An Interview with Swami B.G. Narasingha
(The following interview was given by Swami Narasingha at the Kumbha-Mela in Allahabad on 11th February 2013.)
Gaudiya Touchstone: What is the significance of the holy city of Prayaga (Allahabad)?
Swami Narasingha: Probably the oldest recollection of the importance of Prayaga is when it becomes known as tirtha-raja– the king of holy places. Prayaga had received a benediction that his holy place would be the king of all tirtha (holy places) and thus all other tirthas should come and pay their respects to him. So all the holy places came in their personified forms and offered respects – all accept Vrindavana. Vrinda-devi did not come. Prayaga complained to Krishna that, “My position is such and You said that all the other holy places would come and respect me.”
Krishna said, “Yes, yes – but not My home.”
So Vrindavana is transcendental even compared to Prayaga, the king of holy places.
Another importance here, particular for Gaudiya Vaishnavas is that this is the place that Rupa Gosvami had the darshan of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, and Mahaprabhu instructed Rupa Gosvami in rasa-tattva – the result of that being Bhakti-rasamrta-sindhu, a book that Rupa Gosvami wrote later.
Further interest for us is that this is where A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada used to live for many years. This is where he met his guru, Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati Thakura for the second time. In 1927 there was a Mela that year. Sarasvati Thakura had sent his disciples here to arrange and they were going shop to shop and they came to Prabhupada’s shop when he was a pharmacist. He recognised them, “Oh, these are the same people that I met five years ago!” From that point on, Prabhupada became more engaged in the mission of Sarasvati Thakura. Later, in 1933, Prabhupada was initiated here at the Sri Rupa Gaudiya Matha that Sarasvati Thakura had established, and interestingly enough, Prabhupada received first and second initiation here at the same time.
Another significant point of interest for us is that this is where Prabhupada first met Srila Sridhara Maharaja. Sridhara Maharaja took sannyasa in 1930, three years before Prabhupada took hari-nama, but they met here when Sridhara Maharaja was still wearing white. He was not a grhastha any more because his wife had passed away, but he was still in white dress.
These are some of the significant things that have happened here.
Gaudiya Touchstone: What of the origins of the Kumbha-Mela?
Swami Narasingha: The oldest story is the story of Mohini-murti and the pot of nectar which is first captured by the Asuras, the ill-intended forces of the universe. Knowing that they will cause only mischief since the nectar has the capacity to bring the dead back to life and grant eternal life, Vishnu appears as a very beautiful woman and enters the arena where the Asuras have the pot of nectar. She picks it up and starts to dance and they all become intoxicated by watching Her and she basically dances out the door and steals the pot of nectar. Mohini mystically travels to different places and some of this nectar drops in different places – Prayaga being the primary place. There are other parts to this story but they don’t concern us so much. The drops of nectar fall here in Prayaga, some in Haridwar and some in Ujjain and the Kumbha-Mela is celebrated in these three places at different times. But the Kumbha-Mela in Prayaga is the biggest one. The Melas at Ujjain and Haridwar don't compare even a fraction to this Kumbha-Mela. The Kumbha-Melas held in Ujjain and Haridwar are known as Ardha-Melas, or half melas and they are held every six years.
Gaudiya Touchstone: So is this a Maha Kumbha-Mela?
Swami Narasingha: Every twelve years is a Purna Kumbha-Mela. Every one-hundred and forty-four years there is a Maha Kumbha-Mela – but what I have seen is that every Kumbha-Mela they are saying the same thing – they are calling it the “Maha Kumbha-Mela.” I read it on the BBC this morning that this Kumbha-Mela is the Maha Kumbha-Mela which happens every one-hundred and forty-four years, but that’s what they said in 1977, that’s what they said in 1989 and that’s what they said in 2001. As far as the Maha Kumbha-Mela goes, I think the astrologers have lost track of that. Nobody really knows.
Gaudiya Touchstone: Could you also explain something about the Triveni – the confluence of the three rivers, Ganga, Yamuna and Sarasvati? It’s a little confusing because we only see two rivers here at Prayaga.
Swami Narasingha: Yes. It is a little bit of a mystery. Triveni means ‘three rivers’ but when we come here there are only two – Ganga and Yamuna. The Sarasvati is believed to be mystically present and years ago I asked some mahants and sadhus here at Kumbha-Mela, “Where is the Sarasvati?” They said that the Sarasvati appears here mystically and cannot be seen with the eye.” Triveni means ‘three rivers’ so we researched and there was certainly never three rivers running on the top of the ground at the sangam. There is nothing that can verify that there were three rivers here – particularly the Sarasvati. At the 1977 Kumbha-Mela, the Ganga split into two and entered the sangam as two rivers along with the Yamuna, so everyone proclaimed that the third river was the physical appearance of the Sarasvati. This is how the Triveni was explained with little variations according to oral tradition.
A few years ago, satellite imagery revealed an area in northwestern India showing a river that had dried up thousands of years ago. After archeological research and by comparing the names of other ancient rivers that used to enter into this riverbed, it was eventually recognized as the ancient Sarasvati River. But that is over a thousand five-hundred kilometres from Prayaga! There is no way that river used to curve and come all the way here. That river came out of the Himalayas and other rivers such as the Sutlej entered into it and it cut across what is now Pakistan and empties into the Arabian Sea. It never came over to Prayaga.
Recently however, scientists in India came to Prayaga and using remote sensing equipment discovered that there was previously a third river – a channel coming from the Ganga or the Yamuna which eventually dried up. So this may have been the Sarasvati that is spoken of here at Prayaga. It may have once been a physical river.
Gaudiya Touchstone: Can you tell us something about Srila Prabhupada at the 1977 Kumbha-Mela?
Swami Narasingha: In 1977 Srila Prabhupada came for the Kumbha-Mela and we had a camp which was not as nice as the one we are in now. We might think that this is a little austere, but the one we had in 1977 was actually not as well organized as this. But we had a nice tent for Prabhupada and he came and he spent about five nights. Everything was set up very nicely for him but there was an electric problem. We didn't have electricity at all or we were only getting some at certain times of the day. Each camp had to register with its own metre and it was very, very chaotic. Because we couldn't get electricity, Prabhupada could not work on his translations because he used a dictaphone which was not battery powered and needed electricity. Seeing his translation work falling behind, then Prabhupada left on the fifth day. He had planned to spend two full weeks, but he left.
When he was here there was a simple darshan arrangement made. It wasn't even as nice as where I am sitting now. There are some pictures of that. A lot of respectable people and villagers would come in have darshan of Srila Prabhupada. Just before coming to the Kumbha-Mela, while in Bombay, Giriraja Maharaja had asked Srila Prabhupada, “Why are we going to Kumbha-Mela? What is the significance?” So Prabhupada replied, “For are going for association. There will be many saints there; there will be yogis from the Himalayas there that are one-thousand years old.” We never knew whether he was just ‘pulling our noses’ so to speak, but everybody was talking about that and we were al on the lookout for these one-thousand year old yogis.
One day in the afternoon, when everyone was out on sankirtana, chanting and distributing books, I was back in the camp and Prabhupada and Hari-Sauri, Prabhupada’s assistant were also there. Suddenly these three really bright-looking yogis showed up at the gate. They had dreadlocks, short orange cloth, shining kamandalus and blankets over their shoulders – they looked very effulgent and very sattvika. The guard went to Prabhupada’s tent and Prabhupada’s secretary came out, then he went over and spoke something to them, went back and the next thing I knew these three yogis entered Prabhupada’s tent. They stayed in there for about half-hour and had a conversation in Hindi with Prabhupada and then they left. And just as they were leaving, I stopped them at the gate and I spoke to them just for a moment and what I remember was that they were very effulgent. In my mind, if there had been four of them instead of three, I probably would have thought they were the Four Kumaras because they were definitely a notch above the other sadhus that are just randomly here at the Kumbha-Mela.
Gaudiya Touchstone: What are your personal realisations about the Kumbha-Mela?
Swami Narasingha: The other day I was thinking, “Kumbha-Mela’s a bit like Wall Street in that there’s a lot of trading going on here. There’s a lot of business going on. There’s some trading of spiritual ideas and there’s a big market here – selling a lot of blankets and simple trinkets, souvenirs. It’s more like a carnival or a circus. Mela means festival. But it’s a little bit like Wall Street in that there’s a lot of cheating going on here also. It’s absolutely amazing – the bulk of the people come here with great faith in the Ganges, in the muhurta (the auspicious moment) for a sacred bath and they are very respectful to all the holy men, sadhus, but they know very little about what it actually means to be a sadhu, and they know absolutely nothing about the individual sadhus – they are simply going tent to tent and pandal to pandal and respecting them. But those who are in the know can tell you that some of these ‘sadhus’ are just absolute cheaters. Some of them rate no better than pimps! They are hustlers, fraudsters – some of the biggest ‘holy men’ at this Mela today are involved in all sorts of crimes. One of the biggest ‘sadhus’ here is involved in a triple murder case and by the number of bribes that he has paid he is looking quite guilty. Another fellow, much younger than him, is here from South India, paying people to shout his name and throw flowers at him as he passes by on his gold palanquin so that the ordinary people thing he is a great saint. But he is involved in rape cases. Another so-called holy man is a child abuser. So like Wall Street, Kumbha-Mela has a lot of cheating also.
On the good side of things Kumbha-Mela represents many levels of theism and transcendence and even atheism takes part in this festival. By atheism, I mean Buddhism. Buddhists are a-theistic. They do not recognise the atma, anything spiritual. Nor do they accept the concept of permanent existence. Buddhists meditate on the idea of anatma – “I am not a conscious being. I am not a spiritual being.” But that is a very, very small percentage of what is Kumbha-Mela.
The fundamental mediation at Kumbha-Mela is aham brahma’smi – “I am conscious. I am a conscious spiritual being for eternity.” But after that there are many levels of conceptions of consciousness and most of those are represented here by different bona-fide sadhus and acaryas such as Madhva, Ramanuja and the Gaudiya sampradaya – the followers of Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu.
Ontologically the schools of bhakti (devotion) are the most exalted. Bhakti-yoga is not at the bottom or in the middle, but at the top of the yoga system. All other systems of yoga such as astanga-yoga, hatha-yoga, kriya-yoga are inferior to bhakti. Kriya-yoga is close to bhakti-yoga but is still quite a bit below pure bhakti. Bhakti and love in devotion (prema) is partially represented by the Madhva sampradaya and the Ramanuja sampradaya, but it can only be found in its totality in the school of Sri Caitanya.
There are many other different types of yoga here which are teaching a particular level of spiritual advancement. But most of those can be categorised as the beginning stage of spiritual life, and some of them somewhat in the middle stage. But bhakti-yoga occupies the highest position in enlightenment and the development of consciousness.
So everything is here at the Kumbha-Mela – from the beginning stage from learning to be a vegetarian. This is a very interesting thing. There were about thirty-million people present at the Mela yesterday (Mauni Amavasya); an estimated one-hundred million people will come and go over a forty-five day period and all of them, while they are here, are vegetarian. All of them, while they are here, abstain from alcohol or any kind of sexual pursuit. There’s also no music playing here except spiritual music, bhajans and kirtans etc. You can just contrast that to any festival held in the western countries – even religious festival where there will be beer, wine and plenty of non-vegetarian food.
Kumbha-Mela is also the biggest non-violent festival in the world. Yesterday we saw millions and millions of people going for a sacred bath at the sangam and coming back with little to no pushing or shoving…no egos, no fighting. You could not get people to participate in any festival of this size in a western country unless there was going to be intoxication and wild mundane music to entertain everyone. All that is absent here but everyone is very happy and in a joyful state of mind. That says something! What that exactly says will be a little different according to the individuals understanding of the whole picture. But this is significant because you cannot find that anywhere else in the world.
Gaudiya Touchstone: What is it that draws so many people to the Kumbha-Mela?
Swami Narasingha: Part of the belief of most of the people here is that by taking a sacred bath in the Ganga or the Yamuna – particularly at the sangam where the rivers meet – your bad karma and papa (sins) are cleansed. It’s something that even a beginner can experience. It is very invigorating. You look at the water and is silty and it’s a muddy colour – its just dirt from the earth, it’s not anything toxic – it's just water mixed with sand. But normally, when you take bath in muddy water you do not feel fresh, you do not feel clean – you feel gritty and you feel that you have to go and take a bath again in clean water. But when you take a bath in the Ganga, you feel lighter and fresh. This is because when you take bath in the Ganga, you become purified. Our consciousness is released. The tendency of consciousness is to rise up. The senses want to bring consciousness down to the bodily level. That is why diet and other physical practices are important for raising our consciousness. They actually don’t raise the consciousness – they just free the consciousness from the bondage of the senses. The natural tendency of consciousness is to attain higher and higher stages. That is what everyone experiences.
But what usually happens to the mass of people is that they once again fall victim to their senses and after leaving the Kumbha-Mela, they slowly enter back into their old way of life. Then, by their impure habits, they again contaminate themselves. This is compared to the elephant that takes bath in the river then comes out and throws dirt all over himself again. But those who are conscious and aware, the real sadhus – they continue to with this pure standard of living even after taking the sacred bath in the Ganga. In this way, the consciousness of a sadhu, by his practice and by his ritual bath in the Ganga etc. is always being raised. This is the path of enlightenment. So, there are people here that are very serious about enlightenment and self-realisation, and there is every other level that one can possibly imagine.
Why are so many people here? Some are here just because of the ‘rush’ of being in the biggest crowd of humanity the world has ever seen. That is Kumbha-Mela.