Kumbh Mela 2019 – Darshan (the contemplation of holy men)

Jan 18, 2021

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Darsahn – The meaning

In Indian philosophy and religion, particularly in Hinduism, the beholding of a deity (especially in image form), revered person, or sacred object is called darshan, or darsana. That is a form of blessing or taking part of its the spiritual powers. See the whole definition in here.

In Kumbh Mela, it’s specially important as it’s one of the few occasions when so many holy man (Sadhus), coming from remote places (some in caves, in the Himalayas), can be seen.

Naga Sadhu (naked holy man) coming from the holy dip.

Their expressions clearly display the austerity of their practices. Their bodies emanate energy, which makes the whole area vibrant and alive. I found some to look “authentic”, while other looked like just beggars dressing (or undressing) as holy men.

Sadhus travel to the Kumbh Mela to make themselves available to much of the Hindu public. Their camps are arranged in order that they can be seen by the pilgrims, though retaining some minimum privacy. This allows the crowds to interact with the Sadhus – whether it is by seeking their advice, obtaining their blessing, or simply contemplating their way of life and yoga poses. Seeing of the Sadhus is carefully managed and worshipers often leave tokens at their feet.

Asceticism and self mutilation

One of the two sadhus with a raised arm, that we saw at the festival. There are images circulating in the net of a third one ( Sadhu Amar Bharati) who is doing it for 43 years. Emilio Salgari (1862-1911) described that practice in his novels, so it’s been happening, at least, since the late 19th century. We couldn’t find a tangible reason for that. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to.

Sanyasi Digambhar Haribansha Giri – a ‘standing’ baba, who never sits down, even sleeping on this position. He also wears a metal chastity belt, which covers his genitals. He has taken the vow not to sit or lie down for 12 years, and he’s doing it for already 10. The swollen legs and feet tend to develop persistent ulcers.

For people raised in the Western world, all of this is probably beyond understanding. We were raised believing in the “mens sana in corpore sano” principle. Most don’t really practice it, though it stays as a theoretical goal. For westerners, yoga is an Oriental way to achieve it. However, these yogis engage in practices to destroy their own bodies. Many, also numb their minds with weed. On a quick research we came across the word “tapasya” – which means voluntary acceptance of bodily pains to achieve some higher end of life, primarily spiritual realisation. More specifically, it means to accept austerities (control) of the body, mind and tongue. We could compare it to the Catholic cilices. However, the main reason for the later is to produce mild discomfort and pain and not to actually cripple its user. 

Some sadhus seem to take pride on twisting their penises exhibiting them and using them to lift weights and pull vehicles. Again, that “thing” about the penis is far beyond understanding, in the context of holiness.

There is a thin border between penance and masochism. I couldn’t possibly judge these men on their motivations, neither could I understand the pride on displaying it. 

Holiness has many ways, in Hinduism

This is supposed to be just one, among many ways, of spiritually evolving. For instance, the Aghoris are a sect of Sadhus who find holiness in cannibalism, and sexual rituals. My knowledge is not enough to identify them among the crowd.  From what I’ve read, hey wouldn’t probably attend Kumbh, anyway. Learn about it in detail in here.

In fact, there is no distinctive character or trait, to identify a holy man, except its difference from the conventional society. They can be either thin or fat; vegetarians or carnivores;  weed smokers, or abstemious.  Some wander around, some stay in their monasteries. We’ve seen them  teaching crowds, while others stay in silence. Some are naked, some wear minimum clothing, some dress in saffron, yellow, or white. There are the austere, and those covered in gold, carrying cellphones and dark glasses.

The Hijras

The Hijras were one of the main attractions, both for foreign and local tourists. They attracted crowds of pilgrims (us included) and were featured in many Indian and international media. If deviation from conventional standards of behaviour is the only criterium for holiness then, the Hijras surely deserve their place in the category.

The word identifies something like a “third sex”. Born as men, they either have irregularities on their sex organs (eunuchs or hermaphrodites) or just female traits of character. Some actually have their penises, testicles and scrotum surgically removed. In the Indian society they are both frown upon and revered. 

People believe they have the power to bless and curse.  For that reason, they are asked to perform rituals at weddings and births, for fertility and prosperity. In the past, they were also fortune tellers, dancers and choreographers.

Hijra dancing on an entertaining show, outside Kumbh, in Prayagraj.

However, during the British occupation, laws were issued against them. They were (and still are) treated as criminals, and often abused. Most live as beggars and prostitutes. Ostracised by their families, they often join communities, presided by gurus. They’ should be around two million in India.  In Western terms, they would be something between “gay” and “eunuchs”. In India, they are the third gender.  Only on 2014, the Supreme Court officially recognised transgender people as such.

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi, on a chariot, during the procession. 

Laxmi Narayan Tripathi (on the picture above) a Brahman chaste hijra, founded a religious movement, called the Kinnar Akhada (in 2015), and proclaimed special status as incarnation of Shiva, Krishna  and Shakti. As they are not celibates, it’s not a matter of hollyness but, rather of “semi-divinity”.  Tripathi has forged close bonds with the largest of the other holy orders at the Kumbh Mela, the Juna Akhara.  Therefore, they agreed to bathe together, winning over the the initial refusal from the “Akhil Bharatiya Akhada Parishad” (the organisation overseeing the Akhadas).

Therefore, the Kinnar Akhada, became the first transgender group to bathe at the confluence of the holy Ganges and the Yamuna rivers on the first day of the ancient festival. Here are the images of their procession.

Lesson to be learned

If one thing we learned from the contact with this people was to accept all sort of bizarre behaviour without trying to frame it into our logic or subjecting to our judgment.

That became even harder, when we talk about children and sick people. Follow the next post, when we describe the tent city itself, and other parallel activities during Kumbh.


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