As the day dawned on March 15, several hundred ISKCON devotees joined six million other pilgrims and holy men to bathe in the sacred Ganga river at this year’s Kumbha Mela in Haridwar.
Kumbha Mela, India’s largest spiritual gathering, takes place every three years in one of the four holy places of Prayag, Haridwar, Ujjain and Nashik, and is currently in the last lap of its 3-month long run, from January 14th to April 28th.
Activity began early on March 15th’s Maha Kumbha Snana, the main bathing day of the Mela, with pilgrims flooding the nearly fifteen kilometer long bathing area of Har-Ki-Pauri from midnight.
The ISKCON Camp began its Sobhayatra, or procession to the bathing area, at 6:45am, with the many enthusiastic dancing and chanting devotees attracting thousands of pilgrims, who lined the roads with folded hands. Lokanatha Swami, ISKCON’s “Sampradaya Mahamandaleshwar,” or religious group leader, headed up the procession which reached Har-Ki-Pauri at 8:00am.
As usual, the ISKCON Camp has been working hard at the Mela. Marked out by a 20-foot high diorama of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, the divine founder of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, it serves delicious sanctified “prasadam” meals to 15,000 visitors per day, while senior devotees including Radhanatha Swami, Purushatraya Swami, and Lokanatha Swami enlighten pilgrims with talks on Krishna consciousness every evening.
Sacred yajnas, or fire sacrifices, are also performed to honor Lord Vishnu and invoke auspiciousness. And every day, a large group of devotees chant, dance and distribute spiritual books in a “Harinama” procession, featuring a decorated bullock cart carrying beautiful deities of Sri Chaitanya and his closest associate Nityananda Prabhu.
Headed by Camp Co-ordinator Srestha Dasa, the team of 100 ISKCON devotees from Vrindavan, 200 from West Bengal, and 300 from Bangaladesh, heartily welcome and serve all pilgrims and holy men that visit their camp.
This, they feel, is the most important purpose of their presence at the Mela, a sentiment reflected by ISKCON founder Srila Prabhupada in a January 1977 conversation: “If one thinks that to take bath in the water is Kumbha-mela, then he is less intelligent. But the real idea is ‘Now there are assembled so many saintly persons. Let me take advantage of their knowledge.’”