The Nature of Guru Devotion at Kumbh Mela

Article by: Chip Conley|@ChipConley

Thu February 14, 2013 | 00:00 AM

DSC02298On the most auspicious bathing days, there are guru parades with followers carrying placards and singing their names

As seen on AFAR

You don’t need a guru to enjoy Kumbh Mela. I don’t have one, other than my occasional slavish devotion to my iPhone, and I was still mighty intrigued by the devotional nature of this sacred festival. But, for those who are followers of a particular Hindu sage, this experience – especially getting considerable face-to-face time with their ultimate mentor – is as good as it gets on the earthly plane.

KM-2088-webAscending gurus like Brahamrishi Maunibabaji have multiple assistants – with his chief, Fhoola, right by his side

After doing nine days of an Indian spiritual tour, I will never look at my father’s aunt’s name (Baba) the same way ever again. Trying to sort out who’s climbed the Hindu stature high enough to be considered a baba is often just a matter of looking at the quantity and quality of their followers.

DSC01793_0The 264 year old Barfani guru getting a two-person foot massage

I found the guru parades – with marigold-attired tractors pulling the gregarious gurus – akin to a 4th of July parade and picnic in small town America, or maybe it’s on the high school playground with the enthusiasm of rallies for Student Body President candidates. Most of the more well-regarded and higher-ranking gurus chose not to use these public displays of boosterism.

DSC02279There’s a homespun flavor to these guru parades with tractors pulling the cart that the ceremonial team is sitting on

It was easy to dismiss these Chamber of Commerce-like processions, but then I reminded myself that India is the capital of the world for festivals so any excuse to create a ceremonial celebration will inspire the Indians to do it right.

DSC02274I was told that this Maha Mela was the first that had a moderate amount of female gurus with their bands of followers in tow

DSC02322Some of these ceremonial parades shots look like a dysfunctional family photo, in this case, with the teenage son in the lower right hand corner having snuck out to the garage to get high before the traditional annual photo

For the higher babas, there’s a need for a security team as the devotees can get carried away with their demonstrative way of appreciating them. I’m amazed that some of these gurus are out with their followers for sixteen hours a day for weeks on end.

DSC02061I particularly like the little kid with the “Dn’t Touch” jacket as a suggestion to the followers who’ve crowded in line to be at the feet of Barfani Dadaji

Our travel companion, Acharya Sri, was truly in a spell, as the two people he looks up to most, Babaji and Barfani, were here together and often in the same tent. I spent a few hours at the feet of these gurus with Acharya Sri and could really feel his deep love for the wisdom and inspiration these gurus have given him.

IMG_0357It is not unusual to see one guru (Acharya Sri) following another (Babaji)

I spoke with one follower (pictured below) who told me that his devotional practice had helped him to get out of his “mind maze.” Coming to Kumbh Mela to experience multiple gurus helped him to melt his mind (he had a thing for four-letter “m” words) and open his heart. His smorgasbord approach to listening to a variety of sages left him radiant by the end of the day. I wanted some of what he was having!

KM-1816-webThis was one of my favorite fellows I met at the Mela as he would go from guru tent to guru tent, fill up on the message inside with a big smile on his face and a lift in his spirit and then dive into the next guru’s tent

Can you be a skeptic and enjoy Kumbh Mela? Absolutely. The experience is profound on many levels: the cultural anthropology of understanding this age-old festival and why it’s the largest in the world, the physical beauty of the people and the location at two rivers joining, and the expression of love that is intensely palpable. While I don’t understand Hindi, I do understand Love (at least on a good day).

DSC02079Given that I was at the Mela for just 4 days, it’s hard to call me a devotee at this stage although I did enjoy the cuisine and fashion in the Barfani tent, whose image as a spiritual leader has been plastered on the wall throughout the Mela