India is one of the most diverse countries in the world. With a population of more than a billion people, you can find different religions, practices and sets of beliefs that make up the colourful fabric of India’s heritage.
India is a country with a majority of Hindu followers. According to historical accounts, Hinduism can be traced back more than 4,000 years ago and is known as the oldest religion in the world. It ranks as the third-largest behind Christianity and Islam with over 95% of its population residing in the Indian subcontinent.
Unlike Christianity and Islam, Hinduism has no specific founder, that’s why its origin and roots are still shrouded in mystery. It’s a multifaceted religion and can be defined as a compendium of traditions and philosophies.
Because Hinduism includes a lot of religious ideas and practises, it’s often considered as a way of life and a ‘family of religions’. Different forms of Hinduism can be defined as henotheistic, which means that followers believe in a single deity called the Brahman, but still accept the existence of other gods and goddesses in the pantheon. Most Hindus believe that there are several paths that can lead a person to their god.
Hindu followers abide by the doctrines of Samsara or the continuous cycle of life, death and reincarnation. They also believe in Karma, which is known as the universal law of cause and effect. Another key concept in Hinduism is the ‘atman’ or the belief every living creature, no matter how small, has a soul.
All the souls in existence are a part of a bigger essence called the supreme soul. All spirits aim to achieve the ‘moksha’ or salvation that will put an end to the rebirths so the spirit can merge with the absolute soul.
Another principle of Hinduism is that people’s present actions and thoughts have an effect on how their future lives will turn out. Hindus also follow the words of Dharma, which is a code that focuses on good conduct and morality.
Because most Hindus believe that all living things are sacred, their diet consists of vegetables and refrain from consuming meat such as beef and pork. Other religions such as Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism can be closely related to Hinduism.
When you visit most Hindu households, you can find two symbols adorning the walls or panels. Sometimes you can see these icons painted in graffiti in the streets. The symbols you will commonly see are the swastika and the ‘om’ symbol.
The swastika is an icon that represents good fortune while the om symbols are composed of three letters which are often found in Hindu temples.
Hindus also read a lot of sacred texts. Compared to other religions that follow one book, they use several books written by saints and sages. The primary books are known as the Vedas which are the Rig Veda, Samaveda, Yajurveda and the Atharvaveda.
Hinduism and its origins
Scholars believe that Hinduism started between 2,300 and 1,500 BC in the area of the Indus Valley. This area is near a city in Pakistan. According to accounts, the Indo-Aryan people went to the Indus Valley and mixed their culture and language with the tribes residing in the area. However, this claim has been disputed by many Hindus.
During the Vedic period, practices such as sacrifices, chanting and offerings were prevalent and followed by many Hindus. This era lasted from 1,500 BC to 500 BC.
Deities such as Vishnu, Shiva and Devi appeared during the Puranic and Classical period which took place around 500 BC and 500 AD. It was also the period where other religions such as Buddhism and Jainism appeared and spread rapidly.
Hindus are religious people who have different practices to show their faith. That’s why when a deity is being celebrated, Hindu followers throw huge festivals where millions of people participate.
One of the most popular festivals celebrated in India is the Kumbh Mela. This festival is also a pilgrimage celebrated every 12 years at four riverbanks namely, the Allahabad, Haridwar, Nashik and Ujjain.
If you’re curious to know more about the Kumbh Mela, here’s a few interesting facts we’ve compiled for you:
What is the Kumbh Mela?
The Kumbh Mela is one of the biggest religious pilgrimages and festivals celebrated in India that is usually held every 12 years. In this pilgrimage, people travel from different parts of the Indian subcontinent (and sometimes countries) just to submerge themselves in the blessed waters of the four rivers. Hindus believe that if they do this, their sins will be washed away and they will be closer to the divine.
Since there are four rivers where this festival is held, people base the dates depending on the placings of the zodiacs, planets such as Jupiter, Sun and Moon. The Kumbh Mela usually begins in January and is celebrated on certain dates that Hindus consider as auspicious. This is very important as many people believe that there are specific dates that are more holy for the Shahi Sanan or the bathing ritual.
The origins of Kumbh Mela
The Kumbh Mela came from the word ‘Kumbha’ which means pitcher in Sanskrit. Meanwhile, the word ‘Mela’ stands for festival or fair.
According to legends, there was a time when the gods lost their divinity. To regain their immortal powers, they struck a deal with demons or the asuras to stir the ocean of milk that produces the ‘amrita’ or the nectar of immortality.
However, due to misunderstandings, the gods and demons fought for 12 years. At the time, the garuda flew away with the pot of nectar and some of its contents dripped on the four rivers.
Many people believe once every 12 years, the rivers revert back to their holy state and anyone who bathes in its sacred pool will be cured of their illness and absolved of their sins.
Important dates for the Kumbh Mela this year
Here are some of the dates for the Kumbh Mela 2021 you should know about:
- January 14, 2021: Makar Sankranti
- February 11, 2021: Mauni Amavasya
- February 16, 2021: Basant Panchami
- February 27, 2021: Maghi Poornima
- March 11, 2021: Maha Shivratri (first shahi snan — royal bath)
- April 12, 2021: Somvati Amavasya (second shahi snan)
- April 14, 2021: Baisakhi (third shahi snan)
- April 27, 2021: Chaitra Purnima (fourth shahi snan)
Sadhus at the Kumbh Mela
The presence of Sadhus is important in the Kumbh Mela. These individuals are also known as wandering ascetics who are members of the holy men who are believed to be the representatives of the gods. During the Kumbh, they attend the pilgrimage and listen to the grievances of people and help them find the path to spiritual enlightenment. When they enter the festival, they come into groups and perform a procession called the akhara.
There are different types of Sadhus and each of them is devoted to different gods in the Hindu pantheon. Here are some of the most well-known group of sadhus today:
The nagas are the naked sadhus who cover their bodies with ash and have long, braided hairs. They don’t live inside houses that’s why they’re used to the weather changes, which makes them resistant to extreme changes in temperature. When you see a naga sadhu, they have bloodshot eyes which is an effect of smoking charas or marijuana.
According to them, smoking charas is a way to help them achieve enlightenment. Most naga sadhus are headquartered in Varanasi.
The Urdwahavurs are ascetics that practice body emaciation by doing rigid spiritual practices.
Parijavakas are naga sadhus that vowed to take an oath of silence until they die. Usually, these men can be seen meditating and holding holy beads.
These types of sadhus can often be seen standing or sleeping with their heads balanced on a vertical pole. Usually, they meditate using their head to support their body in an upright position.
These types of sadhus are the ones who stay by the river banks and spend most of their time meditating, hosting rituals and taking a bath several times a day. They’re the most common types of sadhus you can see during the Kumbh Mela festival.
How to attend the Kumbh Mela
If you’re a tourist and you want to attend the Kumbh Mela, there are several ways you can join. If you’re visiting outside South Asia, you have to be wary about the protocols during this festival because some of them might be unfamiliar to you.
For example, the event is often managed by local governments so you should expect tight security measures. Additionally, bring an ID so you can be easily identified by authorities if you’re a foreigner.