What is the largest religious festival in the world? Any guesses? Lent in Jerusalem? The Hajj, maybe? For most of us, unfamiliar with Hinduism, the Kumbh mela would not make our short list, but, in fact, this gathering in India is far and away the largest religious gathering in the world: it began yesterday, and officials expect that over the next 55 days, roughly 100 million pilgrims will gather to bathe in the Ganges, washing their sins away and assuring an favorable rebirth.
Here's a link to the story [with fabulous pictures!]: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/14/hindus-enter-river-ganges_n_2470862.html?utm_hp_ref=religion
In my posts from India last year [is it really last year??], I noted that rivers are particularly holy in India, and none more so than the Ganges. The river itself is believed to be a goddess, and bathing in, drinking, and dying on the banks of her waters are believed to be particularly auspicious.
The Kumbh mela takes place every three years, rotating among four different cities, chosen on the basis of an ancient mythology, which tells the story of a fight between the gods and demons over a pitcher of nectar. In the struggle, four drops of nectar fell to the earth, landing where the cities of Allahabad, Nasik, Ujjain and Haridwar now stand. This year's celebration is particularly significant, and is known as a "Maha Kumbh." It only occurs every 144 years and is always held at Allahabad, which is located at the place where the Yamuna and Ganges rivers meet--and where the mythical Sarasvati river also is said to join the Ganges.
One of the highlights of the festival for everyone is the appearance of the naga sadhus--the naked holy men who come out of their wilderness hermitages for a "holy dip." They are smeared with ash and many carry tridents, a symbol of the god Shiva, the patron of aestics; and while they are there, they accept alms from pilgrims and offer blessings. In their reunciation of the world and entire devotion to spirituality, they are seen as men of great sacred power.
I wonder what, if anything, this event offers to Christians: many western pilgrims also come for this event [some estimates are around 1 million], and most report being very moved by it all--some even describe a connection to God. It is certainly a very, very different experience than one finds in Christianity--and maybe that is part of the appeal. In participating in something so new, so unusual, one sees and experiences the Divine in a new way. Can it bring a Christian closer to God? Can it reveal to us anything about who God is? I like to think so.