Cycles of Suffering, Huge Religious Festival and An Important Question

How do you address the suffering that seems to surround us?  And especially, how would you address it to a group of people who are convinced that until they attain a certain state of righteousness, they are doomed to endless cycles of being born, suffering, dying and then being born again, dying, suffering, etc?

Massive Religious Festival in India

Right now, a massive religious festival, the Maha Kumbh Mela, or Grand Pitcher Festival, is taking place in Allahabad, in northern India.  According to the fascinating accounts, this site marks the intersection of three icy cold rivers, one of which is the extremely filthy Ganges and one of which is either mythical or underground, depending on which news report one is reading.

Millions have traveled to this remote area to plunge into these miserably cold, polluted rivers. Probably 10 million on Monday alone raced into those waters. Planners expect that 100 million will do so in the next two months.  The first group, starting at 6:05 am on Monday, were members of multiple religious orders of holy men.  Women also take the plunge, but the holy men lead the way.

All this takes place in an area of about 5000 acres, less than eight square miles, let’s just say about four miles long and two miles wide.  Yes, 10 million people camped in that small area on Monday—and several days before to get ready.


Preparation for this remote and not particularly populated area?  Well, they have set up one hospital with 100 beds in it and 12 smaller health centers and stockpiled quite a bit of food.

Also, according to the sanitation officer in charge of logistics, they built 35,000 single-seat toilets, 340 blocks of 10-seat toilets and placed 4,000 urinals on the grounds.  He states, “All the faecal matter from the toilets will go into the underground pits where it will start to decompose in a few days.”

Oh my.


Now, why again are they doing this?  Because the plunge will wash away generations of sins.

One news agency describes the scene: “I wash away all my sins, from this life and before,” said wandering ascetic Swami Shankranand Saraswati, 77, shivering naked in the cold. He said he gave up a career as a senior civil servant 40 years ago to become a holy man, travelled on foot and for decades ate only nuts and fruit.

The report also stated that men with dreadlocked beards to their feet competed for attention with yogis supporting heavy weights on certain parts of their bodies, which shall go unnamed in this article

“I feel pleasure,” grinned Digambar Navraman Giri,” who said he had not sat down for a year, even sleeping on foot. “This is why I became a sadhu,” he said, steam rising from his body in the cold air and wearing nothing but two rings on his fingers.”

These ascetics, i.e., holy men, are also vying for donations.  Many apparently hope that by supporting some or many holy men, they themselves will find release from their own cycles of suffering without having to enter the waters themselves.

Liberation From Sin

From what I have been able to glean, and I admit more ignorance than knowledge here, Hindu scriptures state that until an individual attains “moksha,” which is liberation, he or she will engage in further birth and sufferings.  One dip in the waters here will wash away sins committed both and past AND future births and help the individual gain moksha.

What a despairing way to live–lifetimes, endless lifetimes of unending suffering, unless one can manage to placate God by a leap in an icy river at just the right time. This festival only takes place once every 12 years.

If this were the only means I knew to free myself from endless cycles of births, sufferings and deaths, I’d probably take the plunge myself.

So, here’s my question:  for all who believe there is a different way to find release from sin and eventually leave behind the suffering of this world, how would you explain that to one of these shivering, passionate, true-believing pilgrims?

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  • Vivekananda.P.

    Kumbh Mela is considered as the most auspicious period of India. The origin of Kumbh Mela dates back to the time when Gods (Devtas) and Demons (Asura) resided on earth. Brahma (the creator) advised them to churn the milky ocean to obtain the elixir of immortality. The Mandara Mountain acted as the churning rod and Vasuki (king of serpents) was used as a rope for churning. Kumbh was the pot which consist the nectar of immortality and was recovered from Samudramanthan.

    Devtas asked the help of demons for this sturdy task to complete with mutual agreement of sharing the elixir of immortality equally. They churned the ocean for 1000 years, where demons were holding Vasuki’s head and Gods were holding its tail. Finally after this entire churning process, Dhanwantari appeared with Kumbh in his palms. To prevent the amrita (elixir of immortality) from demons, its safety was entrusted to Gods Brahaspati, Surya, Shani and Chandra. After learning the conspiracy of the Devtas, demons turned vicious and attacked them. Devtas knew that demons possessed more power and can easily defeat them. The Devtas ran away with the Kumbh to hide it away and they were chased by Asuras. For 12 days and 12 nights the Gods were chased by Demons for the possession of Amrita. These 12 days of Gods are equivalent to 12 years of Humans. During this chase for the elixir of immortality the drops from Kumbh fell at four places – Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nasik.

    It is believed that the river turns itself into sanctity spots filled with primordial amrita at the historic moment of the Maha Kumbh Mela. The pilgrims get once in a lifetime chance to bathe in the spirit of holiness, auspiciousness and salvation.

    I now want to enlighten you with a fact that what you are trying to say or uphold against this holy Mela, will not be tolerated.Reply to every question of yours will be given soon on my blog! let us not debate about validity of religions.

    • Christy Thomas

      Thank you for your reply. I have offered this post as a way to ask people from my religious tradition to think carefully about what and why we believe and how we address that in relation to those from different traditions.

  • Bill Matthews

    You have raised important questions, Christy, which point to the deep challenges of responsibly representing one tradition, when another practice seems so drastic and distant from our own culture.

    The challenge comes embedded in our (natural?) ethnocentric understanding of reality. We have our own myths – the blood sacrifice of a “savior,” whom we identify as the incarnate Son of God, for the expiation of our sins and wickedness. “Knowing the truth” of our faith does not lessen the doubt that such belief does not convince those of other belief systems.

    Our abiding belief in the love of God and love of neighbor simply requires that we live in harmony without unity, convergence without consensus, facilitation of cooperation without organization, and faithful acceptance that allows for the seriousness of the other as we are serious about our own faith. The mutual reciprocity of our convictions, divergent as they may be, can build bridges rather than barriers to the fulfillment of our prayer that “thy will be done on earth….”

    • Christy Thomas

      Thank you, Bill, for recognizing the meat of this post. While I personally hold to orthodox (which of course are variously defined!) Christian traditions for my hope and understanding of salvation, those traditions seem as strange to much of the world as this Hindu festival does to me. We must learn to connect through our traditions, rather than despite our traditions. It seems to me we come closer to Kingdom of heaven living when we do so.

  • soullightenment

    Every religion has its own merits and demerits….be it Christianity, Islam or Hindusism. It is beliefs and rituals like this that keep a religion together it would be wrong to question the veracity of such practices as religion is nothing but “belief”. One may pose a thousand questions of the same nature about christianity but the point here is not to question the validity of tradition practices of another religion or denounce them but to respect them and as you have rightly said, “We must learn to connect through our traditions, rather than despite our traditions”.