Friday, January 15, 2010

Makar Sankranti and the Kumbha Mela

The Kumbha Mela is the world's biggest act of worship. It is currently taking place, and where else but in India? Well into February 2010 you can still go and take part. In that case, it may help to know what it's about.

On 14 January 2010, Makar Sankranti day, Hindu religious leaders ceremonially opened the Kumbha Mela in Haridwar, where the Ganga river moves from its mountainous sources into the plain of North India. A news item about it in an Indian on-line paper caught the eye of Koen Fillet, a talk-show host on Flemish state radio VRT Radio 1. He phoned me for some background data, and I gladly obliged. As usual, after the interview I thought of all the things I should have said. Not that there would ever have been enough time available for all the things worth saying about this venerable tradition, but a few that have my particular interest are these.

Why this name? A melâ is simply a festival where large crowds congregate, in principle of a religious nature though the term is also applied more loosely. A kumbha is a pot or jar or pitcher, i.c. the one in which the gods had collected the immortality elixir or amrta. When they were fighting over it, they spilled four drops which fell down on earth at the four places where the Kumbha Mela is now held. But Kumbha is also the name of the Zodiac sign of Aquarius, which happens to have the same amrta symbolism of life-giving liquid poured down from heaven on all of us.

Why is the festival taking place this year? As a rule the Mela in Haridwar (Uttaranchal) takes place every twelve years, but at intervals of three years, a similar gathering takes place in Ujjain (Madhya Pradesh), Nasik (Maharashtra) and Prayag/Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh). The timing is determined by the entry of Jupiter, who takes twelve years to complete a cycle, into the "fixed" constellations of the sidereal Zodiac: Taurus, Leo, Scorpio and Aquarius. Astrologers consider these signs the most powerful, places of power in the starry sky, just as the sacred river is a place of power on earth. The Haridwar Kumbha Mela takes place with Jupiter in Aquarius, as in 1998 and now 2010, the one in Prayag when Jupiter is in Taurus, as in 1989, 2001 and 2013.

The Prayag Kumbha Mela is the biggest; its 2001 edition drew 60 million pilgrims in a month's time, the biggest congregation of people in world history. It takes place at the confluence of the Ganga and the Yamuna rivers. The site is called the Mukti Triveni, "Liberation tri-confluence", because a third river is also deemed to be present: the Saraswati river, cradle of Vedic civilization, which must once have been an ocean-going river but now ends in the desert of Rajasthan. It is as if the Saraswati carries the Vedic charisma underground to reappear in Prayag. Bathing at this auspicious confluence, esp. at the auspicious time of the Kumbha Mela, is deemed to confer great spiritual merit and to purify or "liberate" the pilgrim from a fair amount of accumulated "bad karma".

I was at the Prayag site in the days before the start of the 1989 Kumbha Mela. The first thing to impress the visitor was the mighty deployment of provisions for the millions of pilgrims: endless rows of tents, sanitary facilities and, here and there, electricity. In those days, India was associated with chaos, but here the Indian authorities and the organizers did and consistently do a fine job. Like in the Hajj in Mecca, an occasional stampede with lethal victims is almost inevitable at an event of this magnitude, but the toll of this hazard is normally limited and a few times it has been as low as zero.

All the traditional Hindu guru lineages and monastic orders of Sant-s and Sâdhu-s (saints, ascetics) have their presence here, and an allotted place and time for their ritual bathing, determined by negotiation or hierarchical order. Sometimes, quarrels and even fist fights erupt over the privilege of going in first. The stars of these festivals are the martial monks or Nâga Sâdhu-s, expert wrestlers and often carrying tridents. The idea of fighting monks may seem odd, but China also has its Shaolin monastery where the monks developed wushu (kungfu). In history, these martial orders sometimes served as auxiliary troops in actual wars, not even "holy" wars but perfectly secular wars for power and pelf in the service of Maharajas and even Sultans.

Except for unkempt flowing beards, matted hair and face paint, the Naga Sadhu-s walk naked. The Sanskrit word nâga means "snake", and is indeed cognate with that English word (with an onomatopoeic hissing sound prefixed), but also with the word "naked". The snake is the naked animal, because it is hairless and because it has no limbs with which to keep the environment at a distance. A snake is completely exposed to its environment, and consequently has to be strong, resistant and threatening.

Already mentioned in the Rg-Veda, long before the genesis of the monastic religions of Jainism and Buddhism, the Naga Sadhu-s exemplify the origin of the monastic orders in ancient bands of roaming warriors. Male adolescents, then as now, tend to band together on the outskirts of society and practise a macho culture of being harsh and tough on oneself and on one another. They extol freedom and keep the world of women and family at a distance. Some members lapse and leave the band to marry and settle down, others stay on to grow old in this culture of hardness and freedom: the first monks. Strikingly different from the soft-spoken and media-savvy Gurus to whom Western audiences may be acquainted, the Naga Sadhu-s belong to a very primitive stratum of Hinduism.

So does the tradition of pilgrimage to Mâ Gangâ (Mother Ganges). It is recorded in the Mahâbhârata that the aging Pândava brothers, disillusioned after their crowning victory in a fratricidal war has turned sour with the death of all their children (only one newborn grandson survives to continue the dynasty), make a pilgrimage to the Ganga in its mountainous upper reaches. By present standards, the distance they covered wasn't very long: to Haridwar from Indraprastha (Delhi), the city they founded, now takes only an afternoon by bus. But the ascetic effort of taking the walk from home to the sacred site, though important, isn't the main thing about a pilgrimage. Being there and immersing yourself in the presence of the site's divinity is what counts most.

Any body of flowing water will do for a bath. "The watertap will do just as well", is what a follower of the 15th-century skeptical poet Kabir said to a reporter at the latest Kumbha Mela, where he nonetheless played along in the game of getting Liberation through immersion in the river. Vis-à-vis Liberation, one sample of river water may be worth the other, but in more mundane respects, the Ganga offers something extra beyond washing away your impurities. It is rich in minerals from the mountains and is thus felt to have healing powers. That would logically be less the case for the Shipra river in Ujjain or the Godavari river in Nasik, which don't spring from the Himalaya, but still more for them than for the watertap. Most likely, these healing properties are the original reason for the pilgrimage. A place where you could go to get well, was thereby divine. Its healing properties got personified into a deity, so that a pilgrimage was a journey to go and spend time with that particular god.

Why does the Kumbha Mela start on 14 January? This, I am sorry to say to my Hindu friends, is based on a cosmic mistake. Circa 300 CE (when India had freshly adopted Hellenistic astrology with its 12-part Zodiac, replacing or supplementing the native Zodiac of 27 lunar asterisms), the tropical Zodiac, a geometrical division of the circle into 12 sectors of 30° tied to the cycle of the seasons, coincided with the sidereal Zodiac, i.e. the belt of visible constellations. The entry point of the sun into the sidereal constellation of Capricorn (Sanskrit: Makara) coincided with the winter solstice point, i.e. 0° of the tropical Capricorn. But the two Zodiacs have since been drifting apart at the rate of 1° in ca. 71 years. So now they differ by ca. 24°, and the festival originally meant to mark the winter solstice or Yuletide has drifted to 14 January and, given time, is bound to drift on all around the Zodiac. Yet, numerous Hindus say in all seriousness that at Makar Sankranti, on 14 January, "the sun starts on its northward course", which in fact it has done on 21 December.

With the spread of modern science, there is simply no excuse to maintain this mistake underlying the entire Hindu calendar. Correcting it would have drastic consequences, e.g. moving the New Year's festival from 14 April (sidereal Aries) back to 21 March (spring equinox,= tropical Aries). Jupiter would reach Aquarius, Taurus etc., once these are conceived tropically rather than sidereally, nearly a year earlier than under the present system, so the year of the next Kumbha Melas would have to be changed. But the weight of tradition is such that this correction may not be made so soon.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

The cosmologist Ms. Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet has written a lot on this "mistake". She leads a movement to correct it according to the tropical Zodiac. She has argued with David Frawley who follows the sidereal zodiac, in the pages of The Hindu. The debate is a bit too mystical for me to understand, but I am sorry about the controversy between people who are looking at the roots of an ancient culture.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this wealth of information Mr. Elst. Such detailed information is hard to find unless one knows where to look.

Please share your thoughts with us on contemporary topics related to society and religion.

Intelligent public discourse is dead and words of wisdom such as yours are becoming increasingly rare.

Please write more often.

Thank you.

skeptic optimist said...


please read these 2 wikipedia articles

The earth's axis tilts-wobbles a degree every 71 years like the tip of a spinning top so the constellations appear to be shifting westward every year. So every 2150 years the zodiac sign of the vernal equinox (October 21/20) changes - aka an astronomical age.

in 300 BC the winter solstice (december 21 coincided with the Sun's entry into Capricorn - makara) and October 21 coincided with sun in Pisces

So due to the precession of Equinoxes Suns entry to capricorn (Makara Sankranti) will shift a degree every 71 years - however Uttarayana or winter solstice the longest night in northern hemisphere and longest day in southern remains December 21 as our calendar is solar and not sidereal.

So in 2000 years Makara sankranti will have moved to February and the Uttarayana will have started in Deember itself. Too bad Gujjus.

Naras said...

Hi Shrini,

Thanks. I have read quite a bit about these astronomical phenomena and I think I understand the origin of the controversy. The problem is I am not qualified to judge the matter. Since I like both David Frawley's and Ms. Bachelet's writings, I feel like a child with quarreling parents!

Robert E. Wilkinson said...

Having studied with Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet for over twenty years, I am very familiar with her work and the debate over which zodiac, Nirayana (Sidereal) or Sayana (Tropical), is the correct system of measure for the Hindu calendar. To appreciate the important differences between these two views we must go back to the origins of Hindu/Vedic Cosmology and examine the deeper meaning behind the rituals and their precise timing. In the Vedic Age, the seers formulated a plan of ritual celebration designed to bring about a profound connection between the individual and the Earth he inhabits by highlighting certain common temporal correspondences. These rituals were designed to emphasise meaningful passages and exact balance points in the Earth’s unchanging movement through the ecliptic. This ritual calendar was not the product of astronomical or scientific measurements which gave rise to the Nirayana or Sidereal system, but the inner realisation of the seer who alone could appreciate the deep equivalencies between the Earth and the human soul. In that illumined age it was clearly understood that only a seer of the highest quality could formulate such precise correspondences. As one of the greatest seers of our age, Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet has taken us back to the Vedic age and allowed us to enter the thoughts of the Rishis and understand these profound correspondences and not simply to resolve a scholarly dispute with David Frawley but to formulate these temporal correspondences into a new cosmological model that uses Time to realize the Soul in an Integral Yoga process.

Today nearly all Hindu temples base their ritual celebrations on an Astronomical rather than a Vedic system of measure. The ‘Nirayana’, Sidereal system presently in use, is based upon the unstable and constantly moving constellations rather than the stable ‘Tropical’ ecliptic used by the Rishis. It is unreliable, confusing and cannot produce that mystical connection to the inner worlds. As a result of its use, almost the entire Hindu Samaj celebrates the most important Hindu festival, the Makar Sankranti or Winter Solstice on 14 January, some 23 days after the actual Winter Solstice. How can this happen? Every school child knows that the Winter Solstice-Shortest Day of the Year is not a matter of interpretation. It is an unmistakable event that occurs every year on 21 December. Yet today in India, you have an entire culture under the spell of a demonstrable error unknowingly repeating empty rituals that insure their continued confusion and collective blindness. Few may admit it, but it is precisely this kind of un-Vedic calendar measure that sets the faithful on a path of adharma and prevents both individual and nation from rising to fulfil their mission. If these errors are to be corrected, the matter of Calendar Reform must be taken up by a body of qualified individuals including temple officials and Veda realisers like Ms. Norelli-Bachelet who can restore the proper ‘Sayana’ measure based upon profound yogic formulas given out in great detail in the Rig Veda itself.

You will find these issues discussed in more detail on our website:

Lori Tompkins said...

It's nice to see these issues being discussed in such a clear and sane manner. I just wrote an article called 'In Harmony's Way' that is intended to help readers understand (in pretty simple terms) the importance of this matter, and the importance of correcting the 'mistake' of celebrating the year out of whack with the equinoxes and solstices.

Lori Tompkins said...

'The Kumbha Mela provides special evidence that even the festivals fell into decline when the time set for the events became miscalculated. Whereas, according to the eternal Knowledge and its geo-cosmological ‘ruler’ of space/time measurement, the source of Ganga can be located on the cosmic map of India with accuracy, and this can be converted into calendar time. The calendar date is 3 January each year, without variation. This is based on the inseparable Solstice/Zodiac Makar Sankranti, from where measuring must begin, be this lunar or of the Nakshatras.' - Patrizia Norelli-Bachelet, The Origns and Nature of Hindu Decline'

Incognito said...

>>>" Male adolescents, then as now, tend to band together on the outskirts of society and practise a macho culture of being harsh and tough on oneself and on one another. They extol freedom and keep the world of women and family at a distance. Some members lapse and leave the band to marry and settle down, others stay on to grow old in this culture of hardness and freedom: the first monks. Strikingly different from the soft-spoken and media-savvy Gurus to whom Western audiences may be acquainted, the Naga Sadhu-s belong to a very primitive stratum of Hinduism."

de-spiritualisation of naga sadhus, by Elst.

Bej said...

Hi Elst,

The difference between 21st Dec and 14th Jan is 23 days. The same 23 days is the difference between 21st March and 14th April.

The earths axis has a tilt of 23 degrees and so is the obliquity of the Ecliptic. Earth in its orbit of the Sun curves approximately 23 degrees in 23 days.

A tropical calendar could be constructed even if the entire universe comprised of just the sun and the earth. While the sidereal calendar has to reckon a world beyond the solar system.

Eventhough 21/12 as the winter solistic day and 21/3 as the Equinox day looks entirely logical, I personally think we might be missing on something and its quite premature to make a conclusion in either favour especially when the dynamics of precession is still a matter of scientific and spiritual debate. The fact that 23 days seperate the tropical and sidereal systems and the fact that the axial tilt, obliquity of the ecliptic, earth covering 23 degrees in 23 days cannot be brushed aside as sheer coincidence. There is definitely a lot more investigation to be done before uttering the final word and before chaning age old systems.


Bejoy. said...

i just have known dr koenraad elst. i do not want to speak on different topics but just want to say my feelings as a hindu that, he is the saviour of india, hindu and the humanity itself, as he has given voice and knowledge to the ever ignorant , lazy hinduus of this earth.

i salute you dr koenraad, and all who are your friends are my friends too. and i do not care and bother about others who are not.

please accept my obesiance.

ashok gupta
delhi, india

amar said...

A comment about the triveni sangam and saraswati river :

Yamuna was a tributary of the ancient river Saraswati. It changed course to join Ganges around 2000 BC and saraswati eventually stopped flowing. So waters of yamuna and saraswati are combined when it joins ganges in prayag (allahabad). The term triveni sangam was coined sometime after vedas. Interestingly vedas do not mention triveni sangam but only refers to the 4 great rivers east to west as ganga, yamuna, saraswati, shatadru (sutlej which joins indus or sindhu). You can say the center point of culture during vedic times was saraswati and the center point of today's culture is the triveni sangam at prayag. said...

this blog is new to me, to be remain in connection.

i am a born hindu and was born in india and now living in india.

but these pursons, connected to this blog, are far most intelligent, and knowledgable , and concerned about the ancient vedic science, then 99.9% of the indian hindus in my knowledge.

i can only say that my salutation to all of them. and if anybody reading this , ever come to delhi, india, it would be my luck to be host of any one of these strange friends of dr koenraad and humanity.

pryag is much more to hindus, then just a joining of 2 or 3 rivers. it is the hub of vedic stdies and devotion to all a billion hindus.

yours obediently

ashok gupta
delhi , india

rani kumari said...


Lori Tompkins said...

So the Kumbha Mela is suppose to start at 0 degrees Capricorn, .... what determines its closing?

Lori Tompkins said...

So the Kumbha Mela is suppose to start at 0 degrees Capricorn, .... what determines its closing?