This month sees millions of Hindu pilgrims gathering for the Kumbh Mela at Haridwar – a city tucked into a fold of the Himalayan foothills. As the stars align, pilgrims come here to wash away their sins through a dip in the sacred waters of the Ganges or Ganga. As they do so, the world’s media seems focussed on only one thing – how can you socially distance from tens of thousands of others as you submerge yourself in the river, and indeed, what infectious microbes might those waters contain?
Somehow through this pandemic, we’ve become very caught up in the present – how we might survive today – rather than how we might shape tomorrow.
Ancient festivals such as the Kumbh Mela are a reminder that we exist within a great arc of history that reaches back beyond our knowing. The mythological origin story of the Ganga tells that a sage commanded the sacred river to be brought down from the heavens to purify the souls of himself and his ancestors. Enraged by the order, the mighty Ganga decided to bring forth her great force to destroy the Earth. Lord Shiva was called upon to restrain her impact by receiving Ganga into his matted locks: taking a thousand years to descend, Ganga’s power was ultimately dispersed through the many streams that flow down from the Himalayan mountains and out towards the sea.
Every faith group or culture has a story of how the world began – but somehow this personification of the landscape powerfully conveys the idea of our planet in all its glorious detail as something shaped by the great forces that determine the Universe as a whole.
The Ganga as river and goddess appears in Vedic writings dating back to the Bronze age and the text of the Mahabharata (circa 300BC) spells out its value to pilgrims more precisely “by holding that sacred stream, touching it and bathing in its waters one rescues one’s ancestors to the 7th generation.”
In the 20th century, the freedom fighter, Jawaharlal Nehru was the third generation of his family to fight for India’s independence. He was ultimately successful, becoming his country’s first Prime Minister in 1947. On route to this liberation he was imprisoned nine times during which he spent a total of 3259 days in jail. In one letter he writes of the landscape he can see from his prison cell, where “for two thousand years or more, innumerable pilgrim souls have marched through these valleys and mountains to Badrinath and Kedarnath and Gangotri, from where the baby Ganga emerges.” As much as he loved his country, he loved the great Ganga and wrote of it many times, asking that at his death, his ashes be cast into its waters.
Yes, there are immediately obvious reasons not to go on pilgrimage while COVID rains down upon our species. And yes we can already make virtual pilgrimage thanks to AI. And for some, this may be enough. But for many pilgrims, the act of stepping outside the constraints of what is safe and certain brings with it the prospect of liberation not just for the duration of the journey, but unto the 7th generation. So while the media may be wrapped up in today’s concerns of contagion, we can only assume that, like Nehru, the millions crowding onto the river banks at Haridwar this month are taking the long view.
Victoria Preston is the author of ‘We are Pilgrims – Journeys in Search of Ourselves’