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Kumbha: India Ageless Festival

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Item Code: IHF086
Publisher: Bharatiya Vidya Bhawan
Author: Dilip Kumar Roy and Indira Devi
Language: English
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788172764265
Pages: 256
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5" X 5.5"
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Book Description
About the Author

Indira Devi

Born on 26th March, 1920, to wealth and luxury, in Punjab, Indira Devi was dogged form her infancy, by a deep, unaccountable other worldliness –like a devouring flame –which increased with her age, until she felt compelled to dedicate herself exclusively to spiritual life and so accepted Sri Dilip Kumar Roy as her spiritual father. Soon after she got initiation from her Guru she started gong into ‘Bhav Samadhi' and a new vista of spiritual world was opened before her eyes. Under the aegis of her Guru, Sri Roy, she developed into a remarkable poet in a short span of time; besides composing beautiful English and Urdu devotional songs she began to hear Bhajans from the legendary saint Meera Bai in her Samadhi. Sri Aurobindo authenticated the experience of Smt. Indira Devi as genuine. A complete collection of her compositions are published in two volumes titled "Indiranjali Vol 1 and Indiranjali Vol II". These established her as one of the foremost composers of mystic poems in Hindi. She was also a classical devotional dancer and accompanied Sri Roy during their world tour as cultural ambassadors in 1953. in the present volume Sri D.K.Roy and Smt. Indira Devi have appraised the place of Sadhus in India's spiritual life with astonishing insight, lucidity and charm.

Dilip Kumar Roy

Dilip Kumar Roy, born on 22nd January 1879, In a rich and aristocratic Brahmin Family of Bengal, was considered a cultural leader of the artistic renaissance in India during the early twentieth century. Educated in Cambridge, England (for mathematics Tirpos) Sri Roy with encouragement of Rabindranath Tagore and Romain Roland, changed over to the study of Western classical music to enrich his own heritage of Indian music. A friend also of Mahatma Gandhi, Bertrand Russel, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and very close disciple of Sri Aurobindo who called him a born yogi and his son friend and part of his existence, Sri Roy was an accomplished musician, composer and a litterateur par excellence. He has written about 125 books in Bengali and 25 books in English. But his grande passion has always been Sri Ramakrishna's dictum: to realize God is the aim of human life". In his quest as a truth seeker, he sought the society of holy men and drew them out to elucidate the spiritual verities for the modern world. Some of the these meetings with the rare God-realised souls in the Kumbha Mela are recoded in this book with extraordinary clarity and depth.


While writing this book we have often wondered for whom we are bringing out this rational defence of the irrational. I will answer this later. But there is another question: is such a defence necessary? This I cannot venture to answer because, frankly, we do not know. All we do know is that we have felt a strong impulse to pay our homage to the great tradition builders of Indian spiritually commonly known as the sadhus. We felt a call to vindicate them because, though we were fully, we thought we might pay our homage better in this way than in any other. I may add here also, and relevantly, that we have found a special joy in expressing our gratitude to them for being what they are, because we had sometimes wondered in the past whether they had not outlived their utility in the modern world. As the years have gone by, however, and we have come to experience what little we have done of the spiritual Reality, we have realized more and more that sadhus of India continue to be the keepers of her spiritual conscience, the upholders of her highest dharma of the soul. I went to the Kumbha Mela with my daughter-disciple, Indira Devi, who, though highly evolved spiritually, had shared my misgivings about many who are venerated as sadhus. But her doubts, too, were dispelled by what she saw and experienced, day after marvelous day! So we felt that to record our sincere and perhaps typical reactions, might be worth while hers as coming from a modern woman born to wealth and culture and endowed from a representative of criticism: mine as coming from a representative of those modern rationalists who are so utterly cloth to take anything on trust. In fact, neither of us had thought, before we actually went to the Kumbha Mela, that we should have the kind of revelation we were given of the soul of India of millennial wisdom.

Nevertheless it was somehow given to us to see, as though in a flash, what we had never believed it was possible to see, namely, the heart of India, anchored still to her faith in sadhus and to her veneration for spiritual values. This fortified us all the more as of late we had both come to the conclusion that true spirituality cannot thrive very easily in a big organization that the sadhus had attained because they lived like solitaries, and that they lived in comparative seclusion because they found from experience that the flame of spiritual aspiration flickered out whenever a large body of men huddled and jostled together (mouthing mighty slogans but achieving astonishingly little) and burned brightest when the aspirant trod the path alone, or at best with but a few others who cherished the flame with all their will and faith and obstinate the flame with all their will and faith and obstinate ardour. The sadhus at Kumbha made us realize this vividly because of the deep spiritual authority they had attained through long years of solitary tapasya.

The day of those formal religious which draw upon dogmas and churches is past. Nobody will seriously dispute this except those fanatics of ritualism who shout the more because in their hearts they believe the less. This does not mean that spiritual fervour and experience, which must be the soul of the body of religion as Indira Devi has aptly put it, has also been outmoded. The day of miracles is anything but past as any spiritual aspirant can verify for himself, provided he perseveres in traveling alone top the Alone: the eternal soul of Man calls today as sleeplessly as of old the one who is the sum-total-of-all-souls Him alone. Those great sadhus to India whom we had the good fortune to encounter at the Kumbha, made this faith glow in both of us till it came to radiate a light which was almost the light of knowledge. So we felt that we must testify to our reconversion to the old position that the everlasting values (nitya) can never fail, even though the temporal ones (anitya) must change from age to age. In other words the Lord will never abandon any sincere aspirant; whoever calls to him single-heartedly will be answered; love will be met by Divine compassion, trust by Divine Solicitude. This is the attitude of the great sadhus whom we met, a position taken by them after their Realization.

Why then did we take so much pains to state this position as old as the hills, since we knew full well that it could not appeal to the die-hard skeptics among our modern intelligentsia? Why have we found it necessary to vindicate the cause of spiritually and its prophets? The answer is that there are, in every age and clime, a few who are just evolved enough to hunger for the lore of the Spirit. These, living on the border-land of spiritual discovery, are often undecided and so oscillate between the call of the soul on the one hand and matter on the other; between reason and faith between the gospel of the west. It is mainly for these few for naturally they are a minority –that this book is written. If even a handful among such true seekers are touched by what the Kumbha Mela revealed to us through its holy men we shall feel amply repaid. The rest will continue to scoff and carp till doomsday. To each his Eden and, when all is said and done, a believer must aspire to serve his kin, the believers, who alone constitute his clientele.

The last chapter –entitled Contagion of the Holy-was written last year, in primarily for western readers. I had intended to add a few more essays on these reminiscent lines and publish them in the west. But as it seems unlikely that I shall have the time, in the near future, to accomplish this, I have decided to append this chapter, also because it deals with a few great saints and seers of modern India who have made history: to wit, Swami Ramdas, Sri Ramana Maharishi and my own Gurudev, Sri Aurobindo. I wanted to include Sri Krishnaprem also, but have thought fit to wait till I have the needed leisure to write adequately about his inspiring greatness. I may add that as our central theme is the sadhu who teaches through living the truth he stands for, these great illuminates can hardly be looked upon as irrelevant.

Lastly our thanks are due to a number of kind friends who have given us encouragement and chiefly to our Rajyapal, Sri K.M. Munshi for having supplied his valuable foreword and to our host in Prayag, Sri Bidhubhushan Mullick, the chief justice of Uttar Pradesh, but for whose constant co-operation and loving championship, we might have never had the easy access we had to the lighthouses of Kumbha.


A phenomenal number of pilgrims congregated on the banks of the Ganga in this year (1954) to take part in the great religious festival known as the Kumbha Mela. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru said, on the last day of the Mela, that even he had never at any time in his life, witnessed such a vast concourse of people. Generally speaking, the pilgrims were of three kinds: visitors, aspirants (kalpavasis) and Sadhus. There is no word in English for sadhus, which is a generic term commonly employed to denote a seer, a saint, a sage or an ascetic who has finally renounced life of the religious and who –unless he happens to belong to a religious organization (an ashram or akhara) which is dependent on public pr private donations –lives on alms.

According to our Indian Calendar, the combination of the signs of Zodiac happened this year to be remarkably auspicious. It is said, indeed that such a combination can only recur a hundred and eight years from now. This many have accounted in part for the record crowd that gathered at Prayag on a narrow strip of land in the January and February of this year.

The men and women who flock to the Kumbha Mela are attracted predominantly by one, or both, of two prospects: bathing at the confluence of two holy rivers, Ganga and Yamuna, and meeting the Sadhus who assemble there from all parts of India.

First, the bathing. This year, the three most auspicious days for this rite fell on the following dates.

Makar Sankranti, January 14-from 3.33 A.M. to 11.46 A.M.

Paus Purnima, January 19-from 6.22 A.M. to 8.6 A.M.

Mauni Amavasya, February 3-from 6.13 A.M. to 9.25 P.M.

The last of these, the Purna Kumbha day, as it is popularly called, is supposed to be the most auspicious day of the three and is the date on which the number of pilgrims attains its peak which, this year, was about six million a staggering figure in all conscience. But the scene that net the eye was more staggering still, for it is no exaggeration to say that from a boat, a little distance away from the confluence, the eye could not discern the smallest patch of water for the sea of heads massed together! Those who had been unable to come on the other days thronged to its avidly on this day of days-of Purna Kumbha –as it was widely believed that by bathing on this day they could win swift absolution.

So much for the mise en scene of the call and the calendar. Now to touch briefly on the historical origin of this unique religious carnival.

We do not know exactly when the legend of the Kumbha first become crystallized and began attracting pilgrims, but we do know that the great Chinese traveler-historian Hiuen Tsang (Otherwise Yuan Chwang) who came to India in the seventh century, witnessed this magnificent religious festival at Prayag, for he has left a graphic account of it. He writes that about half a million people gathered round about the confluence on that occasion and that the ceremony lasted for seventy-five days. The pilgrims comprised people from almost all ranks of life from the Emperor Harshavardhan with his ministers and tributary chieftains, down to the beggar in rags. Among the participants, there were the heads of the various religious sects, as well as, philosophers, scholars ascetics and spiritual aspirants, from all walks life. The Emperor performed all the rites with great éclat and (to quote the historian, Vincent Smith) "ceremoniously distributed the wealth of his treasury to people of all denominations on the ground, at the junction of the Ganges and the Yamuna, where the great fair is now held usually. Harsha was in the habit of making such distributions every five years, and the celebration in which Hiuen Tsang assisted was the sixth of the reign".

The date of this celebration was 644 A.D., so that it can be taken as the first account of the Kumbha Mela in recorded history. It is possible, however, that Harsha did not initiate the festival, but only adopted it and gave it a royal fillip in order to promote religious fervour among the people. It may be presumed that it has continued ever since down to our own day.

I need only add that in the ninth century the great Shankaracharya gave it the final shape by the force of his magic personality. He first of all established the four well-known, monasteries: Jyotirmath in the north, Sringerimath in the south, Govardhanamath in the east, and Saradamath in the west. In each of these centers which he had created with the express purpose of advancing the cause of monotheism were classified into ten orders (dashanami): Saraswati, Puri, Bana, Tirtha, Giri, Parvata, Bharati, Aranya, Ashrama and Sagara. In each of these he nominated a head who was to guide the sadhus under his charge. These were exhorted to assemble regularly at the Kumbha Mela, with the two fold purpose of maintaining contact with the sadhus of other denominations and fortifying the spiritual aspirants. The people responded enthusiastically, for they were thus given the two fold opportunity of winning fresh inspiration through consorting with the sadhus and redemptive bathing in the sacred rivers.

I was told by a great Yogi at Haridwar, that the spiritual seekers, individually, but they played a highly important social part as well, by having acted throughout the ages as our monitors and legislators. The lord speaks in the Gita of the ideal of lokasamgraha which means holding people together by giving them day-to-day guidance. This has all along been achieved by our sadhus qua lawmakers, for it was they who first enunciated the codes of social conduct which the Kings only stepped in later to enforce. We in India, never appealed to lawyers and the so-called practical men to lay down the laws which were to regulate our lives; we looked exclusively to our spiritually leaders to formulate those codes and canons of conduct and justice by which our daily lives were to be governed and our spiritual evolution expedited. But in those days it was by no means easy to travel from one place to another and the sadhus lived far apart from one another. So it was that they agreed to foregather periodically in order to discuss ways and means of giving practical guidance to the ordinary man through such legislation and reform as might be called for. These conferences of sadhus may be compared to the sessions of our modern Parliaments which pass new bills when needed and repeal such vogues as are outmoded. Their ways differed from ours only in this" he added with a smile, "that the authority they wielded came from above and not as in our days, from below. In other words, the sadhus' rulings were accepted not because they were the elected representatives of the ignorant –which they were not but because they were the accredited servants of the light which prevailed because the common man's humility made him intuitively receptive to its lead."

What he said was indeed revealing. For it made me realize forcefully –and I felt a glow of pride when I came to ponder its implications –how Hinduism had, at every step drawn its final sustenance not from the unenlightened intelligence of its canny intelligentsia, but from the truly illuminated wisdom of its elite; its spiritual men-its seers, saints and sages. The scales seemed to fall from my eyes and I saw the Kumbha Mela in, as it were a new light. I stress this from the personal point of view, because this highly important function of such spiritual congregations is often ignored even by its beneficiaries.

Of course I do not claim though I dearly wish I could –that our lives today continue to be regulated as I have described, instead of those of premiers and politicians. Nevertheless, the spectacle of the sadhus gathered together still moves us strangely in that we seem almost to glimpse once more a better possibility of the ordering of our lives and so, in spite of our modern scepticism, we are made to pause in awe and bow down to them in respect, if not actual veneration. Of course there are many who deny this vehemently and who inveigh against the "unthinking homage" we still accord them. Enveloped by the confusion which reigns around us, we may even feel like laughing superiorly when told: "Dharmo dharayate prajah- our life is only upheld by dharma, the sustaining light of the spirit." But, when all is said and done, the sceptic has never has the last laugh. The scoffer and iconoclast, may indeed, seem to score at a certain stage of man's evolution, but ultimately even he is bound to find out that one can no more live in the void of disbelief than one can build one's house on shifting sands. One of the chief reasons why the sadhus at the Kumbha Mela exercised the minds of millions and overawed many a sceptic, was their inexplicable success inn living as it were, on nothing. By what light were they sustained in this age of dominant darkness and ruined hopes? In a world where faith looks more and more like a misleading phantom, how could how could they achieve the radiance of certitude which the best of them do shed on everyone who came in contact with them? Above all, how did they manage to build their houses of inner beauty and bliss in a world of mounting tyranny and ugliness? It was because our reason was baffled that many of us bowed to them, even when we could not accept their gospel of renunciation and austere living. There was something in them so compelling, that we stood in awe, even when we professed to know better than they. As often as not, while wanting to resist, we nonetheless came under the spell of their impenetrable personalities and wondered how they could overawe us as they did against all the doughty defences of our resplendent reason and scientific materialism! We felt them to be near yet far-off, unassertive and yet challenging, non-interfering, yet subversive of all our intellectual concepts! Their beckoning seemed to be like that of stars a call we could indeed, dismiss as intangible, but never ignore as something of no import. Yes they were disturbing yet strangely fortifying!

Lastly, a word of personal explanation about the genesis of this little volume.

I went to attend the Kumbha Mela with my daughter-disciple, Indira Devi, not so much to see what there was to be seen, as to ascertain through our personal reactions, if what was viewed in such an alien context could helps us to grow spirituality, and because we wanted to ponder and appraise our reactions, so that we might come to feel a little deeper and see a little farther than our noses, we started recording our impressions experience for both of us in that, though we had, naturally, seen with different eyes, we had finally come to more or less the same conclusions. The differences between us, as it turned out, were only a matter of emphasis or, shall I say, in our ways of assessing certain features or, shall I say, in our ways of assessing certain features of the stupendous spectacle. In other words my disciple took in certain aspects of the spectacle which I had overlooked, and vice versa. But what struck me as most remarkable was that when, eventually, we came to compare notes, we discovered that we has both felt the same awed reverence vis-à-vis the incredible vista that had opened out and the breath-taking drama that was enacted before us, day after marvelous day! We agreed gratefully, that we had been accorded a veritable revelation of India's soul which, in spite of the deep ravages of time and the persistent follies of the human ego, was still as young and sane as ever. We had been used to intelligent and learned discussions about thongs which no intelligence or learning could ever hope to fathom. We had been educated into proficiency in the art of vindicating our doubts about realities where doubts were out of place and had come to accepts as our guides those who claimed to plumb multitudinous life with the sole plummet of realistic reason. But there, in that vast concourse of sadhus, we were suddenly confronted with a baffling world where the fundamental values and assumptions, not to mention modes of living, were as alien to those of ours as is the world of soaring birds to that of prowling beasts. The import of this discovery is difficult to bring home to those who have not seen what we saw but an incident that came under our purview may help.

We were staying as the guests of our dear friend, Sri Bidhubhushan Mullick, the Chief Justice of Allahabad, a beautiful personality, who constantly attracted the leading lights of modern India. Only a few among these took the sadhus seriously. To this small group belonged an old Maharani a charming and devout lady of great innate refinement. She used to repair in the mornings to the confluence to have her dip and to come to our place nightly to attend our musical soirees, which she loved.

One day when the crowed had all but reached it's acme she was being carried to the Ganga in her palanquin with great difficulty, because it had already become all but impossible to move in that jostling seething humanity. Suddenly, she told us, she heard an outcry ahead, followed by a terrific stampede, when she was startled by the impact of suckling flung straight into her palanquin. The mother who must have been hard-pressed by that milling crowd could, presumably, see no other way of saving her baby. The child was saved but the mother, alas, could not be traced. So the kind-hearted maharani had to act as foster-mother to the foundling.

On the last day of the Kumbha Mela another stampede broke out and about five hundred people died on the spot, before the police or volunteers could come to the rescue of the crushed and trampled pilgrims. It was on the surface a great victory for the unbeliever as against the believer. But unfortunately for the decriers through the believers hearts were sore, their faith remained unshaken. People constantly take risks in relief-work science, in exploration of distant and alien countries, in mountain climbing-even in sport and acrobatics. They often come to grief, but nobody seriously argues that this ought to deter men from the tasks they set themselves, far less that we must outlaw the impulse which drives them to run grave dangers. Why then should religious ardour alone be held suspect when it leads sometimes, as it must, to disaster and tragedy? Would not courage become a meaningless term if every noble aspiration prospered all along the line and terminated happily? The pilgrims who undertake such incalculable pilgrimages know full well that dangers lie in ambush at every bend, and that anything may happen in vast gatherings massed together on a comparatively small strip of land. Even when every possible precaution is taken and the organization is all but perfect, an unpredictable element is always apt to vitiate the most fool-proof planning. It may sound unsympathetic to those who do not believe in the taking of risks arising out of a religious impulse, but the Lord, as all the mystics have said with one voice down the ages, does not see with our eyes and so, even when we claim and feel that we are doing his will, his planning must often upset ours. And one of his ways has been, as may be seen from the records of hagiography the setting before His devotes of ordeals which seem to the outward view to be ordained by a somewhat pitiless Desinger who ill accords with our mental conception of the merciful Divine. But the true mystic even when he suffers, never revolts. He may indeed, complain now and then but, in the end, he always submits. So he cannot but tell you that the last wisdom is that of submission to His will as against the questioning of his ordinances and that the guiding motto of the true devotee should be:

These are no mere words with one who believes in Him and his functioning wisdom and so the prospect of danger or even death, can, in the last analysis, never daunt him. Those who truly believe in the purifying power of holiness will go again to the tirthas to win the inspiration they need upbuoyed by their faith and knowing all the time that hw will assay it again and again. And so long as this faith continues to sustain her teeming millions, India's soul cannot die.


Dedication V
Invocation VII
By Richard Miller
Tradition IX
By Sri Krishnaprem
By K.M. Munshi
A Few Words XIII
By Shankar Bandyopadhyay
Preface XV
By Dilip Kumar Roy
By Dilip Kumar Roy
1Why did they come?
By Indira Devi 1
2 The Kumbha as a symbol
By Dilip Kumar Roy 7
3 Our Quest Rewarded
By Indira Devi 13
4 The Legend of Kumbha
By Dilip Kumar Roy20
5Does Spirituality Mean Business?
By Indira Devi 31
6 The Mythology of Kumbha
By Dilip Kumar Roy 39
7The Hour Before the Dawn
By Indira Devi 58
8 Thoughts on Kumbha
By Dilip Kumar Roy 66
9 Lighthouses of Kumbha
By Indira Devi and Dilip Kumar Roy
10 The Message of Kumbha
By Dilip Kumar Roy 130
11 Contagion of the holy
Dilip Kumar Roy 187
Appendix 252
**Sample Pages**

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