India’s Kumbh Mela is the largest human gathering on earth, big enough to be
visible from a space satellite. It’s a Cecil B. Demille production, but with a
cast of millions. Entire villages jam roads and crowd trains on a quest to bathe
and offer prayers in the confluence of the holy Ganges and Yamuna
I was there with a group of 18 Israelis on February 10, which
according to Hindu astrologers is the day of the most auspicious planetary
alignment. Hindus believe that energy flowing to earth that day turbocharges the
spiritual properties of the water so that bathing in the river cleanses sin and
enables one to escape the cycle of death and rebirth.
Officials say that
some 30 million people had gathered on both banks of the rivers that day in a
makeshift megacity. To wrap your mind around that number, picture three New York
cities, or a combination of London, Paris, Rome, Berlin and Istanbul.
Kumbh lasts six weeks from mid- January to March and officials expect that close
to 100 million Hindus will make the pilgrimage. This compares with “only” 3.4
million Muslim pilgrims, who traveled to Mecca in 2012 for the hajj.
Kumbh Mela is held on a rotating basis every three years in one of four places
where Hindu scriptures say the god Vishnu spilt a drop of the elixir of eternal
life at the time of creation. But every 12 years, as was this year, it is
especially holy and draws the largest crowds. Kumbh means “pitcher,” a reference
to the orb from which the elixir was dropped, and mela means “fair.”
my way to Allahabad in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the closest
city to the site, I saw thousands trudging along the roads carrying bundles atop
their heads. They slept in fields and bathed and washed their clothes in rivers
along the way.
It must have been like that in ancient times in Israel,
when Jews would go up to Jerusalem to pray and offer sacrifices in the Temple on
the three pilgrimage festivals, Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot.
to rabbinic lore, even when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims crowded into the
Temple courtyard, no one lacked for space or complained about
Today, the magnets for Jewish pilgrimage are graves of
renowned rabbis in Israel and Eastern Europe, an idea that is antithetical to
Hindu culture where the bodies of the dead are burned, their ashes thrown into
Once we neared the site of the Kumbh Mela, we walked the final
kilometer to a tent compound occupied mostly by tourists and wealthy Indians. We
hired boats to take us closer to the other side, the location of the main
There are no words to describe the sight of the
multitudes, the profound vastness of the crowds sprawled densely as far as the
eye could see. There are no words because there is nothing like it on earth. At
night the lights and smoke of myriad campfires shimmered in the river. Millions
slept outside on the sandy banks on straw they had carried with them.
could hear the soaring hum of their collective conversations coupled with the
chanting of sacred Vedic hymns and mantras.
The millions of spiritually
charged devotees awoke at dawn to bathe in the cold waters, the women wading in
with colorful saris clinging to their bodies amid garlands of floating orange
marigolds offered as gifts to the gods.
Dreadlocked holy monks, Sadhus,
whose naked bodies are smeared with gray ash, set up camps on the other side of
the river. Many live in caves or under trees, and are drawn from their isolation
by the Kumbh Mela. They hold court by fire pits in sprawling camps decorated
with neon lights right out of Las Vegas. They smoke cannabis and read ancient
texts. Pilgrims flock to offer alms, receive blessings and watch them perform
yogic feats and tricks, such as supporting heavy weights with their
One monk has held one hand in the air for 10 years due to a vow
that he had undertaken.
Another had reportedly been standing on one leg
for several years. (Did someone perhaps ask him to expound on the entire
Bhagavad Gita while standing on one leg?) Colorful billboards and posters invite
followers to the camps of certain gurus. One, Swami Avdheshanand Giri Ji, even
has a Facebook page.
Wanting to reach the main bathing site on the other
side, I was swept up in a river of humanity that carried me along as if I were a
fallen leaf. Heavily policed road blocks maintained a one-way traffic system on
the pontoon bridges that had been constructed especially for the Kumbh Mela and
police directed the deluge of humanity away from the bridge and into a narrow
Completely pressed in, I could only shuffle my feet forward, try
to breathe and pray not to get trampled. I was as trapped as if in an elevator
during a blackout.
Later, I learned that 36 people were crushed to death
that day at the Allahabad train station as they tried to travel back to their
homes. At a previous Kumbh Mela, in 1954, about 1,000 people died in a
In that press of millions, I experienced in the most visceral
way the fervent devotion Hindus have for their faith. I watched with awe mixed
with envy thinking of the sharp contrast between their thriving spiritual life
compared to our empty synagogues, growing rates of intermarriage, secularism and
The Hindus and Jews are among the few ancient civilizations
with a continuous history, ancient texts and revealed religions. Both follow
lunar calendars, traditions of purity in food habits, ritual water
purifications, auspicious days for marriage and other similarities.
Hebrew, the difference between yehudi
(Jew) and hodi
(Indian) is the letter yud
the smallest letter in the alphabet and the first letter in the name of God.
Hinduism and Judaism gave birth to faiths that are followed by three-quarters of
the world’s population.
Christianity and Islam, the monotheistic
religions that have sprung up from Judaism, comprise some 56 percent of the
world’s population. Hinduism and its offshoots, Sikhism and Jainism, comprise
some 21 percent.
God had made a promise to Abraham in Genesis 22:17 that
he would make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the grains
of sand along the seashore.
Looking at the millions of Hindus I couldn’t
help think that they must have cut a better deal with their numerous gods back
in the mists of time. This is what happens when you put all your eggs in one
basket. There was more than double the number of Hindus in the Kumbh Mela on
that one day than there are Jews in the entire world.
Persecutions and pogroms is what happened, other than in India where Jews lived
for centuries in a tolerant society.
Or, as the then Chief Rabbi of
Israel, Yona Metzger, said in what was billed as the world’s first Jewish-Hindu
interfaith leadership summit held in New Delhi in February 2007, “Jews have
lived in India for over 2,000 years and have never been discriminated
This is something unparalleled in human history.”
could ague that although numerically the Jews are just a solitary grain of sand,
their vastly disproportionate intellectual contributions take up a generous
swath of beachfront. We may not be as numerous as the Indians but we make enough
noise to sound like we are.