This week’s prompt asks do we understand why certain traditions / rituals are being followed and can we alter them by understanding their basis? I think this is an important question, at the same time it is important not to mix up tradition with rituals. We must emphasise that a tradition is an event that happens at regular interval. Ritual is an activity that is performed in the traditional event.
All over the world there are a many traditions and their associated rituals are celebrated. Such traditions may be spiritual / religious, cultural, sporting etc. among others. Many traditions have been continuing for a long time, for example Kumbh Mela, Christmas, Pongal, Dussera, Durga Puja etc., to name a few.
In modern times, there has been sporting festivals like Olympics that have become a tradition and happens every four years. There are literature, music, cinema festivals that happen in different cities of the world every year. It is relatively easy to understand modern day traditions. However, many of us do not understand the basis of many traditions that have been continuing for a long time.
Let us look at one of the oldest traditions of the world, the Kumbh Mela. Incidentally, Kumbh Mela is being celebrated at the present time in Prayagraj (Allahabad). Kumbh Mela happens every three years in four cities of India – Haridwar, Prayagraj, Ujjain and Nashik. A Purno Kumbh (full Kumbh) happens every twelve years at Prayagraj. The present Kumbh Mela at Prayagraj started on the makara sankranti day (15th of January, 2019), will continue till the Maha Shivaratri Day (04th Mar, 2019).
During Kumbh Mela faithfuls take a dip in the river. The present Kumbh mela is being held at the confluence of Ganga and Jamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers. We do not know when and how Kumbh mela started. According to Hindu faithfuls, the fact that Kumbh and bathing ritual finds mention in Mahabharata and Rig Veda (verse 10.89.7), suggest that the practice may be atleast 3000 years old. Those who believe only in written documentation, Huen Tsang in 640 CE reported ritual of bathing in Kumbh Mela, making the event more than fifteen hundred years old. Adi Sankara in eight century CE had popularized Kumbha bathing among common people.
Timing of ritual bath is decided based on position of the sun, the moon and other celestial bodies. On the first day of current Kumbh in Prayagraj, sun starts its six month journey northwards. It is the time when sun enters Capricorn and Jupiter enters Scorpio. Significance of these planetary positions in human life is not clear. It is worth mentioning that, since the time of Mahabharata, such a planetary position is considered to be auspicious. Grand old man of Kaurava army, Pitamaha Bhisma, decided to give up his mortal body on the first day sun’s northward journey.
Given that Hindus worship nature and its forces, the bath may indicate a way of communing with nature. According to stories narrated in Puranaa, the timing of Kumbh Mela may suggest a victory of good over evil. Gods worked hard to extract nectar of life (amrit) that gave them power over demons. Faithfuls believe a bath in the river during Kumbh Mela may wash away accumulated sins. Given, the biting cold during makara sankranti (around 15th of Jan) in northern plains India, taking a bath in the open requires strong faith. According to estimates close to 10 million people participated in the bathing ritual on the very first day.
Call it a superstition, call it blind faith, fact that so many faithfuls come to take a dip in the river during extreme cold temperature, time and again means something unusual. People that take a dip are not rich and powerful. These are ordinary people. They used to come braving a difficult journey, they used to come prepared to brave the cold, but they came at regular intervals. Why people do it no one knows. May be one should study to understand the mindset. But tradition is continuing.
This post is written in response to the Indispire prompt at Indiblogger. More posts related to the prompt may be found here.