An Amazing Phenomenon Called the Kumbha Mela

  • By Swami Ishadhyanananda
  • May 2013

Editor – This article was published in the May 2013 issue of Prabuddha Bharata.

Excerpts from article

The Akharas - One of the greatest attractions of the Kumbha Mela is the different akharas, which are the chief stakeholders of the mela. In fact, it can be said that the Kumbha Mela is a festival of monks belonging to different akharas. What is an akhara? An akhara, which literally means a wrestling place, is like an organization of regimented monks. When India was under Muslim rule the sannyasins were often attacked by Muslims mullahs and soldiers. To protect themselves, the monks of the Dashanami Sampradaya recruited militant monks from ordinary people as well as ex-soldiers. These militant monks were called Nagas, which means ‘naked’—they in fact maintain the tradition of remaining naked even today, with their bodies heavily smeared with ashes; they undertake rigorous physical practices, learn fighting and the use of arms, dwell near temples or in huts, and come before the public only during Kumbha Melas.

In order to take part in the procession for the shahi snan, which is a big affair and one of the main attractions of the mela, each monastery belonging to the Dashanami Sampradaya should be affiliated to a particular akhara. The ten orders are: Aranya, Ashrama, Bharati, Giri, Parvata, Puri, Sagara, Sarasvati, Tirtha, and Vana. They have four headquarters in India: Joshi Math in the north, Sringeri in the south, Dwaraka in the west, and Govardhan Math in the east. Under these four headquarters there are several monasteries, called maths or ashramas, that are affiliated to one or the other akharas.

There are seven Shaiva akharas overlapping with the Dashanami Sampradaya of monks: Agni, Atal, Avahan, Bhairava, Juna, Mahanirvani, and Niranjani. The head of an akhara is called the Acharya Mahamandaleshvar, or the Pithadhish; he is a learned monk belonging to the Dashanami Sampradaya and is elected by the Mahamandaleshvars from among themselves at the time of a Kumbha Mela. Mahamandaleshvars are the regional heads under an akhara. They too are learned monks having a considerable following of monastic and lay disciples. The akharas assume the greatest role during the Kumbha Melas, as it is for the sake of securing a place in the procession for shahi snan that the several Vairagi and Udasin akharas came into existence. Digambar Ani, Nirvani Ani, and Nirmohi Ani are the Vairagi akharas, and Naya and Nirmal are the Udasin akharas. These akharas, unlike the Shaiva ones, do not have Naga or Dashanami sadhus.

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Some thoughts
Why did the U.P. Government nominate, Azam Khan, a Muslim minister to oversee arrangements at the Maha Kumbh? Not a word of protest from Hindus at his appointment! Liberals and seculars might argue in favor of the appointment. In which case, would they support the appointment of a Hindu to oversee a similar Islamic festival whose budget runs into thousands of crores?

Who is answerable for the death of 36 pilgrims at the Allahabad Railway Station? We forget such mishaps so fast i.e. why the Government does not care. To see read report click here

Given the significance of Allahabad to millions of Hindus should not the city revert to its original name i.e. Prayag?

Why has the UP Government not cleaned the holy rivers and surrounding areas after the Maha Kumbh. This Rediff reports has pics of how dirty it is now. Click here to read.

A lot of media hype was created because some students from Harvard University visited Prayag to study how the mela is organized. It was almost as if the Americans were giving us a pat on the back for organizing such a massive mela, at the same wondering how Indians could do it. The actual problem is that the U.S. is surrounded by sea on all sides, does not have much of a history and its citizens have limited exposure to the other parts of the world. So they find such melas fascinating because they see it through the western prism. Indians must not look up to the West for approval.

Also read 
1. Pictures of Kumbh Mela 2013
2. I did it- Kumbh Poornima-I did it
3. About Kumbh Mela
4. Pictures of Kumbh Haridwar 2010
5. Pictures of Kumbh Prayag 2001
6. Kumbh Mela and Media

This article is courtesy and copyright Prabuddha Bharata ( I have been reading the Prabuddha Bharata for years and found it enlightening. You can subscribe online at Cost is Rs 100/ for one year, Rs 280/ for three years, Rs 1,200/ for twenty years and Rs 2,000 for twenty five years. 

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