The History of Kumbha-Mela by Lokanath Swami


The Inhabitants of the earth benefit from a cosmic fight for immortal nectar.

THE LORD’S pastime of protecting the devas (demigods) from the asuras (demons) by producing nectar from the ocean of milk is described in detail in the Srimad-Bhagavatam, Canto 8, chapters 5 through 11.

Millions of years ago, the sage Durvasa visited the capital of Indra’s kingdom in the heavenly planets. While Durvasa Muni was passing on the road, he saw Indra on the back of his elephant and was pleased to offer Indra a garland from his own neck. Indra, however, being too proud of his material wealth, took the garland and placed it on the trunk of his carrier elephant. The elephant, being an animal, could not understand the value of the garland. It threw the garland between its legs and smashed it. Seeing this insulting behavior, Durvasa Muni cursed Indra to become poverty-stricken.

The asuras, the natural enemies of the devas, took this opportunity to attack Lord Indra and steal all the riches and virtuous possessions in his kingdom. A fierce battle for supremacy of the heavenly planets raged. Bereft of all influence and strength, the devas were defeated.

The devas then went to Lord Brahma for help. Unable to offer a solution, Lord Brahma took them to Svetadvipa, the abode of Ksirodakasayi Visnu in the ocean of milk.

Snake-And-Mouse Logic

Lord Visnu advised the devas to cooperate with the asuras and churn the ocean of milk to attain an immortal nectar that would make the devas invincible. He told the devas to follow the logic of the snake and the mouse in dealing with the asuras. A snake and a mouse were once caught in a basket. The snake said to the mouse, “Look, I could eat you very easily, but it’s more important for me to get out of this basket. So why don’t you make a hole so that we can both escape?” The mouse agreed and started working. But as soon as the hole was big enough, the snake ate the mouse and came out of the basket.

Similarly, the Lord wanted the devas to take help from the asuras, but He had no intention of giving any of the nectar to the asuras. He would appear as Mohini-murti and cheat them.

The asuras and devas uprooted Mandara Mountain to use as a churning rod and requested Vasuki, the king of the serpents, to serve as the churning rope. With the churning, the mighty golden Mandara Mountain began to sink slowly into the ocean of milk. The devas and asuras became discouraged at the turn of events.

Then the Lord took the form of a tortoise, known as Kurma-avatara. He entered the water and held the great mountain on His back. The mountain moved back and forth with the churning motion, scratching the back of Lord Tortoise, who, while partially sleeping, was pleasingly experiencing an itching sensation.

Soon a fiercely dangerous poison was produced from the ocean, covering all directions. The compassionate Lord Siva drank the poison and held it in His throat, turning his neck bluish and earning him the name Nilakantha, “one who has a bluish neck.”

Products of The Milk Ocean

The milk ocean then produced many wonderful items: a surabhi cow, a beautiful horse named Uccaihsrava, the elephant Airavata, eight great white elephants that could go in any direction, eight she-elephants, the crescent moon, a conch shell named Pancajanya, a bow named Haridhanu (“the bow of Hari”), the goddess Varuni, the precious Kaustubha jewel, a desire-fulfilling parijata flower, Apsaras (the most beautiful women in the universe), Laksmi (the goddess of fortune), and Dhanvantari.

A partial incarnation of the Lord, Dhanvantari rose slowly from the ocean. Srimad-Bhagavatam (8.8.32-33) describes his beautiful form:

He was strongly built; his arms were long, stout, and strong; his neck, which was marked with three lines, resembled a conch shell; his eyes were reddish; and his complexion was blackish. He was very young, he was garlanded with flowers, and his entire body was fully decorated with various ornaments. He was dressed in yellow garments and wore brightly polished earrings made of pearls. The tips of his hair were anointed with oil, and his chest was very broad. His body had all good features, he was stout and strong like a lion, and he was decorated with bangles. In his hand he carried a jug filled to the top with nectar.

The jug of nectar was the prize everyone was waiting for. The asuras quickly stole the jug, and they began to fight over who should take the first drink. While they argued, the Lord assumed the form of an extremely beautiful woman known as Mohini-murti and slowly approached them.

Mohini-murti said, “The demigods are very miserly and are excessively anxious to take the nectar first. So let them have it first. Since you are not like them, you can wait a little longer. You are all heroes and are so pleased with Me. It is better for you to wait until after the demigods drink.”

The asuras, overwhelmed by Her beauty and charm, gave Her the jug of nectar, and She promptly delivered it to the devas.

The asuras were furious at the deception and attacked the devas with all their force. According to the Skanda Purana, at one point during the fight, Jayanta, a son of Indra, took the kumbha (jug) and ran away toward the heavenly planets. The asuras followed, eager to retrieve the nectar, and the fierce fighting continued. From time to time during twelve days of fighting, circumstances compelled Jayanta to place the kumbha at four places on earth: on the bank of the Godavari River in Nasika, Maharashtra; at the Shipra River in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh; at the Ganges in Haridwar, Uttar Pradesh, and at the Triveni-sangam in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh.

When the kumbha was lifted at each location, some drops of nectar fell onto the earth. That same nectar appears at these sites during certain planetary configurations. Even today, millions of people come to partake of the nectar, to become immortal by bathing in the holy rivers and drinking the nectarlike waters. Because the fighting between the devas and the asuras lasted for twelve earth years (twelve demigod days), Kumbha-melas are held at each of these sites once every twelve years.

Lokanath Swami is the director of ISKCON Padayatras (“walking pilgrimages”) worldwide and the author of the recently published book Kumbha: The Festival of Immortality.

Srila Prabhupada at Allahabad

FOR THIRTEEN YEARS Srila Prabhupada lived in Allahabad. He moved there in 1923 with his family. Allahabad was a good location to start his pharmaceutical business, Prayag Pharmacy. He entered a business partnership with a physician, Dr. Ghosh, who diagnosed patients and gave medical prescriptions, which Prabhupada would fill. Motilal Nehru and his son, Jawaharlal, (the future Prime Minister of India) were both customers at Prabhupada’s pharmacy.

During his time in Allahabad, Prabhupada stayed in contact with Srila Bhaktisiddhanta Sarasvati, whom he had first met in 1922 in Calcutta. On November 21, 1932, under the direction of Srila Bhaktisiddhanta, the Allahabad Gaudiya Matha held a cornerstone-laying ceremony for their new temple. The governor, Sir William Haily, was the respected guest. Srila Bhaktisiddhanta held an initiation ceremony, and Prabhupada received initiation (harinama and Gayatri) from him.

Previously, upon learning that Prabhupada had requested initiation, Srila Bhaktisiddhanta had remarked, “He likes to hear. He does not go away. I have marked him. I will accept him as my disciple.”

Prabhupada at Kumbha-mela

The Vedic literature states that whoever bathes in the Triveni-sangam at the auspicious time of the Kumbha-mela is guaranteed of liberation from birth and death. That is why the Mela has always attracted millions of pilgrims.

Yet Srila Prabhupada said, “We are not interested in liberation. We have come to preach devotional service. Being engaged in Krsna’s unalloyed devotional service, we are already liberated.”

In contrast to almost everyone present, Prabhupada emphasized giving spiritual knowledge as the prime reason for attending the Mela. The devotee’s only ambition is to enlighten as many people as possible. Pilgrimage was secondary. With this mood, the devotees attended the 1971 Kumbha-mela with Prabhupada and enthusiastically presented Krsna consciousness to the millions of pilgrims.

None of the western devotees had ever attended the Kumbha-mela. The many bizarre sights can bewilder and confuse the mind, but Prabhupada reminded the devotees that spiritual life is neither exotic nor bewildering, but simple and practical.

“To go to a holy place means to find a holy person and hear from him,” Prabhupada had said. “A place is holy because of the presence of the saintly persons.”

In a conversation recorded in January 1977 (just before the Kumbha-mela), Prabhupada said that the real purpose of the Kumbha-mela is to take advantage of the spiritual knowledge presented there:

The Kumbha-mela is sat-sanga. If you go to the Kumbha-mela to find out a man of knowledge, then your Kumbha-mela is right. If one thinks that this salila, the water to take bath in the water is Kumbha-mela, then he is a go-kharah [a cow or an ass]. But the real idea is “Now there are assembled so many saintly persons. Let me take advantage of their knowledge.” Then he is intelligent. People should take advantage. You can go to different groups of saintly persons.  Different groups means “ brahmeti paramatmeti bhagavan iti”. There are some yogis, some jnanis, some bhaktas. They are of the same category, little difference. But they’re all spiritual. They have no interest in this material world.

Some Real Yogis

Srila Prabhupada said that although many of the sadhus present were inauthentic and didn’t really know the highest goal of human life, many were perfect yogis. These yogis, from remote parts of India, would come out for the Mela and then return to seclusion.

“I have personally seen,” Prabhupada said, “that they take bath in the Ganges and come up in the seven sacred rivers. They go down in the Ganges and come up in the Godavari River. Then they go down and come up in the Krishna River, and go down, like that.”

The devotees, therefore, should respect everyone who attended the Mela.

Prabhupada also explained that one is not liberated automatically by taking bath at the Kumbha-mela on the specific auspicious days. But by coming to the holy tirtha and taking bath on the holy days, the door to liberation gets opened.

“If you are trying to enter a room and the door is closed,” he said, “there is some prohibition. It is more difficult for you to enter the room. But if the door is opened for you, then your entrance to the room is easier.”

Monkey Renunciation

After the 1977 Kumbha-mela, the story of the death of a Naga Baba made the national newspapers. Wearing no clothing, he had died from the extreme cold. Prabhupada commented on the incident. “He must die. They imitate. They have no sadhana [regulated spiritual practice], no bhajana [worship], and simply naga [naked].”

The devotees told Prabhupada that the imitators smoke chillums (marijuana) and become so intoxicated that they don’t feel the cold. One disciple told Prabhupada that he had seen a Naga who had been smoking cigarettes for twelve years without stopping. Another man had been holding his arm up in the air for the past twelve years. His fingernails had grown very long, and his arm was flat. Another renunciant hadn’t sat down for eighteen years. He carried a small swing with him, which he would tie to a tree and lean on.

“This is markata-vairagya, the renunciation of a monkey,” Prabhupada said, referring to the type of renunciation that, although difficult to perform, doesn’t produce any advancement in Krsna consciousness. The monkeys also have no clothes to wear and live in treetops in the secluded forest, but the male monkeys have a large group of female monkeys to sport with. Some devotees concluded that severe penance was not recommended anywhere in the Vedas, but Prabhupada corrected them: “No, Hiranyakasipu did it. But what did he gain? He became a raksasa [demon] and was killed.”

The Significance of Prayag

THE WORD prayag refers to a place where great sacrifices are held. Many ages ago, Lord Brahma chose as a place for sacrifice a prime piece of land encircled by three sacred rivers: the Ganges, the Yamuna, and the Sarasvati. That site became known a Prayag. In A.D. 1573, the Mogul king Akbar erected a large fort at the confluence of the three rivers and renamed the city Ilahabas or Ilahabad, “the city of Allah.” From that time, Prayag became known as Allahabad.

The confluence of the three rivers is known as the Triveni-sangam. Tri means “three,” veni refers to a braid, and sangam means “union.” The dark blue and black Yamuna flows swiftly into the white and gray Ganges. The Sarasvati flows underground.

Bathing in any of these sacred rivers is purifying, but the purification is said to increase a hundred times where the rivers meet. The Varaha Purana states: “In Prayag there is the Triveni. By bathing there one goes to heaven, and by dying there one gets liberation. It is the king of all tirthas [holy places of pilgrimage] and is dear to Lord Visnu.”

Lord Brahma has said, prayagasya pravesesu papam nasyanti tatksanam: “All sins are at once cleansed upon entering Prayag.”

Many exalted saints and sages have visited Prayag. Sri Caitanya Mahaprabhu, Lord Nityananda, and Advaita Acarya all spent time there during pilgrimage tours.


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  1. jayabhadra dd

    hare krishna…………..