When Harvard University created a major new initiative called the Harvard Kumbh Mela Project, Hindus naturally became impressed and proud. After all, it brought global importance to our heritage. However, it is my nature to cross check such foreign interventions, and, therefore, I decided to study the project more closely. I also decided to take a look at various other international interventions on the Kumbh Mela besides those by Harvard. What I found has disconcerted me on several counts.
I have organized my concerns into the following categories, in increasing order of seriousness:
Dilution as exotic tourism
Source of research for appropriation and digestion
Distortion and secularization of the mela itself
Infiltration and hijacking by Christian and Islamic groups
Condemnation as another “human rights violation” to be exposed through atrocity literature.
This is the destructive stage.
To put it bluntly, I am suspicious of Harvard’s involvement, even if those directly involved in it might be innocent at this stage. Nor is my concern entirely focused on Harvard. There is a long history of Western interventions that have benign and noble beginnings, but that later take a dangerous turn. There is still time to investigate the risks discussed below, and I will offer some concrete recommendations to prevent the hijacking and destruction of the Kumbh Mela.
Professor Diana Eck, Harvard’s renowned professor of Hinduism studies, made a telling remark in the official video by Harvard’s Kumbh Mela project team. In a sense, she inadvertently gave away the hidden agenda. She said that she missed seeing feminist NGOs at the mela (1). This is exactly how Ford Foundation started its interventions in India several decades back: by training, funding and empowering several feminist NGOs in India, and then using them to dish out atrocity literature on Indian society, along with the large-scale training of a whole generation of Indian women in Western feminist ideology. The goal was to make Western feminist ideologies fashionable among the bright, young women of India by constantly encouraging them to do studies on women’s oppression in Indian society. I certainly want our society’s serious gender issues to be studied and remedied; however, there ought to be balanced research on the pros and cons of importing Western feminism into Indian society in such an aggressive manner.
The resources for gender studies within Indian traditions should also be brought into play in such analyses.
We should not be surprised to find Harvard and other influential institutions starting to bring in feminist groups to look for issues at the Kumbh Mela, such as the following: Is the mela dominated by males? Are women being exploited by the events? Are there rapes and harassment? These are some of the standard templates used by such institutions to kick-start their programme. Women are incentivized to speak up as “victims of culture”, leading them to exaggerate or even outright fabricate complaints. Such investigations feed copious databases riding on the back of which eventually we will face interventions in the name of women’s rights.
In other words, if one looks at the themes and results produced by the hundreds of anthropology and social sciences projects on India, the same list of research investigations can easily be applied to the Kumbh Mela. This would make the mela a new “site for research” in South Asian studies. Thus far, the mela has been almost entirely ignored by Western researchers, and so far their “sites” for such research have been in poor villages, in “Hindu chauvinism” organizations, in episodes of violence where Hinduism can be blamed, etc. I fear that this mela is about to turn into the latest playground for such mischief.
In the same way, demographic studies will soon be commissioned on caste exploitation at the mela. The façade will be to position these as diversity studies. The real goal of these will be to look for inequalities in the facilities available to caste groups. As in all sociological research, Indian NGOs and political groups representing various fragments will get roped in to politicize the mela. Once unleashed, this trend will get out of hand and fuel a dangerous fragmentation among mela attendees. There will be fights instigated by caste groups, among north/south constituencies, and among various ideological streams and social groups. For thousands of years, all this diversity has co-existed in mutual harmony and respect, and this is what the foreign interventions will try to disrupt in the name of modernization.
If the other trajectories of Western research interventions are any indicator, one may expect Western-sponsored research to look for crime against sadhvis and lower caste participants. There will be dissertations written with juicy allegations concerning women being victims of rape, tantric sex orgies, etc. Case studies will get published in National Geographic magazine, and Western television documentaries will be produced on dowry, sati, idolatry, some naked sadhus allegedly eating human flesh, etc.
The mela will turn into the biggest unexplored frontier of the exotic, “uncivilized and dangerous” others. It is far too open, and this offers huge opportunities for Western frontiersmen seeking adventure, fame, and fortune. Already, there were media reporters at the Nasik Kumbh Mela saying that there ought to be large scale distribution of condoms at the Kumbh Mela. Times of India set the ball rolling on this sensation (2) with India Today and Britain’s Daily Mail quickly picking up the hot story (3).
A blog by the Harvard Kumbh Mela team reported: “One of the major outcomes of this group’s research was observing the concern many people at the Kumbh had about the pollution produced throughout the course of this festival.” (4) In other words, we can expect future research on how the mela causes pollution, and just as Divali, Ganesh festival, and some other Hindu festivals have already become targeted as environmental hazards, so will the Kumbh Mela be added to the list of primitive nuisance practices. Students from Harvard and other places will be assigned projects to document the health hazard being caused by immersing ash and other ritualistic objects into the Ganga and by the cremation of dead bodies and disposal in the rivers all year long, etc. In other words, apart from the feminist and sociological lens explained above, the environmentalism lens will also get applied to “study” the mela. This will be presented (and appreciated by many Indians) as Western “assistance” to help upgrade and modernize the mela.
The atrocity literature production about the mela is bound to explode with the help of camera crews that are everywhere. One enterprising Westerner bragged that he participated in the tradition of kite flying on the river bank, as this allowed him to hide a camera on his kite, thereby turning it into a drone for filming from the sky: imagine the treasure trove of scandalous and sensational video footage he could collect this way!
There are already attempts by Christian missionaries to infiltrate the mela for proselytizing. Any restrictions against this are likely to be challenged by missionaries with the help of their Western and Indian supporters. Arguments will be made that since “nobody owns the mela” or the Ganga (or any other public place where the mela is held), every citizen should have an equal right to go for a dip in the river. Such infiltrations will start in a small and passive way to get inside the door, and then gradually become entrenched and expand in size, scope, and level of assertiveness. Missionaries are experienced in entering as good guests using sama (friendship) and dana (charity). They will undoubtedly bring lots of free things to give away, and this will be a big hit among the villagers who comprise most of the attendees at the mela.
I anticipate that many confused Hindu groups who teach that all religions are the same will become facilitators to help such penetration by Abrahamic religions. How would one object to a so-called Hindu organization wanting to put up pictures of Jesus depicted as a yogi, or Mother Mary in a saree wearing a bindi? How would one stop prasad being given away by a missionary school wanting to feed the poor children at the mela? There are plenty of confused Hindu groups seeking the international limelight and money who will be glad to facilitate in opening such doors.
Harvard’s Pluralism Project (also run by Diana Eck) could easily open the door in the name of studying and nurturing “pluralism”. To disarm naïve Hindu leaders, it will offer patronizing praise for “Hindu tolerance” that would stir pride among these leaders. All this would make it difficult for anyone to deny them free access for their strategic intrusions.
Secularization of the Kumbh Mela is another shift that is not far away, either. Nothing stops Pepsi, Reliance, Airtel, Amazon or Flipkart, or any other consumer brand, to put up its large tent at the mela, show some spiritual movies to qualify as a religious pavilion, and then openly market its products and services. If not outright selling, this could be a place for soft sales to bring new clients into the door. In other words, seen from their viewpoint, the Kumbh Mela is a great brand marketing event. Some enterprising corporate houses will start a sales distribution channel catering specifically to religious festivals. Given the prestige of being “secularized”, many people will find nothing wrong with this “modernization” of the mela.
The first mela intervention by Harvard has already succeeded in its goal to secure a buy-in from many kinds of elites in India. Unfortunately, these elites lack far sightedness and are easily bought off, in exchange for prestigious association with Harvard and other international institutions. Harvard’s special book on its Kumbh Mela Project was launched in New York with the prestigious sponsorship of Asia Society (5). The India launch of the book was held at Oberoi Hotel, one of Delhi’s most prestigious locations. The chief guest at this event was none other than the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, who was given the limelight to secure his support. He was so grateful for the honor that “Harvard has arrived” in his town or state, or rather, that he has arrived on the world stage thanks to Harvard (6).
Scholars of the colonization process must take note that Harvard refers to its work as “mapping” the Kumbh Mela (7). One has to read Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities to understand how the British colonialists were obsessed with the mapping (in a broad sense of organizing databases) of the geography, population, religious practices, social and political structures, all for the purpose of developing a template for better negotiation and control. The same kind of mapping had earlier been done in North America by the European settlers, which helped their systematic aggression against the natives. Some of the best socio-religious databases on India at the district and village level are the ones developed by the Church and CIA.
This initial stage in the Kumbh Mela intervention is to become established as some “good guys” who are wanting to help. To establish those “good guy” credentials, they are now busy making inroads with politicians, leaders of various Hindu sampradayas and sants, by inviting them into their documentaries and visits to the USA. Unfortunately, many of these Indians are totally clueless, with insufficient competence at doing the purva-paksha of a sophisticated opponent. They have no idea of how the game is being played. They do not seem to appreciate that short-term benefits are often at the cost of long-term control.
Harvard refers to its Kumbh Mela project as an interdisciplinary one, combining many departments each with its own separate lens. The departments already participating include: urban planning, logistics, public health, religious studies, business school, anthropology, design school, etc. Each lens is highly secularized, lacking even an iota of shraddha for our traditions. They are looking for “interesting specimens” to study. This is a perfect example of a synthetic unity framework being used to study (and distort) the integral unity.
None of the materials produced by Harvard’s team have discussed the metaphysical meaning of the yajna being carried out at the Kumbh Mela. When they did discuss the “myth” behind the mela, it was presented as some exotic, primitive story along the lines of a Hollywood movie like Lord of the Rings. They do not have the embodied knowing experience, or even the interest, to appreciate the metaphysics of ritam and yajna, and how these manifest in every aspect of the world including in our lives. Such a profound insight into the integral unity lacks because there is no shraddha in the top leadership of the project. None of the project experts interviewed on camera mentioned anything about the metaphysics of re-enacting the cosmic yajna as the purpose of the mela. It is the latest hunting ground for the anthropology of the exotica and erotica.
Harvard’s team has announced that in the next phase they will move from descriptions/modeling to prescriptions and interventions. This will make it more dangerous in my opinion. The purpose of their interventions, they said, will be to “solve issues” and bring better “architecture/public health policies and assistance.” In other words, they make no secret that having “mapped” the Kumbh Mela within their framework, now it’s time to intervene in various ways. Sadly, we have quite a few clueless swamis, sadhus and gurus already eagerly waiting to serve them as functionaries for “reforming” the Kumbh Mela.
We are well along the following trajectory of Western interventions in the Kumbh Mela:
It starts out as curiosity-seeking field trips to bring back exotic reports, mostly benign and respectful at this stage.
More formally trained anthropologists and social scientists enter the arena and develop frameworks into which mappings are made. This privileges certain ways to see and understand the phenomena. It is a technique to make the strange look familiar (and safe) in terms that Westerners can deal with. Of course, the new framework is alien to the insiders of the tradition.
Elitist Westernized Indians, as well as some naïve traditional Hindus, buy into this new framework to understand the mela. This is when their drishti gets reprogrammed with the Western (whitened) gaze. Such Indians become very important in the spread of the Western mind set into the mainstream.
Many useful things learned get digested into Western knowledge systems.
Christian groups (followed by Muslims as well), initially seen as champions and as our friends, take over the greater share of the mental space of the mela participants.
The result is the rejection of many elements that have been important in the tradition, and this rejection is postured as a sort of “reform movement”. In fact, it is a distortion and relies upon one-sided facts and flawed analyses.
I am not saying all these stages will necessarily happen. I predict this as the likely trajectory if things continue in a present manner. The grand effect of all this will be a sweeping shift in the adhikar to interpret our traditions.
I find the Western interventionists making multi-year strategic plans with the benefit of having similar experiences in their other interventions. But I do not find any prominent Hindu leaders taking note of this syndrome, much less offering a counter-discourse.
My recommendations to Hindu leaders are as follows:
We should remain open to outsiders but not lose control to them.
Kumbh Mela should remain anchored primarily as a sacred yajna to re-enact the cosmic processes. It must not turn into a tourism spectacle or grand circus of weirdness for outsiders to enjoy. Even though there is money to be made from such a large gathering, that agenda should not take control over the mela.
The group of akhadas (sadhu organizations) that have run the mela since time immemorial must assert its authority firmly. This means that it must bring in advisors who know how these dangerous forces operate, especially those who have done the requisite purva-paksha on such forces.
Under the leadership of the akhadas, the state governments involved must develop risk assessment and risk management strategies to pre-empt the kinds of threats I am raising here.
Those firmly established as insiders (practitioners with shraddha) should retain control to evaluate the issues that do exist, and that need to be addressed from within. This includes making all kinds of studies ourselves, rather than abandoning that responsibility and letting outsiders take control over the data gathering and analysis about the mela. Issues like pollution and any form of social oppression must be taken seriously and dealt with by our leaders. Changes must be discussed and implemented, to move with the times. Our smritis are not meant to be frozen and do need constant debate and change in the face of new developments. Scientific validation of traditional practices must be done by our organizations and not be granted on a platter to outsiders.
Since 90% of the participants are traditional Hindus from villages and small towns, these innocent and humble persons must be given the utmost respect; they are the last remaining true practitioners of our heritage. They come from faraway places at great cost and effort because for them this is a very special spiritual experience.
Our leaders must develop poison pills to protect against digestion. These include respect for living gurus, sacred places, non-translatables, sacred sounds and mantras, sacred objects and symbols.
The author is an Indian–American researcher, author, speaker. Current affairs, inter-civilization, science