Kumbh Mela festival

Pilgrims at the Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, India The 2013 event is a Maha Kumbh Mela - and that takes place only every 144 years.

What do you make of householders turned austere pilgrims who live in tatty canvas tents on a flood plain of a river braving regular baths in freezing water, biting cold, smoky skies and ear-splitting din for more than a month?

Most of them come from villages, are elderly, and belong to the higher castes. Many are worldly people turned ascetics eking out spartan lives as kalpavasis (those who spend their days in silent prayer) at the ongoing Kumbh Mela, the biggest religious gathering in the world.

Ordinary folks like us would want to believe that the suffering that ascetics undergo in order to toughen themselves up will in fact have deleterious effects on their wellbeing and health.

Not so if you believe recent research on "pilgrim experiences" by academics and researchers from nine universities in India and UK. They carried out two surveys involving over 400 kalpavasis during the festivals in 2010 and 2011, an event which even the researchers called an "ordeal".

Tens of millions of people - 30 million on the main bathing day on Sunday - bound by faith that a dip at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna river will get rid of their sins - throng the event. Dust, smoke and the ear-shattering noise levels can make matters worse.

Still the pilgrims describe the Mela as "serene and blissful". When researchers played them 20-second clips that contained a mix of sounds recorded at different sites, including in the Mela grounds and also the streets of Allahabad city, the pilgrims could pick up the sounds of the festival and "interpreted and experienced these noises much more positively when they believed them to be Mela-related".

The research talks about the pilgrims bathing in the cold water with "relish, serenity and silent stoicism". Being in a big group helps them to overcome hardship - researchers call it the virtue of a "social security net".

It's also a shining example of the "power of the collective over the individual". Ergo, when a group of people deals with hardship together, the weakest of individuals can display remarkable feats of endurance.

The Kumbh Mela is a stunning example of the power of faith. Last Sunday, I witnessed millions of bedraggled men, women and children, young and old, on their way to a holy bath trudging towards the river silently carrying their bare belongings in sacks and cheap rexine bags.

Far removed from the excesses of the shiny gurus and their rich devotees, these ordinary pilgrims make the Kumbh Mela a truly extraordinary event of faith. And faith can apparently move mountains.

I asked Dr Nick Hopkins of Dundee University, one of the lead researchers, about what surprised them about the findings.

"Typically", he said, "people assume that crowds - especially noisy crowds - are stressors that must detract from one's well being."

But strikingly, the pilgrims at the Mela told the researchers that they "feel good ... actually, more than good ... their language verges on the ecstatic".

French sociologist Emile Durkheim famously coined the word effervescence to describe the fizzy excitement of crowds. Many believe anand (joy), the word used by pilgrims to describe the experience, is closer to effervescence, especially as Durkehim was studying religious experiences.

But what about that assumption that crowds are generally considered bad for one's health? A young British devotee told me at the Mela that coming to the event was a massive leap of faith for her as she thought it would not be "safe" for her health. Years ago, the medical journal The Lancet ran a series of pieces on why mass gatherings are bad for health.

But the research at the Kumbh Mela found that the event "actually increases peoples' mental and physical well-being", showing the "importance of networks and groups in sustaining our health". (The pilgrims, the study says, reported better well-being after the Mela compared to a sample of people who did not attend it.)

Dr Hopkins says he finds the findings interesting. Faith, he agrees, helps in completing rituals.

But there's also a social dimension, he says. "For example, to bathe in the icy Ganges, it's important to have the support of the others.

"There is a sense in which the support of others is important is one to to realise one's faith-based commitments."

Clearly, the world's biggest religious gathering happens when faith meets the collective.

Soutik Biswas Article written by Soutik Biswas Soutik Biswas Delhi correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    In 1914, 70% among the 400 "greater" scientists expressed disbelief or doubt in the existence of God. In 1998, that percentage rose to 93 among "greater" scientists in US (member of National Academy of Sciences, USA).

    Having a PhD or a job with 'scientist' designation does not make anyone a scientist, unless s/he has a scientific attitude.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    In 1914, 60.7% expressing disbelief or doubt (over religion/God) among American scientists. This year (1998), we closely imitated the second phase of Leuba's 1914 survey to gauge belief among "greater" scientists, & find the rate of belief lower than ever — a mere 7% of respondents."
    "Leading scientists still reject God"- [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    @ 49. RaniV.

    Replace it with education, jobs & search-for-truth in any field of life.

    Religion is an addiction for majority who hardly understand or able to follow its gradual evolution.
    It's proved (beyond reasonable doubt) that honesty, professional ethics & morality is stronger & sustainable if that arises from logic and facts than from religion.

    Look around to find examples.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    Re: Only poor people go to this Mela.. It's easier for a camel... than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven.
    For those against religion, what are you going to replace it with? Football? Pop music? Gluttony? Counsellors?
    As a GP, I see a lot of fallout as a result of many people having little or no belief system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    @ Ayub (36).
    Science started in form of religion & then religion lost its course. Now science refutes all religions (link @ 45).
    If we want to understand its culture, religion being one of the issues (probably the biggest one), we should study its socio-political evolution. Religion was & is still the most potent & dangerous tool for political movements worldwide. No religion is exception.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    #7 Chandra R: I am sure Lumi's opinion is shared by many atheists. Religious folks have their beliefs, and what they do based upon those beliefs understandably provides them solace. But much of it does not stand to scientific scrutiny. I personally would be concerned about bathing in a heavily polluted river. It appears that you cannot tolerate Lumi's criticism. Aren't you also being judgemental?

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Correction (45): I think you SHOULD know...

    We can never make progress against religious addiction & social superstitions if we r unable to provide meaningful education & decent livelihood.
    I actively oppose such addiction in the name of religion among educated, well established people. But avoid that while interacting with poor people who have nothing but religion to help them facing reality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    @ 36. Ayub.
    I think you know little more about Hinduism. Check it- "Early evolution of religion ushered the dawn of scientific research"- http://jaychatterjee.blogspot.com/2011/10/early-evolution-of-religion-ushered.html

    I read the book by Mark Tully (ex BBC correspondent in India)- "No Full Stops in India". It'll be counterproductive to abolish/oppose religion without providing alternative(s)!

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Hinduism is the most ancient of religions and philosophies. Mr Biswas don't do disservice to it. Ayurveda, Yoga, Astronomy, all emanate from this great civilisation.
    @ Ayub, I'd worry about the Mecca gatherings if i were you. So many have died from stampedes and diseases.

  • Comment number 43.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 42.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    38 i think u are brainwashed squire - by living you are polluting; they are good for humans as they uplift and clense the soul - try thinking, eh ?!

  • Comment number 40.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 39.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Mark Anthony says "you can see everything is aimed for the well being of humans in a very scientific way."

    I know that most Indian festivals cause some kind of pollution or disturbance, for example, water sources ( Kumbh Mela, Ganesh festival), air and sound (Diwali, Navaratri), plants and trees (regional New Years etc), forests (Nag Panchami etc). I wonder why this is good for humans.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    The rivers are flowing less than half a few decades ago! Big Stories are told to shore up mythology! Ancientness needs a lot of explanation as everything is assumed or presumed. let them bath in congregation or alone until the water flows.Stories may flow but rivers will stop oneday.then let them decide!

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    The opposite of what was written here is true. Whats scientific about hindu religion when science itself negates all Hindu philiosophy. the paradox of Hindus is they believe both Science and Religion. They will study big bang theory and get a Phd yet they will go and perform worst of the rituals that could be imagined. Paradox isn't?

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    I fear the author of this article may be intentionally misleading readers, perhaps because he wants to believe the 'research' he refers to.

    I have just read the item linked to here and it is a most unscientific summary, containing general subjective woollieness. Where are the actual questions asked? the tables of results? the exact research method?

    Less gullibility please!

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    I never understand why some religious people go to extraordinary lengths to try and absolve themselves from sin. Wouldnt it be better not to commit sins in the first place?

    For the 'higher caste' people mentioned here, surely their time would be better spent campaigning to end the abomination of the caste system and the terrible damage it causes to millions of Indians deemed inferior by birth?

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Mark Antony, I thank you.
    Your comment is so accurate, it's just like a beautiful Yoga posture,
    Just and Balanced.


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