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Of the divine and the worldly

This year’s Kumbh Mela was deeply fascinating with its agenda set for Hindutva and the intriguing world of Naga sadhus that manifests hierarchies and privileges

Makar Sankranti, the first sahi snan or the royal bath, marked the beginning of Kumbha Mela. A sea of humanity poured in large numbers before sunrise, like ants crawling towards a sugary pie.
Nagas are the first to take the dip. Three hours before the bath, they congregated inside their respective akahara (camps) and elaborate rituals were performed. They rubbed ash on each other’s body and danced naked around a fire, before they set out in smaller groups in the biting cold to form an army of naked sadhus.
They were led by the chariots (tractor pulled trolleys) of various maha-mandaleshwars (leaders), their weapons raised high in the air, yelling ‘Har har Mahadev’ as they took a plunge in the holy river as the rising sun turned the sky red.
A wordly spirituality
Hundreds of akharas have come up, the most visited are the seven Juna Akharas of the Nagas—or the naked sage who are the privileged lot. There seems to be a hierarchy of sorts, the influential have grabbed a bigger tent, while the poorer Nagas have to move out due to space crunch.
There were many sitting outside in lotus position, smeared in white ash, soaking sun on their bare exterior and smoking pot. Their eyes red, tearful and dilated, they speak of this world and the other—dispossession is their greatest possession. They bless the visitors who offer them money. The money so collected is paid for the wood— they end up burning 10 kg of wood every day to keep their naked-selves warm—and food.
Money plays an important role in the spiritual world. A disciple lost is like money lost. There’s a constant struggle between various akharas, or amongst the maha-mandaleshwar within an akhara, or among the sadhus for the finite resource—disciples. To attract a following, they build a cult, demonstrate their occult power, move around in an entourage of big cars, sport goggles and wearing ostentatious headgear. There’s sloganeering — it almost feels like a road show by a politician.
The battle to control akharas is intense. Hierarchies and protocols are sacrosanct, and bitterly fought. Nagas, led by the maha-mandaleshwars, were more than willing to fight their contemporaries from other akharas in order to ensure they are the first to take a dip in the holy Ganges. The Mela authority did well to step in. All the akharas— 14 of them—were allotted specific time and location to take the holy dip, to avoid any clashes. There was tension in the air, along with the festivities, on the eve of a major holy bath.

Some of the high profile mahamandaleshwar even get a police escort, some even have private security. Here, the sages too, worry about life and property. Many old gurus from the Hindi hinterland, who live life of an ascetic, also manage to have a car — old ambassadors or Maruti 800s. But the new age guru, however, who have rich followers, who are seen on television, have a clientele across the world and also sermonise in English, have bigger cars. Hundreds of Innovas and Fortuners, with red boards fixed in front of the bonnet, describing their designation in bold brass letters, are driven faster than speed limit to gain the attention of the passerby and show that they are godly to the Indian believers.
Foreigners are welcome to Naga camp for they are connoisseurs of good stuff and, more importantly, pay well. A British couple, in their 70s, identified themselves as Smiths, camped at a Naga’s tent the whole afternoon. The husband would smoke up, while the wife slept in the shade.
The Naga sadhus offer a good future, and also trade in fear, like Mahant Shiv Giri Baba from Alwar, absolutely stoned, tears like thick syrup brimmed his eyes. “Na tera hain, Na mera hain, yeh Naga baba ka dera hain (this is not yours nor mine; this belongs to Naga sage),” he’d recite many times.
Sudarshan, a Naga in his late twenties, offered to pull a car with his penis if the disciples promised to buy him a 15 litres tin of ghee. No one obliged. He cursed “Kaal tumhare sar par hain (death is trailing you).”
Another young Naga, Govind Giri from Uttarakhand, entangled his penis in a stick, rolled the stick a couple of times, held the stick parallel to the ground and made a fellow Naga stand on the stick. This spectacle attracted a huge crowd and he made some good money. Nagas hate if you stay long in their tent, you’re allowed as long as you’re smoking pot, or ready to make contributions. Giri sharply asks people to leave, “It’s not good to stay with Naga after sundown when spirits and ghosts get active.”
A set agenda 
Nagas are particularly belligerent in their dealings. They are the god’s army, and their loyalty lies with the Sanatana dharma, or the orthodox Hinduism. And they will use their might to propagate their belief — to build Ram Temple in Ayodhya, for protecting cows, and annihilating the enemies of the religion. “We are the protector of the faith, we are Shiv’s soldiers in flesh and blood,” says Anand Giri, a madaleshwar.

Ram temple and cow protection are part of the popular discourse. As Shailendra Giri, 48, one of the maha-mandaleshwars of Juna Akhara, says, “I feel BJP has failed to deliver on Ram temple. But I also believe that BJP is the only party that’s capable of building a Ram temple in Ayodhya.”
Dhanshri Saileshnanda Giri, one of the most articulate mahamandaleshwars of Shri Panchadashvaam Juna Akhara, wants to set the agenda of the Kumbh, which is beyond spirituality, and is socio-political in nature. There are three issues that he wants to focus on and invite a debate: Jal (water), nari (women) and nyaya (justice). A soft-spoken man, with a perpetual smile and a friendly disposition, he spoke in flawless English. He supports the river linking project. He is not for gender parity but gender similarity.
His most controversial pronouncement was on justice. He elaborated that traditionally judgements in India were passed by the panchayat or the five wise men. “Humans are evolving and we are run by this sade-gale (corroded, mouldering) constitution,” he says. “Here even Ram has to seek justice from the courts,” he says, referring to the Ram Janambhumi case. Ram Temple is a big theme in this Kumbh Mela.
As thousands of pilgrims take dip in the holy Ganges to wash their sins, Kumbh Mela becomes a venue of fanning communal sentiments and to press the demand for the Ram Temple at Ayodhya.
Family of Nagas
Naga’s sage from Rama-Akhand-Manas, Hanuman Temple in Jabalpur, is 65 years of age, and is celibate since he was a child. He is skinny and tall and sits for hours on his haunches in front of the simmering fire, smoking pot occasionally.
“The family (of nagas) is growing,” he says, adding, “There’s lesser space for which the administration is to be blamed. It’s for the first time that I had to move out of the camp”. He’s agitatedand alleges that the mela administration—technically they are called the Mela Authority—is corrupt — they take bribes and allot the land for commercial activities. “Where will mahatmas go?” he questions repeatedly.

All said and done, he has a soft corner for Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. “I’m glad Adityanath ji was here and has instructed the authorities not to shift the mahatmas from wherever they have decided to camp.”
Pilot baba is busy giving instructions for the final touches to his camp. Some new enclosures are being built, two loin sculptures adorn the gate on either side, his Audis and Land Rovers, covered with dust, are parked inside. Many foreign nirvana seekers were queuing up to get themselves registered for the ten-day yagna ritual that is to take place next month.
At the camp of Pilot Baba, who in his 80s and was a pilot with the Indian Airforce before he took to spirituality, is sitting out in the sun late in the afternoon. His disciples, many of them Europeans, primarily Russians, bee-lining to prostrate before him and seek his blessings.
 He brightens up to talk about the significance of Kumbh prolifically, “Kumbha contains the nectar which came from the churning of oceans. Demons or the Asura ran away with the container of nectar and were chased by devatas. This is where the nectar spilled—Prayagraj. Kumbh Mela is an ancient gathering, which was discontinued. It was started again by King Harshavardhana of Patliputra in the medieval times. The sages are here to take a dip during the sahi snana, which will alleviate them from all their sins and sufferings.” And they will be initiated to the new life of “freedoms and salvations (sic).” Also, during sahi snana, some important planets will align, making the time of bath very auspicious, and no one would want to miss it, and sages, spirits and demons alike, disguised as Nagas, will join the crowd to take a dip.

“You can see that after the bath, half of the sadhus disappear,” he asserts. A mahamandaleshwar of Juna Akhara, Pilot baba says he’s here to enjoy himself which comes from meeting thousands of people.