How do you address the suffering that seems to surround us? And especially, how would you address it to a group of people who are convinced that until they attain a certain state of righteousness, they are doomed to endless cycles of being born, suffering, dying and then being born again, dying, suffering, etc.?
Right now, a massive religious festival is taking place in Allahabad, in northern India. According to the fascinating accounts of the Great Kumbh Mela Hindu festival, this site marks the intersection of three icy-cold rivers, one of which is the extremely filthy Ganges.
Millions have traveled to this remote area to plunge into these miserably cold, polluted rivers. Probably 10 million on Monday alone raced into those waters. Planners expect that 100 million will do so over the next two months. The first group, starting at 6:05 a.m. Monday, were members of multiple religious orders of holy men. Women also take the plunge, but the holy men lead the way.
All this takes place in an area of about 5,000 acres — less than 8 square miles. Yes, 10 million people camped in that small area on Monday — and several days beforehand to get ready.
Preparation for this remote and not particularly populated area? Well, they’ve set up one hospital with 100 beds in it and 12 smaller health centers and stockpiled quite a bit of food.
Also, according to the sanitation officer in charge of logistics, they built 35,000 single-seat toilets, made 340 blocks of 10-seat toilets and placed 4,000 urinals on the grounds. The BBC quotes the official as saying, “All the fecal matter from the toilets will go into the underground pits where it will start to decompose in a few days.”
Now, why again are they doing this? Because the plunge will wash away generations of sins.
The Huffington Post describes the scene: “‘I wash away all my sins, from this life and before,’ said wandering ascetic Swami Shankranand Saraswati, 77, shivering naked in the cold. He said he gave up a career as a senior civil servant 40 years ago to become a holy man, traveled on foot and for decades ate only nuts and fruit.”
The report also stated that men with dreadlocked beards to their feet competed for attention with yogis supporting heavy weights on certain parts of their bodies that shall go unnamed in this article.
“‘I feel pleasure,’ grinned Digambar Navraman Giri, who said he had not sat down for a year, even sleeping on foot. ‘This is why I became a sadhu,’ he said, steam rising from his body in the cold air and wearing nothing but two rings on his fingers.”
These ascetics, i.e., holy men, also are vying for donations. Many apparently hope that by supporting some or many holy men, they themselves will find release from their own cycles of suffering without having to enter the waters themselves.
From what I have been able to glean — and I admit more ignorance than knowledge here — Hindu scriptures state that until an individual attains moksha, which is liberation, he or she will engage in further birth and sufferings. One dip in the waters here will wash away sins committed both in past and future births and help the individual gain moksha.
What a despairing way to live — lifetimes, endless lifetimes of unending suffering, unless one can manage to placate God by a leap in an icy river at just the right time. This festival takes place only once every 12 years.
If this were the only means I knew to free myself from endless cycles of births, sufferings and deaths, I’d probably take the plunge myself.
So, here’s my question: For all who believe there is a different way to find release from sin and eventually leave behind the suffering of this world, how would you explain that to one of these shivering pilgrims?
THE REV. CHRISTY THOMAS is the pastor of First United Methodist Church of Krum. Reach her by calling 940-482-3482 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .