10 September 2006

Kumbha mela...

Find a wise teacher, honor him,
ask him questions, serve him;
someone who has seen the truth
will guide you on the path to wisdom.

Bhagavad Gita 4.34

One stop guru shopping. Well, Professor Chapple didn’t really say it that way but that’s what he meant.

After I told him about my difficulty with both the language and strict separation of men and women at the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan mandir, he suggested I might want to check out the kumbha mela set to take place at the University of California at Irvine. He thought I might find my guru – I cringe typing that word but that’s what a teacher is called in Hinduism – there. It’s the first one ever held in this country.

Kumbha melas are held every three years in India and millions of Hindus go. The purpose of the kumbha mela is to bring together as many of the disparate sects of Hindus as possible. Historically, it also allowed for some standardization of sacred texts, rituals and beliefs but its primary purpose was to anchor peace among all people. A group of temples had decided, after 9/11, to have one here. I decided to go. (Los Angeles Times article on the event.)

When I got to the campus, it was still flat-out summer so I grabbed a bottle of water out of the backseat and a tattered parasol and fell in with the steady stream of people heading for the open parking lot where the opening procession was to begin.There were knots of people lining up, some in robes of various colors, holding bright banners or photos of spiritual leaders decorated with garlands of flowers, while others prepped elaborate carts holding brass icons. Umbrellas and conch shell horns, saris and drums, ropes of flowers and brass bells – I wasn’t sure how I was going to spot my future teacher in this tumult.

The Hare Krishnas’ gold cart, two-people high, required twenty people pulling two ropes to make it move when the procession began. Those not pulling beat drums or danced between the “V” made by the ropes. The Nithyananda Foundation , the temple whose Swami had instigated the event, had five different carts, each with a different icon, each shaded by round red-fringed parasols. While all the Nithyananda devotees were wearing long white dhotis, they also had cobalt blue t-shirts pulled on over them that said: "Be Blissful" and had the website address on the back. Some groups danced, others marched, still others blew horns or gave out flowers.
One vague white man who looked like he'd just come from a data-entry cubicle somewhere was scooting along side the procession carrying an Arrowhead plastic gallon jug partially filled with a murky yellow liquid. Moss or algae was floating in it. He abruptly stopped right in front of me and thrust a capful of the liquid at me.

When I didn’t really respond because I had no idea what I was supposed to do, he blurted, “Sacred river water.”

I looked at the cap and then back at him and all I thought was, if he expects me to drink this, he's got another think coming.

He finally gave up on my ever coming out of my paralysis. "Pour it over your head.”

Relieved that I wasn't supposed to drink it, I did as I was told…and then spent the rest of the day wondering if I should have. Blessed water or not, my college roommate was an infectious disease specialist so I had plenty of things to imagine and, on top of that, I was a kid who wouldn’t go near a pool with even a few leaves in it or any trace of cloudiness and who tried very hard not to touch the bottom of any river I ever swam in. I walked around the rest of the day occasionally wondering what might come of the dried remains of the yellow swampy water that was now in my hair.

There weren’t many of us watching the procession so people kept bounced out of line to offer me a red flower, to ask if I had any questions, to hand me a pamphlet. One white woman put a smudged dot of orange powder in the center of my forehead. Strangely, the only group I had to chase after to get the literature they were handing out were the Hare Krishnas. Along with small booklets describing the message of their founding spiritual leader, Prabhupada, there was a card inviting anyone interested to come to their free “Love Feast” every Sunday afternoon. On the other side of the card, were directions and a suggestion that “your life will be sublime” if you chant the mantra: “Hare Kishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.” One of the temples sponsoring the event handed out a light purple folded flyer to anyone who would take it: “Enlightening Golf Classic 2006.” On the inside it said “Tee Off For Meditation.”

As I watched the procession go by, I kept a look-out for anyone who looked like a possible teacher. But, what was I looking for? Would I recognize him or her if I saw them? And, how? I didn’t think what I was looking for was something that could be seen but I wasn’t willing to let any chance encounter pass me by.

The parade ended at an above-ground pool that had been set up just outside the basketball stadium. A diverse group of swamis ceremonially poured water from a silver urn, said to be from twenty-one sacred rivers in India into the pool, and then each immersed their temple’s idols in the holy water. Once all the holy saints were symbolically bathed, people could touch the water. All of the idols – and there were at least forty to fifty of them of various sizes – were then brought into the event center and put, side-by-side, across the back of the stage in what became a circus of shapes and colors, flowers and brass idols, photographs and garlands and tall round fringed umbrellas.

After a long series of songs, dances and performances, the mayor of Irvine, a barrel of a woman who spoke in a flat but kind politician voice, welcomed the group by saying her city was blessed to have such a rich spiritual tradition in its midst. Then, one after another, the swamis who came together to make the event happen got up from the long table on the stage to speak, their devotees cheering loudly when they came to the podium.

The first to speak, the swami whose idea the Kumbha Mela was, was also the youngest – a smiling, long-haired guru who, at twenty-seven, looked like a movie idol. His followers were the ones wearing the white dhotis covered by the blue t-shirts and, I don’t know what was wrong with me, but they all looked just too happy, like you couldn’t even talk to them, they were in such a transported, blissful state. That sort of abandon makes me nervous. Next, came a swami who spoke passionately but in his native language. Then, a thin, cerebral, man with thinning black hair and big glasses got up to speak.

Undisturbed by the large, somewhat inattentive audience, the earnest man in orange robes began to speak into the microphone as if he were in a small room of intimates rather than a basketball stadium. “I am glad to be here today, to be with you all to celebrate this wonderful Kumbha Mela which means a congregation of all religious ideals and ideology.”

He then talked about the differences between all of the various Hindu sects at the conference, between the various spiritual leaders sitting up on the stage, saying their differences were only in practice but not in their faith, not in their belief in prayer, not in their resolve for peace. With an elegant sweep of one hand, the swami said, “All these different deities represent different aspects of the same One. And, as different streams have their sources in different places, all mingle their water in the sea, so the different paths men take, through different tendencies, various though they may appear, all lead to the same One, the Infinite Absolute. Hinduism is the mother of all religions. We don’t worship idols, we worship any image we choose that can lead us to the One, to the Absolute, to that which is beyond all description.”

Idols lined the back of the stage but this swami was saying they weren’t worshipped, they were more like tools that helped show the way to a single Infinite Absolute. I’d never heard that before.

"Some say that only their God is real, that ‘my God is higher, more real than yours.’ We Hindus don’t. We are not here to change anyone, to make anyone a Hindu, to make them believe what we believe. We want a Christian to be a better Christian, for a Jew to be a better Jew, for a Muslim to be a better Muslim. This is the need of this age, this harmony is the need of this age. That is the way to world peace. And we should be very proud to be part of this religion that has given the world this openness, this acceptance.”

As I watched this sincere man speak his simple words with such kindness and conviction yet with such seeming detachment from any effort to manipulate the crowd or broadcast his personality, I thought: “That’s him. That’s my teacher.”

I looked in the program. His name was Swami Sarvadevananda.

(10 September 2006)

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