Monday, March 4, 2024

Kumbh Mela: The eye of the Covid storm?

Sitting on the banks of the Ganga is meditative, heals the self, rests the body and delights the soul. But at some point, one has to question the wisdom of allowing the Kumbh when a ferocious pandemic is engulfing the country.

By Justice Kamaljit Singh Garewal

Ours is an ancient land. Many languages are spoken here and it is home to many cultures and faiths, though split into different regions. At the same time, there is great unity in diversity. The ancient land is growing into a vibrant, modern nation, but has had its share of ups and downs. As a nation, we know and understand our history, art, music and literature and care for it in a way that it has become a unifying part of our lives. But should it dominate our day-to-day public affairs because modern nation states require respect for human rights and social justice? Many of us may possess more than a nodding acquaintance of the Vedas, Puranas and our many scriptures. This helps to promote cross-cultural understanding between different faiths and communities, though some feel that more should be done in this direction.

One knows of many learned western scholars who devoted their lives to study Sanskrit, Indian philosophy and religions and wrote tomes of religious commentaries. The list is too long to recount here. But mention must be made of our own great thinkers like Rabindranath Tagore, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, BR Ambedkar, Maulana Azad and the distinguished philosopher who went on to become our President, Dr S Radhakrishnan.

As children, we accepted what was taught by our parents, teachers and what we learnt from our peers. Some of us did question and debate irksome matters, but resolved them peacefully by making choices in our own way.

We took things as they were and got on with our lives undisturbed, though sometimes raised reasonable doubts about matters of faith. The debate between faith and reason is an ongoing one.

In the West, philosophers argue determinism and free will. Atheists challenge religion saying there is no God, agnostics say there is no proof that God exists.

One such question is our faith in the merit of the Kumbh Mela, in the face of teeming crowds of pilgrims at Haridwar in these Covid times. Reason based on evidence dictates it must be curtailed. The Kumbh is a ritual which cannot be missed by the faithful, the devout, the religious and the ascetic. Attending this Mela is said to earn merit in this life and prepare one for the next. It involves bathing in the Ganga at Haridwar at the most appropriate astrological time, which comes once in 12 years. It transpires that planetary configuration made the organisers actually advance it by a year. It wasn’t scheduled till 2022, the last Kumbh was in 2010. But should all this be at the risk of one’s life? Not to speak of the risk posed by the pilgrims to their families when they return home.

Guru Nanak Dev visited Haridwar during his first missionary travel. There is an apocryphal tale of how he saw priests in the river Ganga offering water to the rising Sun God towards East, intending to reach the spirits of their deceased ancestors. He started throwing water in the opposite direction, which made the priests curious and surprised. When questioned, Guru Nanak replied that he was watering his crops in the fields. If water can reach the sun, it sure can reach his faraway fields. Guru Nanak taught them a lesson of living a superstition free life. Such questions only strengthen our belief in the Hindu way of life, not weaken it, by pointing to the essence or the core of faith. The compositions of Guru Nanak Dev and other gurus, saints, bhaktas and bards in the Holy Granth Sahib emphasise the need to look within instead of going on pilgrimages, performing penances and austerities and giving alms. The need to look within is also taught by modern masters.

In two of Guru Nanak’s hymns, he says:


When hands, feet and other members of the body are covered with filth

It is removed by washing with water

When thy clothes are polluted

Apply soap, and the impurities shall be washed away

So when the mind is defiled by sin

It is cleansed by the love of the Name

Men do not become saints or sinners by merely calling themselves so.


Pilgrimages, penances, compassion and almsgiving

Bring a little merit, the size of a sesame seed

But he who hears and believes and loves the Name

Shall bathe and be made clean

In a place of pilgrimage within him.

(The Japji, Stanzas 20 & 21)

High above Haridwar, near Kedarnath and Badrinath, is a glacial lake, among seven peaks. This is where Guru Gobind Singh had meditated in his past life, and it is vividly described by him in his composition Vichitra Natak. Hemkunt is now a place of summer pilgrimage. Two ascetic orders of sadhus owe their origins to Sikh gurus. The Udasis are followers of Baba Sri Chand, son of Guru Nanak Dev, and the Nirmalas were sent to Kashi by Guru Gobind Singh to study. The foundation stone of the Benares Hindu University was laid by a renowned Sikh saint, Sant Attar Singh. Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya had then walked barefoot from the Sangrur railway station to Sant Ji’s dera to invite him.

At sunrise and sunset, day and night, every day, every moment, the Ganga looks magnificent and grand when she majestically enters the plains at Rishikesh to begin her long journey to the sea. Our civilisation came up on the banks of the Ganga. Sitting on her banks in quiet repose is meditative, heals the self, rests the body and delights the soul. The river is worthy of worship, like no other river, and has been worshipped for many millennia. There are temples and holy cities on her banks and even upstream up to its source at Gomukh where the Gangotri glacier begins to melt. The high mountain ranges, valleys and glaciers which drain into her many tributaries also have temples and ghats. This is our Holy Land of great ethereal beauty.

But at some point, one has to stop to ask why the Kumbh Mela was permitted when there was a ferocious pandemic engulfing the entire country. Our citizens are falling sick, hospitals cannot cope with the patient rush, vaccines have to be given to millions of people. Pilgrims can easily pick up infection and spread it like wildfire when they return home. No one is questioning faith but the wisdom to allow the pilgrims to participate in large numbers.

Every year Haj pilgrims to Holy Mecca in Saudi Arabia have to go through very strict checks and controls. This is the most revered religious site of Islam, their Holy Land. This year, the authorities are going to impose stricter health protocols.

For Christians, Palestine is the Holy Land. In fact, Jerusalem is equally holy for the People of the Book: Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Pilgrimages are an important part of most religions. The recently held funeral of Prince Philip was conducted in a dignified way. Strict health protocols were observed and social distancing even among close relatives was maintained. In normal times, there would have been hundreds of mourners in Windsor Castle and millions on the streets to share their grief with their Queen.

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Therefore, it is the State’s responsibility to organise the Kumbh Mela in such a way that devout pilgrims move about unhindered and public order and safety is taken care of. The situation in India is alarming to say the least. The sick are suffering, medical officers are working over-time and hospital staff is stretched to the limit. How would those in the midst of the battle to fight the epidemic feel if the Kumbh Mela is allowed to continue when all else is grinding to a halt? Quite clearly more, much more needs to be done.

—The writer is former judge, Punjab & Haryana High Court, Chandigarh and former judge, United Nations Appeals Tribunal, New York


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