The Bengali Visvakosa defines Prayag thus: ‘Prakrsto yago yagaphalam yasya yasmat va, where we get the greatest fruit of our good works or sacrifices.’ In the Matsya Purana six chapters are devoted to eulogizing the glory of Prayag. It says: ‘ Prayagam smaramanasya yanti papani samksayam, just by remembering Prayag a million sins are destroyed.’ There are six Prayags- Rudra Prayag, Karna Prayag, etc-but this Prayag is the most important one. There is a beautiful song in Bengali: ‘Prayage mudayiya matha morge papi jotha tatha, shave your head at Prayag, O sinner, and die wherever you will.’ That is, even the greatest sinner is saved or is freed from sins once he shaves his head in Prayag.

What is Triveni Sangama?

Prayag is the meeting place of three great rivers: Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati. All the three have been mentioned in the Vedas. The river Saraswati has been called ‘the greatest of all mothers, the greatest of all rivers, and the greatest of all goddesses (ambitame naditame devitame saraswati).’ She has been praised in numerous hymns in the Vedas, and most of the Vedic sages took place on its banks. Saraswaati, though not flowing on the holy land of Bharata these days, has mingled with the other two as a subterranean stream. The river Ganga was initially flowing in the heavens; it was Bhagiratha who brought it down. It ran down from the top of Lord Siva’s head. Just a drop of the river Ganga is enough to purify a person. Holy Mother Sri Ramakrishna called the river brahmavari. Though purest, swami Vivekananda would never the less sprinkle a drop of Ganga water on his lips to become ‘pure’ even while in the West. The river Yamuna is Krsna’s favorite river and he played as a boy on its banks. A place where such great river unite, called Triveni Sangama (‘triple-braid confluence’) should certainly be the holiest of holies.

How many avatars have visited Prayag?

Prayag is holy in several other senses also. Manu (2.17) says: The region lying between the divine rivers Saraswati and Drsadvati has been created by the gods and is called Brahmavarta. So Prayag is the holy Brahmavarta. The Matsya Purana affirms this: ‘Etat prajapateh ksetrain trisu lokesu visrutam, Prayag is famous in the three worlds as the abode of Brahma. According to the Puranas, the Hindu trinity, Brahma, Visnu and Siva, reside in the spiritual sense in Prayag: Brahma as the Salmali tree at Pratishthan, Siva as the undying banyan at Prayag (which was unfortunately cut down by Jahangir; it is indeed undying because its shoots show leaves often), and Visnu as Madhava in a temple there.

Of the avatars, Rama and Sita visited Prayag to meet Sage Bharadvaja. Lord Krishna is said to have visited it. The Buddha taught his message here. Samkara of course visited this place. Sri Caitanya visited Prayag and got a great disciple in Rupa Goswami here. Sri Ramakrishna ‘bathed in the holy confluence and stayed there for three nights. Mathur and all others shaved their heads there according to scriptural injunctions, but the Master did not do so (as it was not necessary for him)…. (Sri Ramakrishna, the Great Master, 1978, p. 313) Holy Mother visited Prayag and offered the sacred hair and nair-parings of Sri Ramakrishna at the triveni. Swami Vivekananda and other brother disciples visited the holy place.

Apart from these spiritual luminaries, the Pandavas visited Prayag. The book Sacred Shrines and Cities gives excellent details about the significance of Prayag or Allahabad. Emperor Asoka had erected a pillar during the 3rd century BC at Kausumbi, which was removed to the Allahabad fort; Jahangir is said to have inscribed something on the same pillar. Jahangir is also famous for trying to uproot the immortal tree, aksaya vata; the more he tried to cut it and pour molten lead, the more its shoots sprang up. He is said to have exclaimed: Lo! The tree of Hinduism will not die!

Incidentally, the name ‘Allahabad’ comes from ‘llaha-bad’, derived from Akbar’s new religion, Din-I-lahi. It was at Prayag that Akbar founded the unifying religion; he also rebuilt the city and called it ‘Illahabad’. Hsuan-tsang visited Prayag and participated in the Kumbha Mela. The Encyclopedia Britannica (1973) writes that he along with Emperor Harsavardhana attended the Mela. A part from all these, Prayag is famous for its holy men; for thousands of years now, innumerable monks has performed great many austerities around the holy confluence. It is at such a unique place on earth that Kumbha Mela will be held next month.

What are the important events and dates of this Kumbha Mela?

This time there are five important dates Kumbha Mela begins on Tuesday, 9 January 2001 (Pausa, Purnima.) On this full-moon night, there will be Total Lunar Eclipse, visible in Asia, Australia and other places. The eclipse will begin at 12.12.00 hours midnight and end at 2.21.36 hours (i.e, 10th morning).

The second important date is Sunday, 14 January 2001, (30 Pausa, Pancami), which is the sacred Makara Samkranti occasion It is the time of Magha snana and the first main day of Kumbha Mela (prathama sahi snana).

The fourth important date is Monday, 29 January 2001 (15 Magha, Pancami), Vasanta Pancami. Saraswati (and Laksmi) Puja day. The third main day of Kumbha Mela (trtiya sahi snana).

Finally, Thursday, 8 February 2001 (25 Magha, Purnima), is Maghi Purnima. Kumbha Mela virtually ends on this day. But Wednesday, 21 February 2001 (9 Phalguna, Trayodasi / Caturdasi) is Maha Sivaratri and this too is important.

Conclusion: At least 50 million people are expected to congregate at the holy Prayag this time. The Government has made elaborate arrangements, though during some earlier occasions their arrangement was slipshod. During the 1954 Mela for instance, at least 500 people passed away. Numerous non-governmental institutions are gearing up to help the pilgrims to the best of their ability. The Ramakrishna Math, Allahabad, has made adequate arrangements to accommodate monks and devotees coming with prior understanding. It has also arranged for an exhibition, Satsang Pandal, medical camps, etc.

Let us all pray fervently that this great event may pass off peacefully, without any calamity-natural or man-made-and bring spiritual well to everyone who takes part in it.

Also see

1. Pictures of Haridwar Kumbh Mela 2010
2. Pictures of Prayag Kumbh Mela 2001 
3. Kumbh Mela and the Media

This article was first published in Prabuddha Bharata, monthly journal of The Ramakrishna Order started by Swami Vivekananda in 1896. This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata (www.advaitaashrama.org). I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. You can subscribe online at www.advaitaashrama.org. Cost is Rs 180/ for one year, Rs 475/ for three years, Rs 2100/ for twenty years. To know more click here