Saturday, March 2, 2013

Kumbh Mela -- its sources

M. Witzel (3/2/13)

Kumbh Melā : another way to heaven. 

In the current excitement about the Kumbh Melā, it has been entirely overlooked how this pilgrimage actually originated. I do not mean the usual tales, of second or third elaboration, that are found in the Itihāsa (Epic) and Purāṇa literature,[1] but the first source that we actually have, the Veda.

To understand the matter it is useful to recapitulate a few salient facts of the Melā: the bath at the confluence of two sacred rivers, the Yamunā and Gaṅgā, at Allahabad (the ancient Prayāga).  The confluence is believed to be a Triveṇī, where the three ‘strands’ (veṇī) of these two rivers and of the invisible, underground Sarasvatī join. At this confluence stood a sacred tree,[2] from which some would jump into the rivers: upon this suicide they would gain immediate access to heaven. The land between the two rivers Gaṅgā and Yamunā was called Antarvedi “the inner vedi”.[3]

All these terms recall Vedic beliefs and rituals:

The vedi is the area on the sacrificial ground between the three sacred fires representing heaven, earth and moon. The name Prayāga is derived from yaj or pra-yaj  “to offer” a solemn Vedic (śrauta) ritual.

The Vedic connections do not end here. The river Sarasvatī is the most-praised river in our oldest text, the Ṛgveda.[4] Together with its parallel sister stream, the Dṛṣadvatī (now Chautang),[5] the Sarasvatī (now Sarsutī, Ghagghar-Hakra) forms the western and eastern boundary of Kurukṣetra. This is the  famous area where even the gods sacrifice: the land is indeed called a deva-yajana,[6] as the Yajurveda texts tell us. (Late Vedic kings make a pilgrimage all the way from Bihar to this area to reach heaven).[7]

The Sāmaveda and Yajurveda Brāhmaṇas tell us that the Sarasvatī disappears  (vi-naś) in the sands of the Tharr desert,[8] at a place called upamajjana “diving under” or vinaśana. Later on, Epic and Purāṇic texts say that the river did so out of shame, and that it now flows underground, eastwards up to Prayāga.

The Sāmaveda Brāhmaṇa texts[9] describe in detail  a gradual ‘pilgrimage’ (yāt-sattra) along the Sarasvatī,[10]  upstream from its disappearance in the desert until one reaches her source at  Plakṣa Prāsravaṇa in the lower Himalayas. This is “the Plakṣa  tree of  “streaming forth” (pra-sravaṇa).”[11] Once the sacrificers participating in the sattra ritual reach that tree, they reach heaven.[12]

This place is called by other texts the “center of the earth” or the “center of heaven”: it is located one span northwest of the tree.[13] Indeed, the center is frequently characterized as having the giant world tree, with its roots  in the netherworld and its upper branches in heaven.[14]

Even if one should die during the sattra pilgrimage one still reaches heaven.[15] However, upon reaching the Plakṣa tree one may also gain a thousand cows, and if one should not succeed, one may descend into the nearby Yamunā,[16] at a place called Tri-plakṣa and simply “disappear,” in other words, commit suicide in the Yamunā river. [17]

One Brāhmaṇa text says that one can also carry out the same upstream pilgrimage along the Yamunā until on reaches its ‘top’ (vartman).[18]

Finally, upon studying more closely the ancient Vedic  traditions about the Sarasvatī (“she who has many ponds”) and the Dṛṣadvatī  (“she who has many stones”), one notices that both rivers are the mundane reflection of two “rivers” in the nighttime sky. This reflects the common mythological theme “as above, so below”. These two rivers are the two branches of the Milky Way, the ‘heavenly Gaṅgā’ or svarnadī as she is later called.[19] The area between them, the “gate,” is a reflection of Kurukṣetra.[20]

Importantly, though we may not be aware of it, the Milky Way actually moves, unlike a given single star or the Sun, counter-clockwise around the celestial North Pole (now, the Pole Star).[21] Upon following the Sarasvatī upstream or by “entering” a branch of the Milky Way when it touches the earth,[22] one moves “upstream” to the world tree and the top of the sky (nāka), the place where the gods reside.[23]

In sum, all major elements of the Kumbh Melā are present here, with Kurukṣetra transferred eastward to the Pañcāla area that became central to later Hindu religion: to Prayāga, thus, just a bit upstream from Benares.

Nowadays, the Milky Way no longer descends at Plakṣa Prāsravaṇa but at the source of the Ganges, first falling on Śiva’s head, and then continuing on earth, just like the Milky Way did at the source of the mundane Sarasvatī. The area between the two sacred rivers, Gaṅgā and Yamunā, that substitute for Dṛṣadvatī and Sarasvātī, is called an offering ground (prayāga), just as Kurukṣetra was that of the gods (deva-yajana).

It is at the confluence of the two rivers from where one starts one’s journey to heaven. In Vedic times it was done near the confluence of the Sarasvatī and Dṛṣādvatī.[24] Now this is done at the Yamunā-Gaṅgā Triveṇī, by a bath or by jumping from the tree at Prayāga. 

As so often in later Hinduism, the tedious and periculous[25]  journey along the sacred river (earlier, the Vedic Yamunā) is substituted by a mere bath at its Allahabad tīrtha. This is marked by the Plakṣa (or now a Banyan)[26] tree, which originally stood at the source of the Sarasvātī river but now marks its underground confluence, representing another shortcut: one no longer has to track the Yamunā (or Gaṅgā) upstream to their respective sources.  The link with the Vedic Sarasvatī tree however is preserved: it marks the place where the “underground” Sarasvatī of later times joins the confluence of the Gaṅgā and Yamunā.

Both the Sarasvatī and the Gaṅgā descend  down from the sky, the Sarasvatī from the Milky Way at Plakṣa Prāsravaṇa in the lower Himalayas and the heavenly Gaṅgā (svarnadī) from the skies to Śiva’s head, and then down, via the Himalayas, to Gangotrī and Hardwar.[27]

In Vedic and modern times one starts the pilgrimage at or near the confluence of the two branches of the heavenly Gaṅgā: they once were  represented by the mundane Sarasvatī and the Dṛṣadvatī, and they are now represented by  the Gaṅgā, Yamunā and the mythical, underground Sarasvatī.

By taking a bath at the confluence of the latter Triveṇī and by following the Vedic Sarasvatī,
people associate themselves  with a river that will move them upstream, and finally let them enter the river’s reflection in the nighttime sky, the Milky Way. It will transport them counterclockwise, upward to the region of the Pole Star, as to reach the realm of the gods.

Which is, of course, why millions of Hindu pilgrims – and Harvard academics[28]-- still make the journey.

The present writer, however, unlike his ‘pilgrimage’ to the Vedic Agnicayana ritual in Kerala in 2011, has preferred to stay put and instead pore over various Vedic texts so as to unravel the secrets of the Kumbh Melā.


The take-away is:  The traditions underlying the Kumbh Melā furnish one more example that the close study of the Vedic texts can explain later Epic and Purāṇic myths and rituals, as the present writer has shown a few decades ago.[29]

[1] See W. Kirfel. Die Kosmographie der Inder. Bonn 1920. [Reprint, Darmstadt 1967]: 109, 175; for another interpretation of the Ganga and Yamunā, see F.B.J. Kuiper, Ancient Indian Cosmogony, Bombay 1983: 32.
[2]  The akṣaya vaṭa “the indestructible Banyan” tree at Patalpuri temple.
[3] Witzel, Sur le chemin du ciel. Bulletin des études indiennnes 2 (1984): 213-279, n. 50.
[4]  See Macdonell-Keith’s Vedic Index II 434 sqq.; notably Ṛgveda  6.61;   2.41.16
[5] Dṛsadvatī means “she who has many stones.” The Milky Way is called aśmanvatī  “having many stones” in Atharvaveda 19.2.26-27, cf. Mayrhofer, Kurzgefasstes etymologisches Wörterbuch, II p. 61.
[6] Witzel, Sur le chemin, n. 50; Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa (JB) 2.299: “In these sattras … they go towards the east, across the whole of the Kurukṣetra. This territory is the sacrificial ground of the gods.  They cross the sacrificial ground of the gods.”
[7] Pañcaviṃśa Brāhmaṇa (PB) 25.10.17:  “It is by this means that the King Namī Sāpya of Videha went directly to the shining world.”
[8] JB 2.297 (ed./transl. W. Caland §156).
[9] Pañcaviṃśa and Jaiminīya Brāhmaṇa.
[10] Described in detail in PB 25.10 and JB II 297 sqq. (Caland,  §156 sqq.) One proceeds, by daily throwing the śamyā  knife upstream and continuing the ritual where it falls. -- Cf. PB 25.13 for another Yātsattra, along the Dṛṣādvatī.
[11] PB 25.10.16:  “At forty-four (days) on horseback from the disappearance of the Sarasvatī stands the Plakṣa Prāsravaṇa. At the same distance from here is the world of heaven. The go to the world of heaven by a journey commensurate with the Sarasvatī.” (Caland).
[12] JB 2.297 sq: “They go as far as the Prakṣa Prāsravaṇa. Prakṣa Prāsravaṇa is the place where speech ends. In the place where speech ends, there is the shining world (the Milky Way). They go so well that they arrive at the shining world.”
[13] The center of the world, see Jaiminīya Upaniṣad Brāhmaṇa 4.6.12; or the center of heaven (divo madhyam), in the unedited Vādhūla Pitṛmedha Sūtra see Witzel, Eine fünfte Mitteilung über das Vādhūla-Sūtra. Studien zur Indologie und Iranistik (StII), Vol. 1, 1975, pp. 75-108.
[14] Note the image of the stūpa with its central pole (see B. Kölver:  Re-building a stūpa: architectural drawings of the Svayaṃbhūnāth. Bonn 1992). In some old representations the central pole of the stūpa still has branches at the top, similar to the Icelandic Yggdrasil. The motif is widespread in Eurasia.
[15]  JB 2. 298: “These sattras have these accomplishments: (udṛc; utthāna Taitt.S.): -- if they succeed completely, that is one; -- if one of them dies, that is one; -- if 100 cows become 1000, that is one. --- [And, after someone had died during the sattra]: “Do not lament!  This (man), for whom you are here lamenting, he has taken, once past the āhavanīya (fire, in the east), the path of the shining world.”
[16] JB 2.299 “They take their final bath in the Yamunā.  Now, the Yamunā is the shining world. They go therefore towards the shining world."
[17] In the Dṛṣadvatī-Sattra  (PB 25.13):  “they descend to Triplakṣa at the Yamunā for the final bath.  That is where he becomes invisible to men." (Or one takes the bath at the unknown location Kārapacava, on the Yamunā, in the Sarasvatī-Sattra). -- This region exhibits other astounding properties:  in the śaiśava river branch, Cyavana was rejuvenated (JB 3, 121 sqq).
[18] JB 3.150: A certain (named) person gained heaven (svarga-loka) by ‘mounting’ (ārohaya) the Yamunā, against the current (pratīpa) and finding for himself a way (me vartmāni, svavartmāni) that he used as a path (niyāna) to the top of heaven. The parallel text, PB 13.9.19, does not speak of this. However, this is a first indication of the shift of the old Vedic tradition eastwards to the “middle country” (Madhyadeśa, U.P.)  
[19] --  "The consecration (dīkṣā) is performed at the place where the Sarasvatī disappears (in the desert sands). They follow the current (of the Sarasvatī). The counter-current is, so to speak, the shining world (i.e. the movement of the Milky Way, in the morning, from December to June; see fig.3a in:  It is thus that one attains the shining world. They go towards the northeast. The shining world is partially (iva) to the northeast (i.e. moves towards the northeast -- from December to June).  They go, rising towards the shining world.  They go as far as the Prakṣa Prāsravaṇa.  Prakṣa Prāsravaṇa is the place where speech ends. In the place where speech ends, there is the shining world. They go so well that they arrive at the shining world.”
[20] JB 2.297: “The shining world is, so to speak (iva), in the northeast.” JUB 4.15.4 svargasya lokasya dvāra. This doorway is located there, at the spot where the bifurcation of the Milky Way (in the Aquila constellation) becomes visible on winter mornings, around the time of winter solstice. In June and in July, at summer solstice, the "doorway" of the Milky Way disappears in the west.
[21]As the Milky Way is lightly curved and ‘bent’ above the North Pole, or rather, at the beginning of the Vedic period, curved around the three polar stars surrounding the pole  (see fig. 1 in: at that time there was no Pole Star yet, due to precession.
[22] There is a similar myth in the early Daoist literature of China, Jun Ping: he stepped a float in the Milky Way, moved around with it, until he reached home again after one year. 
[23] Actually one can do so also by mounting the ‘back’ of heaven at the eastern end of the world, where heaven touches the ocean surrounding the earth with a minuscule gap as broad as the wing of an insect  (Bṛhad Āraṇyaka Upaniṣad 3.3.2), and then moving towards the top. Cf. the vartman of the Yamunā.
[24] A little below, that is where the Sarasvaṭī disappeared in the desert:  JB II 297 (§ 156) sqq. "The consecration (dīkṣā) is performed at the place where the Sarasvatī disappears (in the desert sands).”
[25] See above on the Yātsattra.
[26] Both are ficus trees: the Plakṣa is the Ficus infectiora, (D. Brandis, Indian trees, London 1906, 602, 718); the Vaṭa is the Banyan (Ficus bengalensis, also called Ficus indica (Brandis 600, 603). 
[29]  Witzel,  Macrocosm, Mesocosm, and Microcosm. The persistent nature of 'Hindu'
beliefs and symbolical forms. In S. Mittal (ed.) IJHS Symposium on Robert Levy's MESOCOSM,  International Journal of Hindu Studies, 1.3 Dec. 1998, 501-53.