Holy masses

Short Cut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela

At the 2001 Kumbh Mela, Avadhoot Baba sat on a bed of nails over a flaming pit for world peace. Would a donation to Amnesty International have been as effective?

At the 2001 Kumbh Mela, Avadhoot Baba sat on a bed of nails over a flaming pit for world peace. Would a donation to Amnesty International have been as effective?

Rated 3.0

Every three years, at one of four locations in India, millions of pilgrims gather for the Kumbh Mela, a festival of ritual baths, religious discourses by thousands of gurus and other spiritual events. It’s the largest gathering of humanity in the world (estimates run from 40 million to 70 million participants), and it’s been going on, they say, for well more than 2,000 years. In 2001, the Kumbh Mela was held at Prayag, near the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna, the two most sacred rivers in India. The Prayag Kumbh Mela is considered the holiest, and that particular 2001 gathering is the subject of Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day’s colorful documentary Short Cut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela.

Serving as a sort of master of ceremonies in the film is Swami Krishnanand, a handsome, perpetually smiling young man whom Benazzo and Day seem to have chosen as much for his relaxed and camera-friendly manner as for his spiritual insights. Krishnanand offers a running commentary on the festival and interviews some of the gurus and other spiritual leaders who appear in the film. Some other attendees also comment on what we see. One, Jasper Johal, left India at 19 and has lived in Los Angeles for 23 years; he attended the event to reconnect with his native land. Dyan Summers is a nurse practitioner from New York, there out of curiosity (the film also flirts with an amusing subplot as Krishnanand becomes obviously infatuated with the blond, 30-something Summers, though she doesn’t seem to notice). Also satisfying their curiosity are Justin Davis, a religious-studies graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Vanessa Ramos, an American woman who otherwise is unidentified, although we see her handling a video camera and the closing titles credit her with “additional footage”—in fact, the film is even dedicated to her.

Seeing that dedication to Ramos at the end, and wondering about it, gives a dramatic illustration of just how curiously uninformative Short Cut to Nirvana is. Benazzo and Day include scenes shot both during the day and at night, indicating that the Kumbh Mela stretches out over a number of days, but they give us no idea of exactly how long the gathering lasts.

Any time you get 70 million people together—come to think of it, the Kumbh Mela is the only time that happens—it raises obvious questions about feeding, housing and sanitation. The movie talks briefly about the meals being prepared and the tent city being established, but otherwise the logistics of the festival—which, given the uniqueness of the occasion, must be a truly colossal headache for somebody—are given short shrift. And what about security? Are there never any fistfights? Can this many people congregate in one place without so much as a pickpocket showing up? We see a few uniformed individuals brandishing billy clubs here and there, and there’s a brief sequence—barely a minute—of a toddler who has lost her mother (never fear; the mom and daughter are happily reunited before we can get too stressed out).

But such questions aren’t allowed to dampen the heady blissfulness that marks the Kumbh Mela for Benazzo and Day and their commentators. They do acknowledge, however, that the festival attracts a certain percentage of grandstanding showoffs along with its gurus and holy men and women: one man ostentatiously wraps his penis around a pole held behind his back while a follower perches on the pole, and another actually reclines on a bed of nails. (Summers wryly comments that this doesn’t strike her as evidence of spiritual advancement.)

Given the magnitude of the Kumbh Mela, a comprehensive record is probably too much to expect of Benazzo and Day; after all, Michael Wadleigh needed dozens of cameras, sound technicians and editors to cover Woodstock, and that had a mere half-million attendees. Short Cut to Nirvana works best when viewed as a shortcut itself—a brief, impressionistic snapshot of a massive convergence of an almost unimaginable mass of people, most of them seeking enlightenment and insight into the meaning of life.