Maha Kumbh Mela: Largest human gathering

A few days ago, I returned from an event which beforehand I tried to grasp with the rational mind, then realized this was impossible, gave in to the flow, and somehow things worked out perfectly in the end. The Maha Kumbh Mela taking place in Allahabad (also called Prayag) in Northern India is by far the largest human gathering in the history of our planet, with an estimated 30-35 millionĀ (or 3-3.5 crore as Indians say; one crore being 10 million) visitors on a single day, February 10th, and an estimated 10 crore (or 100 million) visitors during the whole festival lasting two months. To put these numbers into perspective, hosting a festival for 30-35 million visitors in one day is as if you would temporarily relocate all inhabitants of the largest city on earth (which one that is depends on how you count) to a giant tent city, and 100 million total visitors is more than the population of Germany. You cannot imagine how this could possibly work and probably India is the only place in the world where it does work. What I expected beforehand was total chaos, dirt everywhere and being stuck in a huge mass of people not being able to move. Instead, the chaos was quite organized, the place was cleaner than most cities in India and people jams were the exception rather than the rule.

February 10th was the most auspicious day to take a bath at the holy Sangam, the confluence of Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati rivers, and, believe me, everybody who is there only has this one aim to go in for a dip. During that day there is an uninterrupted stream of people heading for Sangam. The dip is quite short; you go in the water which is only about knee-deep, submerge yourself a couple of times and get out because there’s a few million more waiting to do the same. The reason why so many people wanted to go on February 10th is that it was a New Moon day and because the Sun and Jupiter had some super-special configuration on that day only happening every 144 years, which is why this Kumbh Mela had the prefix Maha, meaning great. So, sorry for all those who could not be there; you will have to wait another couple of life times to wash away your sins as thoroughly as I did…

By the way, taking a bath in the Ganges and the Yamuna is not as bad as one might think. Sure, the water is far from crystal clear and by the time it reaches Allahabad a few million people and many factories have dumped their waste in it but it does not kill you nor does it make you sick. It does not smell bad either and once you are there taking a dip is the most natural thing to do.

The stars of the Kumbh Mela are without question the Naga Babas. These guys run around butt-naked most of the time, are smeared with ashes and constantly smoke the chillum, sort of a pipe filled with a mixture of hash and tobacco. They are also the ones who get to bath first at the Sangam on February 10th and you better not interfere with that because otherwise they (together with the police) hunt you with sticks which happened to me and a few others who unknowingly started undressing in their part of the Sangam to take our dip. Luckily we could escape without taking further damage and it was quite fun to run away from a horde of naked and quite scary looking guys and an army of policemen on horses, pushing Adrenaline levels to new heights.

There’s many more things I could say about this happening but I will leave it at that and would like to end with a short list of what the Maha Kumbh Mela is:

  • well, as mentioned earlier, it is the largest human gathering in history
  • undoubtedly it is also the largest communal bath
  • the largest gathering of pot-smoking old (and young) men with a strong inclination towards nudism
  • a weird mixture of a spiritual gathering, a fair trade for gurus and babas, a camping vacation, and a (Dutch) coffee shop
  • it also reminded me of carnival because there was a huge parade with floats on which sat the gurus with their entourage; funnily February 10th was also this year’s Carnival Sunday

Last but not least some visual impressions (sorry, I only have a phone cam, so don’t expect any great photography)…

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The State of Humanity

Humanity finds itself in a strange situation–we have left the animal realm and have built our own, a human realm; have built it with our hands who follow the mind’s command. Yet we are still very close to the animal, having its instincts, its urges and drives, which often conflict with our mind and, in fact, overpower it. At times we may feel like prisoners of our own mind, when it refuses us to follow our drives and urges and, instead, creates rules for itself, when it follows its old patterns over and over again and makes us its slave. These are the moments when we want to go back to the state of the animal, when the vital forces had control over us. But we cannot return for we have gone too far, have progressed past the point-of-no-return, have crossed the line from the animal realm into the human realm. We feel like strangers in this world because we have become estranged from it by an evolution of consciousness that is in a phase of transition. Our place in this world is yet to be discovered because instead of living with the world we currently live against it. Our place can only be found if we accept that we are as a person, as a human being only an intermediary step in this universal evolution of consciousness, totally meaningless by itself, if we consider ourselves in separation, and yet absolutely essential to the whole to which we are inseparably bound. Resistance to accept this eternal change of consciousness only creates more pain, more suffering because it is the ego that clings to the status quo. This can be overcome by a little trick which is to identify oneself not with the ego but with what is greater than the ego. For in reality we are far greater and, in fact, infinitely vast. The ego thinks of itself as a thing separate from the rest of the infinity that is the universe, creates a boundary around itself, and therefore, the ego relative to it is infinitely small, is zero. When we let go of the sense of separateness from the world, we automatically become infinitely vast, too, for we become one with the universe.

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Happy Pongal! (Tamil Street Art Part III)

This gallery contains 60 photos.

People in South India (and rumor has it that it’s the same the world over) really like celebrations and so, after just having done with Christmas and New Year, there is another holiday today called Pongal, which is the Tamil … Continue reading

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Being Aware of the Awareness

When one sits and watches, quietly and patiently, one notices at some point that there are two aspects inside. One aspect is an awareness that silently observes everything happening in one’s consciousness; the other is a process within that awareness that tends to get involved and entangled with life. The former is the Self and the latter is the ego. The Self is pure consciousness, the eternal and all-pervading witness; the ego is the person that is made of the body, the emotions and the mind–a physical, vital and mental being. While the Self is immortal and eternal, the ego is mortal and temporal because it is made of ever-changing decaying matter. There is only one Self, the constant awareness behind everything, but there are many egos through which it witnesses the world, looking at itself through a myriad of eyes, playing a sort of hide-and-seek with itself and its selves.

In the stillness of the moment there is the possibility that the ego makes place and the reality of the Self can be sensed and seen. For, when one is fully in the moment, in the here and now, there is no ego. Past and present dissolve and the ego that identifies with that past and that present, with the story that it created for itself, with the person that seemed so solid, so physical suddenly becomes a mere play within that awareness of the Self. It becomes a play that is very real but also very delicate, very transient. For a moment that play stops and the witness looks at the empty and orphaned stage, and then realizes that it had come here to see a play and that it got so enchanted, so caught up, so involved that it had forgotten it was only a play–because the scenery is perfect, the actors are giving their best performance and it was scripted by the best screenplay writer. All these components made it a performance absolutely convincingly real. And, in fact, a performance so good that Self itself had come to identify with it.

A first realization of this can usually come to one only when deliberately sought after in quiet and patient concentration because otherwise we are too busy and too involved in life, in the play to notice the distinction. Once that state where the distinction between Self and ego can be noticed is found its realization can enter into our life to take effect. What can it contribute to life? It can show to us that our personal life, our ego is a transient phenomenon and as such very small and yet very precious at the same time; very small because relative to the vastness of the infinity of the Self it is only a spark, very precious because it is all we have in the moment and because it is a divine manifestation of the Self. This illustrates that all our desires, fears, problems, sorrows are merely happening in the play and that we could just as well sit back, relax and enjoy the show. That nervousness, agitation and melancholia within us which we felt because the awareness aspect of us identified completely with the play and with all its drama makes place for a deep joy that we were so lucky to win a ticket to watch it. This does not mean that we suddenly are to neglect our personal life but that we can approach it with a new sense of calmness and an open heart.

When we come out of our ego-delusion of separateness from the world we can at once open up and relate to the whole world and to everything and everyone that is in it instead of mistaking that lifeless bag of skin for ourselves. The play becomes much wider and we realize that this Grand Play will never stop as it is eternal and the witness, the Self is eternal. Our greatest fear, that of our ego’s mortality, can finally go away since we have transcended its boundaries, the bag of skin. The ego is merely a part of the endless play and when this ego has passed there is something else to watch and, if we choose so, to get enchanted with and completely involved in.

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Happy Xmas! (Tamil Street Art Part II)

This gallery contains 28 photos.

Happy Xmas 2012 everyone! Enjoy some colourful Tamil Xmas street art…

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Tamil Street Art

This gallery contains 28 photos.

Every morning when I cycle from the guesthouse to the office, the women living there clean the street in front of their houses with a broom and with some water that they splash from a bucket and they paint wonderful … Continue reading

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The Mindful Rat

What if I told you that we are behaving like conditioned rats inside a Skinner Box?

Let me go back in history a little bit. About one hundred years ago, Ivan Pavlov discovered classical conditioning in his famous experiments with dogs. The dogs heard the ringing of a bell and then received food. After several of those pairings, the bell alone was sufficient to elicit salivation in expectation of food. In the same way an unpleasant stimulus (e.g., electric shock) can be paired with the ringing of a bell (or anything else basically), resulting in a panic reaction. Like here:

A few years later, B. F. Skinner coined the term operant conditioning to describe how voluntary behavior could be modified using reward and punishment. Most of his experiments he conducted on rats by putting them into an operant conditioning chamber, now known as Skinner Box. Desired behavior was rewarded and undesired behavior was punished, with the result that the rats showed that specific behavior more or less frequently, respectively. Another demonstration with humans:

Behaviorism was born, basically saying that all that should be of interest to psychologists is observable behavior, what the physical body does. And although behaviorism has been complemented by cognitive psychology, for instance, and psychology has moved on in many fields, it is still highly influential and any standard textbook defines psychology as the study of behavior.

Now, what if I told you that we are basically behaving like that rat inside a Skinner Box (I know I asked this before, just repeating it to create some tension…)?

Let me explain. Generally, we are pleasure seekers and pain avoiders. Agree? If there is something we like, we want more of it, start craving it. If there is something we dislike, we want it to cease as quickly as possible and we develop an aversion towards it. Cravings and aversions. Even our appetite for food is a craving, as is our motivation to do work that we don’t like in exchange for money. And our unwillingness to get started with the work we are supposed to be doing (instead of procrastinating) is an aversion, just as we are inclined to not park our car in a no-parking zone because we don’t want to pay the fine.

So, the behaviorists were right? Well, I must admit that in many cases behaviorism describes my own behavior pretty well and that therefore the behaviorists have a good point with their theory. However, that’s also where it stops, at describing observable behavior. One reason why behaviorism has been so influential is that it has enormous applications for rulers, corporations, advertisers, parents, teachers, your boss, and the list could go on and on… It has become a philosophy, deeply penetrating our society. Our whole life we have been trained to do things in order to receive rewards and to avoid punishment. You go through a red light? You get a fine. You want to be attractive? Buy that new perfume/after shave. You want your pocket money? Clean up your room. You want to get good grades? Write/say what the teacher wants to hear. You want to get promoted? Be nice to your boss and work overtime. I am not saying that all of this is bad. It is an essential part of conforming to society to show certain behaviors. But these examples show how powerful behaviorism is. We have been conditioned to play by certain rules.

Anyways, the root of the problem goes even deeper. Even without governments, advertisers, marketers and the like our own body has conditioned our mind to play by certain rules. Why is that? We have come to associate certain stimuli that come into contact with our consciousness with a valuation that we give to them when they are perceived. We find them either pleasant or unpleasant. This valuation results in a bodily sensation and we react accordingly with craving or aversion towards that sensation depending on whether we find it pleasant or unpleasant, further strengthening the link. To summarize:

consciousness –> valuation –> bodily sensation –> reaction (like/dislike)

You might say: so what? It is good to seek pleasant sensations and avoid unpleasant ones. The former are beneficial for us and the latter make us stay away from things that are bad for us. For example, I need to eat in order to sustain my body and I must stay away from pain because pain is the result of something harming my body and I don’t want my body to be harmed. True, but our cravings for pleasant sensations and our aversions towards unpleasant ones also make us unfree, make us slaves of our own mind-body complex. Instead of acting we are merely re-acting in response to certain stimuli because we have conditioned ourselves to do so. And with every automatic reaction in response to a bodily sensation, the link becomes stronger, we become more and more conditioned. In fact, we have become over-conditioned in such a way that often, by seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, we end up creating misery for ourselves. Just think of the many occasions when you were supposed to finally get that work done (whatever it is) but instead you chose to do something else and you ended up being very stressed. Or remember that last time somebody said something mean to you and your reaction was to throw back some harsh words, leaving you unbalanced for the rest of the day. These are the obvious things and they may not apply to each one of us but there are many instances when we create misery for ourselves because we automatically react to our bodily sensations and many of those instances actually go unnoticed because we are constantly busy with one thing or another.

Okay, enough with that depressing talk! Because, what the behaviorists did not tell us, is that there is a cure to this and that the rat can escape from the box. In fact, the cure is older than behaviorism itself, much older. This shows that the conditioning about which Western scientists only found out about one hundred years ago, is an old phenomenon. Of course, since they did not invent it but merely discovered the principle. The name of the cure is Vipassana (or mindfulness), of which the origins go back to the time of the Buddha, about 2,500 years ago. Vipassana is a technique that is being taught in meditation and it is basically the objective and non-reactionary observation of one’s bodily sensations which are arising and passing away while maintaining perfect equanimity. That is, one observes one’s bodily sensations and whenever a thought enters one’s mind, or one feels an itching sensation, or a pain, or any other sensation–pleasant or unpleasant–one does not react to it, one just observes neutrally, like a scientist for a moment and then returns one’s attention to the object of meditation, to the bodily sensations. All the while, one keeps in mind that the inherent nature of all sensations, all phenomena is to automatically arise and pass away. Some of them may stay for some time while others may pass away quickly, it doesn’t matter. By simply observing, one slowly gets rid of the deep-rooted conditionings that one has acquired in the past. Vipassana puts in front of us as the ultimate goal nothing less than one’s complete liberation from all conditionings, which is definitely quite an ambitious aim to have. However, while the goal defines where the journey is going, the effects of Vipassana are to be felt instantaneously, although they can be quite subtle to begin with.

I know, all of this sounds quite technical and theoretical. It is one of the reasons why Vipassana is not only to be understood intellectually but to be practiced because only then true understanding can occur. Vipassana is called a form of insight meditation because by practicing it one gains insight into one’s own nature. The level of insight is fairly limited to the interaction between mind and body as that is what the technique focuses on. However, I can say from my own experience that the technique is very powerful and useful–and that Vipassana and similar techniques are a necessary step in our development as a human race. We are the result of millions and billions of years of evolution and nature has evolved us to a point at which we have come to a point that we are able to take evolution one step further by getting the control over our mind-body complex and ultimately rise above it. In order to be able to get rid of greed, anger, aggression, envy, jealousy and so forth which are the result of our perception of being a separate entity (our ego) that needs to struggle against other egos to survive in this world, we must develop qualities of true cooperation and compassion that enable us to move on. Just imagine that once all the cells that now form our bodies existed as separate entities until some of them decided to come together and form something greater, to take evolution to the next phase. We are at that point right now where we can give up our egos for a united global human society.

Mindful rat meditating in Skinner Box

If Skinner’s rats had known Vipassana meditation…

This post might seem somewhat unrelated to India. In probably the next post I will explain how this relates to Sri Aurobindo’s ideas and to Auroville, a universal city taking shape in close proximity to Pondicherry where an attempt is being made to live these ideals of human unity.

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