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Posted at: Feb 3, 2019, 7:19 AM; last updated: Feb 3, 2019, 7:41 AM (IST)

Branding spirituality

Kumbh Mela 2019 is much more than the unique religious-spiritual experience it offers. It is equally political and commercial this time

Shahira Naim

In his book Region, Nation, Heartland: Uttar Pradesh in India’s Body Politic, Gyanesh Kudaisya records signs of timelessness and a rapidly transforming India visible in the 1930 Mahakumbh. Extensive railway network brought an estimated 2.5 million pilgrims on Mauni Amavasya. The then United Provinces (UP) Government had organised ‘Agriculture and Industrial Exhibition’ to propagate new methods of farming and dairying. Sealed lotas of Gangajal and packets of the Ganges mud were sold as smart entrepreneurs had successfully commodified the religious experience into mementoes that pilgrims could take back home. 

Ninety years down the line, the experiment to promote the Kumbh as a tourist and commercial destination has reached to an extent that on January 28, Shankarcharya of Jyotishpeeth Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati complained that the Kumbh Mela has been commercialised for political gains. This has resulted in the gradual fading of its divinity, he rued.

Speaking at the Param Dharam Sansad, he said, “Of late, the Kumbh has become a picnic spot for NRIs and foreigners.”

Saints have demanded the creation of two separate ministries — one focusing on the pilgrimage and the other on tourism. The saints feel that mixing both is leading to deterioration of the Hindu religion. Have the akharas and the Kumbh remained aloof from politics? Not really, says some scholars. Akharas claim that Adi Shankarcharya started the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad in the 8th century to facilitate meeting of holy men from different regions.

The saints, organised under 13 (now 14)  akharas (seven Shaiva, three Vaishnava, two Udasina, one Sikh and the latest one Kinnar), are intricately linked to the Kumbh. Over time, the akharas  have evolved into martial-art bodies that protected faith from foreign invaders. In time, they have turned into armed monasteries of mystics. 

Till arrival of the East India Company, the mela was managed by ‘heavily militarised’ sadhus who collected taxes, undertook policing and judicial duties and also participated in trade. The Kumbh melas were a scene of sectarian politics of the akharas, which often turned violent and had disastrous consequences. A copper plate inscription of Maratha Peshwa claims that 12,000 ascetics died in a clash between Shaivite sanyasis and Vaishnavite bairagis at the 1789 Nashik Kumbh Mela. 

The dispute started over the bathing order which indicated status of the akharas. It was due to the frequent violent clashes that the British colonial rulers limited the warrior-trader role of the akharas.

The 2019 Kumbh has many firsts to its credit. Recognised by Unesco as an ‘intangible cultural heritage of humanity’, the Uttar Pradesh Government has left no stone unturned to brand it as a unique religious-spiritual experience, targeted at pilgrims, tourists and businesses alike. 

Having a penchant for changing names, CM Yogi unilaterally announced that the 2019 Ardh Kumbh Mela, organised every six years, will this year be simply called ‘Kumbh Mela’. From now, the Kumbh Mela, organised every 12 years, will be known as Maha Kumbh Mela!

Since time immemorial, pilgrims and saints alike have been reaching the Kumbh on the appointed date without anyone formally inviting them. However, turning host for the first time this year, Uttar Pradesh ministers visited different states of the country to personally invite governors and chief ministers. On their agenda was to invite devotees from each and every village to participate in Kumbh 2019. 

According to Cabinet minister Siddharth Nath Singh, ministers have been visiting different villages to invite gram pradhans.  Another first, the Ministry of External Affairs has invited heads of missions from different countries. On December 15, Prayagraj hosted 72 heads of mission — ambassadors and high commissioners. They witnessed preparations for the largest human congregation on earth. 

On January 24, thousands of Pravasi Bhartiyas, led by Mauritius Prime Minister Pravind Jugnauth, travelled to Prayagraj by special buses from Varanasi to take a holy dip in the Sangam at the Kumbh —  another first.

Uttar Pradesh Minister for Industries Satish Mahana said this year trade bodies like the CII and the FICCI would help the visiting BJP ministers and chief ministers connect with the doyens of Indian industry. Mahana maintained that the event should not be viewed merely as a ritualistic ceremony of the Hindus. 

However, BJP spokesperson Rakesh Tripathi said the Kumbh should not be politicised, even if it is coinciding with the Lok Sabha elections this year. 

With political parties virtually competing to prove their Hindu credentials in the year of election, it is no wonder that newly appointed Congress AICC General Secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh (East), Priyanka Gandhi proposes to take a holy dip at Sangam soon after formally taking over office on February 4. Brother Rahul Gandhi is expected to accompany her.

On the very first day of the Kumbh on January 15, Union Minister Smriti Irani was among the first pilgrims to take a bath during the first Shahi Snan on the occasion of Makar Sankranti.

By offering prayers at the Sangam on January 18, President Ram Nath Kovind became the first President after Dr Rajendra Prasad to visit the Kumbh Mela. Dr Prasad had visited the Kumbh in 1953. On January 29, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath held a cabinet meeting at the Kumbh. After that the entire cabinet took the ritual bath at the Sangam and had lunch at the Nath sect camp, of which Yogi Adityanath is the spiritual head.

Myth and history

Kumbh, widely regarded as the largest religious event in the world, has a recorded history of at least 2,500 years. The festival celebrates Hinduism’s myth of creation. According to a legend, demons and gods engaged in a contest to churn the ocean with a giant snake tied around a mountain. From the ocean emerged a kumbh (urn) filled with nectar which spilled at four geographical spots — the most sacred of these being Allahabad, now re-named as Prayagraj for it stands on the confluence of three holy rivers — the Ganga, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati. Yet within its ageless constancy the Kumbh also holds prophetic signs of momentous changes.

The politics of kumbh  

The mela this year has many firsts to its credit. From its name change to MEA personally inviting heads of missions from different countries to ministers calling up gram pradhans to trade bodies like the CII and the FICCI making it to connect with the industry, it is much more than the dip of faith

The holy dip

Shahi Snan (royal bath) is a religious bath that is taken by the sadhus of different akharas in the sacred river before any other Hindu pilgrim is allowed to do so. It is one of the rituals of the fair that common people can take the bath in holy rivers — Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati confluence only after holy men of the akharas have taken a dip. 

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