The Spirit of the Pilgrimage of Maha Shivaratri

The world’s largest gathering is the Maha Kumbh Mela, which is a Hindu religious occasion that comes every twelve years.

Last year it was held in the city of Allahabad in the state of Uttar Pradesh, and on 10th February, known as the Mauni Amavasya day, over 30 million people took a dip (snan) in the chilly waters of the Ganga river. It was the single largest gathering of human beings at a given place in a single day, as noted by reporters and other observers who had converged there to study what was no less than a unique phenomenon.

As one of them wrote, ‘As the day progressed, a sea of men, women and children converged on the 22 ghats (river fronts), with a total length of 18,000 feet and spread across the extensive 4,000 acres city of tents.’ The first snan took place at 5.15 a.m. and by 5.45 p.m. all the 30 million-plus pilgrims had taken their dip. It all happened in an orderly manner, and there was not a single untoward incident reported.

The event lasts over a month, and a total of over 70 million people had attended this year. An ‘instant tent city’ of nearly ten square miles is built to accommodate the pilgrims and the logistics and infrastructure required, along with those needed to man them. So unbelievable is the quasi-incident free nature of this event that academics came to study it in 2013.

In an article about it in the National Geographic magazine of 1 February 2014, this is what the author Laura Spinney wrote at the beginning:

‘In the West there is a pervasive idea that when people congregate, they surrender their individual identity, along with their ability to reason and behave morally – some of the very qualities that make us human.

“What our research shows is that, actually, crowds are critical to society,” says Stephen Reicher of the University of St Andrews in the United Kingdom. “They help form our sense of who we are, they help form our relations to others, they even help to determine our physical well-being.”

To test this idea, Reicher and his colleagues came to this place (Allahabad) of potent cosmic significance for the Hindus.’

And in a controlled study, the hypothesis was confirmed – there was an improvement of 10% in the health of a group of 127 who attended the Mela compared to another 127 who had stayed back in their villages. And the positive effect lasted long after the mela was over. The first group were ‘kalpwasis – pilgrims who come to the mela for at least a month and live a spartan lifestyle while they are here.’ Their daily routine was described as ‘a dip (in the Ganges) before dawn, one frugal meal, chores, prayer, chanting.’ And the kalpwasis are ‘predominantly elderly, their tents are unheated, and the temperature at night often falls to near freezing.’

By comparison, the largest religious gathering in Mauritius is a piece of cake as one would say! And yet it is the same spirit which infuses the devotees as they take the road to Ganga Talao coming from all over the island. Outside of India, the local Maha Shivaratri pilgrimage is perhaps the largest in the Indian Diaspora countries, something that tiny Mauritius has every reason to be proud of. And proud too, that not only Hindus but all Mauritians follow the event closely, and among the pilgrims one would find non-Hindus as well as some foreigners who participate.

Over the years arrangements made by the authorities have improved considerably. However, this must be accompanied by a greater sense of discipline, for which Hindu organizations and associations should prepare the pilgrims well in advance, why, even immediately after the Maha Shivaratri. It is common to hear music being blared out of loudspeakers mounted on vehicles taking pilgrims to Ganga Talao.

Shouldn’t there be consideration for others who prefer to do japa in silence, which steadies the mind, the instrument of understanding and of making initial sense of things, as they walk? What is the use of fasting and praying to Bhagavan Shiva if one is not to show decorum and the restraint appropriate to the solemnity of the occasion? Shamefully, some pilgrims have even been found to smoke during their walk!

We may not be like the kalpwasis, but can’t we learn some from them at least?

What is this walk, this yatra about anyway? Yes, it is to pay homage to Bhagavan Shiva, to express our gratitude for his having saved the world from the effect of the poison that was churned during the Samudramanthan by swallowing it – hence His blue neck, and the name Neelkanth (neel = blue). Does our loud chatting and constant use of mobile phones along the way help in that?

That is where understanding the true sense of the pilgrimage and the puja we do there needs to be explained by the religious people or others who are in the know. There is a need perhaps for special sessions to be held pre-Maha Shivaratri to sensitize potential pilgrims to a number of issues, based on a correct understanding that the puja is about surrendering our bloated egos and cleansing our minds (hence the japa) so as to make them to receive the lofty, sublime teachings of the Vedas.

Those who have been on the pilgrimage to Vaishno Devi in Jammu, making the upward climb of 13 km to the shrine, will no doubt have noticed that all through the yatra, people are softly repeating Jai Mata Di, Jai Mata Di… It is the same mantra that they mutually greet with as they pass by each other. There is such orderliness and such a spirit of purity and good feelings that one is permeated with what can only be described as a lightness of being.

Laura Spinney concludes her article narrating her meeting with Geeta Ahuja, a Senior Finance Manager with General Electric who lives in Erie, Pennsylvania, USA.

‘She was a “born skeptic who practiced all the vices” until she heard a Hindu sage speak in Dallas, Texas, in 2007. “He talked about the impermanence of relationships in the material world,” she said. “It struck a chord with me.” She became his disciple, and her life took on meaning.

“In the Bhagavad Gita,” says Geeta, “it is written that the company of people who don’t believe in seeking eternal truth is bad company.” Her eyes, dramatically outlined in kohl, glitter as she tries to describe how it feels to be surrounded by people who are all seeking the same thing she is. The word she hits on is “uplifted.”’

Before we undertake the pilgrimage to Ganga Talao, let us ask ourselves what is it we are going there to for – to seek the eternal truth of Shiva or to merely perform the mechanical act of doing puja? Do we want to be uplifted, like Geeta Ahuja was, through understanding? Or do we want to just show that we were there, and to listen to superficialities being spouted?

For Shiva’s sake, seek out the true message of Maha Shivaratri, learn and put it in practice. If we have lost an opportunity this time round, let us take both a personal and a collective pledge to give a better account of ourselves from next year onwards, so that not only we as individuals but the whole country can look up and say proudly, ‘This is my land!’

Aum Namashivaya.


* Published in print edition on 21 February 2014

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