The Traditional Legend of the Kumbha Mela

By Stephen Knapp

The significance of the Kumbha Mela festival and the sangam is a pre‑historic legend that is related in the Puranas, such as in the Bhagavata Purana. It is told that many millions of years ago there was a battle between the demigods (devas) and the demons (asuras). Due to an offense by Lord Indra, the king of heaven, to the powerful sage Durvasa Muni, the demigods had lost all of their power. The demons of the universe saw this, and being the natural enemies of the demigods, attacked and took away all of the riches and possessions of Indra. So the demigods sought advice from Lord Vishnu who told them to make an agreement with the asuras to churn the ocean of milk together in order to get the nectar of immortality. After everyone agreed to it, they churned the ocean of milk using Vasuki, the huge serpent as a rope, and Mandara Mountain as a churning rod. The demons held the head of the serpent and the gods held the tail. This pastime also incorporated the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth avataras of Lord Vishnu. The eleventh avatara was Kurma, the tortoise avatara, who used His huge back as the support of Mandara Mountain, which was sinking into the ocean while they churned it. So with His support, the huge hill stayed in place.

As they churned the milk ocean, it gradually began to yield her divine gifts in the form fourteen wonderful items. However, first was a poison (halahala) so strong it could kill all the people on earth. Lord Shiva drank it and held it in his throat, which turned his throat blue. Since then Lord Shiva has been known as Nila‑kantha, or blue‑throated.

The items that were manifest included a surabhi cow that could give as much milk as was desired, a flying horse named Uccaihsrava, then eight elephants lead by Airavata, and another eight she‑elephants capable of going in any direction. Next was the Kaustubha gem, which Lord Vishnu took and placed on His chest, and a parijata flower. Then the apsaras (most beautiful heavenly women) were produced, followed by Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune who was accepted as the wife of Lord Vishnu. Then Chandra (the Moon‑god) and a conch named Panchajanya came along with a bow named Haridhanu, the bow of Hari. Then Varuni, the goddess of drinking, appeared who was accepted by the demons. Finally Dhanvantari, the physician of the gods who is a partial and twelfth avatara of Lord Vishnu, appeared carrying the final item, which was the amrita‑kumbha, jug of nectar, capable of making anyone immortal.

The story explains that the demons grabbed the jug and prepared to drink the nectar themselves. However, the demons began fighting among themselves over who would drink the nectar first. Suddenly, Mohini (thirteenth avatara of Lord Vishnu) appeared as the most beautiful woman in the universe. Bewildered by her beauty, the demons submitted to her and allowed her to decide who would receive the first drop of nectar and gave the jug to Her. She arranged that the demons and demigods sit separately. She knew that the demons were unfit and should not drink the nectar, so she cheated them by pleasing them with sweet words and then distributed it to the demigods. Thus they became free from invalidity, old age and death.

            Once the demons discovered what had happened, they fiercely attacked the demigods. However, the demigods were now enlivened after having drank the nectar. Nonetheless, the fighting was extremely terrible as it went on near the shore of the milk ocean. After much fighting, the demigods finally won the battle.

Another version, as related in the Skanda Purana, explains that what happened was that at one point during the fight, Indra=s son, Jayanta, took the jug and ran toward the heavenly planets. Four demigods (devas) assisted him in protecting the jug from the demons. These were Brihaspati (Jupiter), Surya (the sun), Chandra (the moon), and Shani (Saturn). These demigods ran from the demons with the amrita‑kumbha. When the demons understood what had happened, they became angry and chased the four demigods with the firm intent of retrieving the jug. The chase lasted twelve days in the life of the demigods (each day of the demigods is one year of human time), at which time the devas and asuras circled the earth. Over a period of those twelve days of fighting some of the nectar was placed at four locations, or was spilled from the jug and fell from the sky onto four places: Nasik, Ujjain, Haridwar, and the sangam at Allahabad.

Another version is told in the Vishnu, Brahmananda, Padma and Agni Puranas, as well as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. These relate that as soon as the nectar appeared, Lord Vishnu handed the jug to Garuda, who was to take it to the safety of heaven. However, in his attempt, which lasted 12 days or 12 human years, he was stopped by the demons at the four above‑mentioned places and was forced to place the kumbha of nectar down. Some of the nectar spilled at each of these places, sanctifying them forever. This is why there is a Mela at one of these four places every 3 years, in a cycle of all four places every 12 years.

So in the end, the demigods got possession of the nectar, but the nectar, which can spiritually purify all who come in contact with it, is said to become manifest or rain down on those four cities of Nasik, Ujjain, Haridwar, and the sangam at Allahabad, during certain auspicious times that are astrologically calculated, known as the Kumbha Mela. Therefore, anyone who is in the area during the Kumbha Mela actually becomes spiritually purified. But the nectar of immortality especially becomes present in the rivers, so anyone who bathes in them at the auspicious times during the Mela attains liberation. This is why many people come to these cities for the Kumbha Mela festivals every twelve years, which are equivalent to the twelve days of the demigods. To bathe in the sangam on the peak days is said to especially purify one=s existence and relieve one from the continued cycle of birth and death in the material world after this life. Thus, the importance and good fortune for those who can do this is taken very seriously.

This is actually the significance of the Kumbha Mela: It offers the chance to transcend, to reach beyond the endless suffering of material existence and reincarnation and enter the level of liberation and immortality. It promises to purify us in the spiritual sense, and allows us to merge or become connected with the Divine in all of us.

            It is related in the Rig‑veda that the Ganga and Yamuna Rivers are like white and blue‑colored streams that mingle at Prayaga, which give immortality to humans when they bathe in it. The Brahma Purana mentions that bathing in the month of Magh at the bank of the Ganga and Yamuna at Prayaga gives the results of millions and millions of Ashvamedha rituals.

It is further said in the Vishnu Purana that one gets more benefit from bathing at the sangam during the Kumbha Mela than performing 1,000 Ashwamedha Yajnas (horse sacrifices) or circumambulating the earth 100,0000 times. It is also said that by bathing at the Kumbha Mela all of one=s sin is washed away and that 88 generations of ancestors are benefitted.

In the Varaha Purana (chapter 144) it is said that, "In Prayaga (Allahabad) there is the Triveni [the confluence of the three sacred rivers: the Ganges, Yamuna and the Sarasvati) where Lord Shiva resides and is known by the names Sulatanka and Somesvara. Lord Vishnu is known as Venu‑Madhava, and the Rivers Ganga, Yamuna and Sarasvati meet. By bathing there one goes to heaven, and by dying there one gets liberation. It is the king of all tirthas and is dear to Lord Vishnu."

The Matsya Purana also narrates the importance of bathing and staying at Prayaga in 151 hymns (shlokas). In one hymn it states: "If a man stays for a month at Prayag, he is cleansed of all sins and finds a birth in Rudraloka (the abode of Lord Shiva)."

The Mahabharata relates how Lord Brahma performed a sacrifice here thousands of years ago. Lord Ramacandra, His wife Sita and brother Lakshmana visited this place in Treta‑yuga. They stayed at the ashram of the great sage Bharadvaja, which is now the location of the Allahabad University. There are also temples of Bharadwajeshwara Mahadeva, Rishi Bharadwaja, and Kali there.

The five Pandava brothers also visited the sangam, as described in Mahabharata. And 500 years ago Sri Caitanya also stayed for 10 days at the sangam and visited the Bindu Madhava temple, one of the important Krishna temples in Allahabad located several kilometers upstream. Sri Caitanya=s footprints can also be found nearby at a place called Dashashvamedha Ghat, near the Triveni Sangam. This is where He imparted His teachings to Srila Rupa Gosvami on the science of bhakti‑yoga for several days. It is called Rupa Siksasthali. And across the river from the sangam is another temple on a small hill that Sri Caitanya visited, and about two miles downstream is the house of the saint Vallabhacarya (now a private temple), where Sri Caitanya had lunch with the saint. So for the pilgrim, the area around the confluence of these sacred rivers carries the most importance of any place in Allahabad.

From a different point of view, more recent history reveals that during the time of Gautama Buddha, ancient Prayaga was a part of the Kosala kingdom. It was the Mughal emperor Akbar who renamed the city Allahabad, the place of Allah, during which time it was also made a provincial capital. It was King Harshvardhan who arranged the Kumbha Mela as a great fair and meeting of saints, sages and sects, called the Mahamoksha Parishad. Then Adi Shankaracharya, around the eighth century AD, arranged the Mela to be close to what we still see today. He directed the ten main Akharas, or religious sects, to assemble regularly at the Kumbha Mela in order to maintain contact with each other, as well as have religious discourses and provide spiritual guidance for the masses. I have also heard it explained, rightly so or not, that Adi Shankaracharya established the sects of the babas in order to help defend the faith. These babas were expected to have the ability to easily give up their lives, if necessary, in order to preserve the culture. Being followers of Adi Shankaracharya, they were mostly Shaivites.

In any case, the Kumbha Mela has become an event when many of the ascetics and sages, who spent most of their time in solitude and meditation in the inaccessible caves and areas of the Himalayas, came out to attend the Mela. Thus, today the babas with their long tresses wrapped around their heads like turbans, and the saffron attired sadhus and sages from many sampradayas and schools of thought, come to provide spiritual guidance and blessings to the masses, and are a common sight at the Mela.

In this way, the Kumbha Mela provides a means for the spiritual upliftment of all humanity. It is the most populated spiritual event on the planet, with an estimated 100 million people attending over the six-week period of the last Kumbha Mela in 2013. It can be very crowded, but is an event when we remember the time-honored spiritual knowledge found in the Vedic texts and customs. It is also a time when everyone can renew their spiritual unity and values, based on mutual love, brotherhood, compassion, tolerance, and devotion to God.

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