India and its Festivals !
Pongal, Makar Shankranti, Vasant Panchami, Maha Shivaratri, Holi, Rath Yatra, Diwali, Bihu, Dusshera, Raksha Bandhan, Ganesh Chaturthi, Durga Puja, Onam, Christmas, Buddha Poornima, Eid, Baisakhi…an endless list. They say we have a hundred crore gods…they forget we also have that many festivals. Welcome to India.
Festivals in India are called ‘Utsava’ meaning removal (ut) of sorrows (sava). And that is what they essentially are. Joyous celebrations and get-togethers. The diverse sea of humanity converging for one purpose—celebration and peace.
Take, for example, the Maha Kumbha Mela to be held in Allahabad this year. This Sunday marked the beginning of the ‘Kalpawas’ or the period of austerity with the festival of Paush Purnima. The confluence of an estimated 20 lakh ‘Kalpawasis’ is expected. The Kalpawasis live a minimalistic life every month of Magh for 12 years and believe that this would lead to their salvation. At the end of observing 12 ‘Kalpawas’, living on bare minimums be it make-shift homes of tents or surviving on one meal a day, a ritual called ‘Shayya Daan’ takes place where the Kalpawasis donate all of their belongings. This union of people from different backgrounds and parts of the country and the world for a common purpose, rightly termed as Sangam (meaning union), has been under the magnifying lens of psychologists and socialists, among others, for a long time. And now a UK based Economic and Social Research Council conducted a study by experts of five universities including Allahbad University only to vindicate the belief that the Kalpawasis ‘return home healthier and happier’.
So what is it about blaring loudspeakers doling out religious discourses with so much fervor that one can barely distinguish one speaker from other, the barely good sanitary conditions, the winter chill and the intensely crowded place that result in increased happiness among the throngs of pilgrims that flock to the mela every year?
To find the answer we need to travel back in time. At a time when travelling was difficult and so was communication, how did the intellectuals spread their ideas, philosophies and beliefs to the common man? We need to remember that unlike the times now, then the leading thinkers were also the religious leaders. Festivals and confluences such as the Kumbha mela and Rath Yatra were a way to bring together the varied groups of people under a single umbrella, preserve unity and trade and spread ideas. It was in unions such as these that the multitudes of people—the leaders, the thinkers, the priests and the common man merged to begin one common entity. It was their form of socializing in an era devoid of facebook, twitter and pool parties. Thus, festivals of this magnitude can be termed as a ‘Spiritual Expo’—the display of beliefs, ideologies and philosophies.
But celebration, socializing, and tourism are only one aspect of the festivals. The worshipping of gods in temples and other such spiritual places has a very precise balance of sound and silence. In Hindu temples, for example, the peaceful sanctimonious premises of silent shrines are transformed into a riot of clashing, clamoring sound of bells ringing, the priest reciting the prayers and people shouting the chorus. The object of this introduction of loud sound is to bring the attention of the devotees to the present. With the sound of bells so loud, there is nothing else one can think about. The attention cannot but riveted to the present, to the self. In short, the sound helps in a meditation of its own sort.
Similarly, spending a month as a Kalpawasi, bereft of worldly belongings spare a cloth to cover the body, brings ones focus to the present, makes one realize their own insignificance in the universal order of things, futility of material living. At the same time, it makes the people appreciate the value of things taken for granted normally. Only one meal a day, taking bath in the cold river early on winter mornings makes the kalpawasis more aware of their own bodies, their needs, in turn instilling in them a sense of gratitude. Twelve such experiences are believed to be sufficient to make one realize the futility of living and achieve salvation.
But does the belief hold true still in today’s materialistic world? Perhaps, yes for those who believe in it.