More than a century and a half ago, in 1867 to be precise, Swami Dayanand Saraswati did something that today would be regarded as unthinkable, indeed blasphemous: he set up an anti-obscurantism platform (Pakhand Khandini Pataka) at Kumbh Mela in Haridwar. From here, he condemned superstitions, excessive ritualism, and socio-religious ills that plagued Hindu society at that time. Can anybody do that today?
The answer is not very comforting. Almost three-quarters of a century after Independence, India seems to be better placed than what it was in 1867: no famines, much higher levels of standards of living and education, far greater means of acquiring knowledge and getting information, a Constitution that guarantees and safeguards half a dozen Fundamental Rights. And yet, few have the courage to speak out against rituals, and pilgrimages in the period of the pandemic, including Kumbh Melas.
In fact, the political class has developed a vested interest in promoting orthodoxy and the most regressive elements in every society, be it the array of saffron pontiffs and sages or the ulema. They believe that this will make them popular among different religious communities.
For instance, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Tirath Singh Rawat ardently defends the decision to hold the full Kumbh at the time of the killer corona surge.
He and his ilk think that by allowing the Hindus to participate in Kumbh Mela they are doing the largest religious community a favour. “There should be no comparison between Kumbh and Markaz. The Markaz was held in a closed space, in a Kothi like structure whereas the Kumbh is being held in the open on the sprawling ghats of the Ganga,” he said on a talk show organized by the Hindustan Times.
Quite apart from the difference between the indoor venue and the sprawling ghats, in his reckoning there is also a divine reason that the coronavirus won’t spread at Kumbh Mela. Chief Minister Rawat said, “Most importantly, Kumbh is at the bank of the River Ganga. Maa Ganga’s blessings are there in the flow. So, there should be no corona.”
It seems that Maa Ganga’s blessings haven’t been enough to check the spread of the deadly virus, for till the time of writing these lines over 1,700 corona positive cases were reported from the mela. Among the dead is a seer. Come to think of it, the festival will continue till the end of this month; 100 to 150 million people are expected to attend the mela.
It would be wrong to accuse the innocent Ganga of not being compassionate enough; sometimes the gravity of human folly is so large that even divine support is unable to bear it. Allowing Kumbh Mela at a large scale may be such a risky decision.
Some are trying to peddle it as a pro-tradition move. It is as if they are saying: Look, we don’t stop Kumbh Mela even at this time of the pandemic. But is it helping those who take part? No, it is sickening them instead—and may kill many. Further, it will continue do so in the future as well, as there is the danger of many devotees returning home infected but asymptomatic, further steepening the surge.
Today, there is nobody to question the holding of a Mela at the time of corona. It is sacrilegious to have doubts about the sacredness of religious geography. Swami Dayanand, however, had no such fears. In his magnum opus, Satyartha Prakash (Light of Truth), he talked about the spirituality and sanctity of Haridwar itself: “Haridwar is the beginning of a road to the northern mountains. ‘Hari ki paudi’ is just a pool with stairs for bathing. Truly speaking, it is ‘Haadpeedi’ [flesh of generations], for bodies come here from various places. Sin never washes without repentance.”
That was then.
The more things change, they say, the more they stay the same. It is actually worse than that: the more things change, the worse they get. We may be moving towards an entirely avoidable tragedy.
Holding Kumbh Mela during the corona surge is the beginning. Uttarakhand Chief Minister Rawat had earlier denounced women who wear ripped jeans; he or some other champion of tradition may ban ripped jeans for women. They are the antithesis of Swami Dayanand and other 19th century socio-religious reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. Superstitions, cults, occult practices, myriad rituals—this is what Hinduism is gradually being reduced to.
And no reformer is in sight.
Ravi Shanker Kapoor is a freelance journalist.