In 2001, Australian writer Sarah Macdonald found herself at India's Kumbh Mela, the country's biggest religious festival. Along with her TV journalist husband's camera operator Titi and assistant Neeraj, Macdonald witnessed sadhus and naga babas (Hindu holy men and ascetics) preparing to bathe in the sacred river Ganges, a rite believed to confer spiritual blessings. Excerpted from Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure with permission of Broadway Books.
The Hindu religion is a guru's gig, where ego is a dirty word and only supplication to a master can kill it. The closest I ever get to understanding the guru thing is my constant ability to fall in love with lead singers and bass players. But I'm down on groupies. Maybe it's my inability to respect authority for authority's sake, maybe it's my Australian independent streak or maybe it's the glazed expression on the devotees' faces, but I'm not willing to touch the feet of any of the sadhus [holy men] I've seen so far. It's hard enough for me to surrender to a faith, let alone a fallible human. While I'm prepared to admit many beings are far more spiritually advanced than I am, the Westerner in me is automatically suspicious of people who claim to be perfect. If I'm to find a god or a sense of grace, I'd rather it be in metaphysical form. It just makes more sense to me to look for the supernatural in something superhuman.
...I suspect guru supplication is a cultural and spiritual phenomenon, as much a factor of massive underemployment, the lingering caste system and the legacy of British imperialism as a need to let go of ego for spiritual integrity. But in Hinduism generalizations are dangerous; in some ways this is the least authoritarian religion I've encountered. Almost anyone can become a sadhu. Hinduism is far more accepting than I am. It accepts gurus of all colors, races and creeds and it has an ingenious way of dealing with its critics. Buddha rejected ancient Hindu teachings and the very existence of God, but Hindus insist that he was another avatar of Vishnu and respect him accordingly. The Dalai Lama has already been at the Kumbh and taken part in a ceremony at the sacred swimming spot.
Most of the sadhus at the Maha Kumbh Mela don't have a following. Simi's husband, Vivek, turns up to film and he takes me out for a trip among the thousands of solo saints who shuffle in streams, squat by the sandy roads and sleep in huddled heaps in the open. We film faces etched with hardship and creased with sun, and bow-shaped bodies with bandy legs carrying all their possessions in small shoulder bags.
Hinduism is a faith of almost infinite diversity. Yet the broadest, most complicated religion on the planet actually caters brilliantly to the individual. It seems every Hindu is free to create and follow his own unique religion, choosing his own gods and methods of worship. The gods of non-Hindus are respected and Hindu gods are generously shared. A young boy called Anu walks me back to my camp and gives me some options for puja. I can look to Hanuman for energy, Varuna (the god of water) if I want rain, Lakshmi (Vishnu's consort, the goddess of wealth) if I need money and Saraswathi (Brahma's consort, the goddess of knowledge) if I have an exam coming up. Ganesh (the elephant god and the child of Shiva and Parvati) can be called on when starting a new journey or venture and Vishnu, Rama or Krishna if I want purity of spirit.
There's also infinite variety in the ways of devotion. As the hospital cleaner, Indian Jim, told me a year ago, doing one's duty by living a life still largely dictated by caste is the most common. But at the camp dinner some pilgrims advocate meditation, others ritual fasting and a few the regular chanting of "om" (the first word of the universe and the perfect vibration). One elderly woman, Gayatri, recommends I walk one hundred and eight times around a certain tree to find faith; her daughter suggests I feed a cow for a year. They will take some Ganges water home to place a drop under the tongue of any family members who die. This will guarantee heaven. Yet Gayatri insists heaven can also be found within.
"I like your Jesus and such, and there's no doubt he was a great sadhu, most likely trained in India, but you know, he was wrong about God. God is not a judgmental giant sitting up in heaven, it's a force within us all-we are lightbulbs in the electrical system of the universe."
...[We head] to the filthy backwaters of the Ganges to interview some sadhus about the state of the holy river. They tell us, "The river is not dirty, your mind is dirty." Only one admits there's a problem: "Yes, the river is dirty, but you must detach from the senses."
I find it hard to ignore the swollen corpses of dead dogs and the occasional bobbing baby (babies are not cremated in India and their disposal in the Ganges guarantees their souls a place in heaven). There are also masses of floating garbage and a stench of sewage. I agree with the Sikhs: sadhus can perhaps be too detached from their surroundings.
Yet tonight I cleanse my mind of such thoughts. I sense a spiritual purity in the putrid air. The big bathing day is tomorrow and the crowds are pouring in. The clerks, the farmers, the teachers, the workers and the housewives of northern India are having the times of what may now be the last of their millions of lives. Tonight they will party, for tomorrow will bring salvation. There are balloons, weight-measuring machines, elephant blessings and camel rides. Naked sadhus stand stunned as neon robots tell them their future, a motorcycle daredevil zooms around a tin circle of death and couples hold hands as they eat cotton candy.
All night the music and singing and chanting build like a massive rave with dancers fueled by the ecstasy of devotion. At four o'clock it reaches a crescendo as the main DJ, God, takes the stage. The earth begins to tremble as the millions begin the slow march toward the sangam, the place where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet.
I join Titi and Neeraj (who's now carrying a compass and a canteen) onboard a boat bobbing on the black Ganges. We pass small huddles of floating shapes softly singing to the splashing of oars. The soft first light falls upon a tide of pilgrims patiently and quietly walking along the bank toward the holy spot. Some stop to shave their heads, for every hair shed is ten thousand lives that don't have to be lived. Piles of black hair stain the sand.
The winter season, global warming and water mismanagement mean the rivers meet with a trickle not a bang. Huge sandbars of black mud stick out of the waters, and after Neeraj salutes a huge floating flotilla of policemen, we are allowed to stand on a big spit facing the main riverbank. We shiver in the gray air and look across to a blur of beings chanting for the godly games to begin. Akhara bodyguards in white G-strings ensure that the sadhus get to touch the divine waters before the inferior-they form a barrier across the sand and those who try to break it are belted hard on the head. The masses murmur as they feel a slow and steady shaking of the sands.
A trumpet sounds, the crowd cheers and hundreds of naga babas march over the hill like an alien cavalry. The dawn light gives the warriors a ghostly glow and while some seem huge and terrifying as they perform ninja-like moves with sharp tridents and swords, others are as emaciated as supermodels doing heroin chic. Their guru sits on a golden chariot under a brass umbrella surrounded by flag bearers. The press officer has warned us the sadhus are angry, that there's been aggression, breaking of cameras and anti-foreign fury. We're eighty meters from the bank and in the middle of the river, but out of respect and fear I put my camera down; Titi keeps focused with the big Betacam TV camera but looks nervous. As Neeraj checks his watch and calls "oh-five hundred" the babas prance down to the river, throw their garlands of flowers in the water and then squat like racers at the starting line.
A whistle blows and about five hundred sadhus charge into their Ganges goddess splashing, screaming and waving their swords. But they don't stop to wash away their sin, they keep running straight for us. It's as if they are walking on water. The river is only ankle deep and we have nowhere to run and nowhere to hide. A wave washes over us and the sandbank is flooded. They're still coming. I adopt the Hindu fatalism-at least if I die I'm going straight to heaven.
Throwing the swords down, the naked blue-black sadhus jump and dance around us and the camera. They are waving, shaking my hand, shivering and doing all too revealing cartwheels. Their faces split into huge grins and their dreadlocks glisten with drops of water.
Neeraj stands at attention, Titi films on and I laugh nervously like an adventurer being welcomed to another world. It's a meeting of the primal and the prim, the faithful and the foreign, the devotee and the doubter. I breathe in the rapture and joy on their faces, and for a moment I feel their ecstasy. Together we wade in the waters that form heaven on earth.
After the sadhus, the bald initiates dip and then the pilgrims begin to bathe. The women maintain modesty by being diligently dexterous with their saris, while the men put on an exhibition of briefs-high-waisted, saggy, and occasionally leopard-skinned. One family gently leads their blind father, making sure he doesn't slip in the mud. Another celebrates a boy's coming of age, hoisting him up on their shoulders and yelling "Hip Hip Hooray" in the most English of voices. Everyone coats themselves with river mud, rubs themselves free of bad karma and dunks three times. They pour water through their hands, pray, burn incense, sing prayers and then blow snot into the holy nectar. It's a scene of incredible gentleness, patience, purity of spirit and faith.
But I'm in pants, I'm freezing cold and I'm too scared of hepatitis to share the Hindu faith in the Ganges. Neeraj refuses to even let me consider a bath and pulls me toward the boat and breakfast. Before I board, something stops me. Before I even know what I'm doing, I'm kneeling down and splashing a little water on my forehead. It's an impulse that feels right and it pays off. I sense strength and grace; I swoon with a dose of the divine and a feeling that I'm part of a universal force.