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In A Swirl Of Humanity, A Chance Encounter With A Saint

Gyanesh Kamal, a Hindu saint, attends the Kumbh Mela on the banks of the Ganges River in the northern Indian city of Allahabad. The gathering is the largest religious festival in the world.
Anoo Bhuyan
Gyanesh Kamal, a Hindu saint, attends the Kumbh Mela on the banks of the Ganges River in the northern Indian city of Allahabad. The gathering is the largest religious festival in the world.

Kurt Vonnegut once said, "What makes life worth living are the saints. ... They can be longtime friends or someone I meet on a street. They find a way to behave decently in an indecent society."

And so it is with Gyanesh Kamal, a man I met at India's Kumbh Mela, one of the oldest festivals on Earth. To the uninitiated, this spiritual spectacle is a discombobulating din of prayers, loudspeakers and pilgrims so ceaseless it disorients the senses.

Tens of millions of Hindu pilgrims gather every 12 years for this festival that plays out on the banks of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers in the northern city of Allahabad. Considered to be the world's largest religious festival, the Kumbh Mela lasts nearly two months, with the final bathing day this year on March 10.

On a recent visit, I randomly wandered into the compound of one akhara, or Hindu sect, that dates back 800 years, in search of someone who could enlighten me on the mysteries of this noise and devotion.

Out of nowhere a voice beckoned: "Can I help you?"

I swirled around and found a bear of a man, bespectacled and wrapped in layers of clothes that accentuated his girth.

His invitation began what was to be an eight-hour lesson in Hinduism and humanity.

A Lesson About Fire

Kamal, 56, said the basic tenet of Hinduism is "to know what you are." That earth, water, sky, air and fire are the five elements that life embodies, including the human body.

"Fire?" I asked incredulously.

"Love is a fire," he said, "cruelty is a fire, affection is fire. ... Fire is the beginning and the end in Hinduism. When fire came, man became civilized."

Followers of Kamal prepare tea during the Kumbh Mela.
Julie McCarthy / NPR
Followers of Kamal prepare tea during the Kumbh Mela.

Betraying a Westerner's skepticism, I asked how he came by this trove of religious knowledge. The answer startles: Kamal is a saint in the Hindu religion, born in Allahabad. I've met remarkable souls who would fit Vonnegut's description of saintly, but never an actual saint. The term "sant," or saint, is derived from the Sanskrit, its root meaning being "one who knows the truth."

The Hindu holy man seated me before a fire surrounded by his disciples, their faces aglow in the flame. When he noticed my eyes burning from the smoke, he offered cups of tea. The dizzying noise of dancers in the next tent distracted me, but not him.

"Every thinker shuts their ears, shuts their eyes, mouth, every sense," he said.

"How?" I asked, eager to know.

"Make silent your mind, and you can think fantastic things of this world. Practice," he said. "Whenever we become silent, then thinking starts."

There is an Obi-Wan Kenobi syntax to the speech of this saint who laughs easily, breaks into relaxing mantras readily and ratifies the observations of guests.

Living Beside The River

The Kumbh strikes me as the ultimate expression of simplicity, living on the ground, bathing in the Ganges River.

"If you have simplicity, there is no need for getting a lot of material things to live your life," Kamal said. "You can easily become a true person. If you lead your life by truth, you can get everything in this world."

As for the attraction the Kumbh holds for Westerners, he said, "People are bored with materialism. Materialism cannot fulfill you. ... Every season you get a new fashion. You're confused," he said with a smile.

"You are making yourself strong by this simplicity [here]. The whole night, we sit under the sky, beside a fire. We need nothing. This lifestyle is epic. This fashion," he said with certainty, "never fades."

India's holy men usually leave their families as children to be schooled in the rigors of religious life. The idea that Kamal would fix a date or a moment when the time came in his life for such devotion confounds him.

"I was born a sadhu," or saint, he said matter-of-factly, "like you were born a journalist" (to which I laughed).

It was well after midnight, and in a few hours the holiest day of Kumbh would dawn, the reason I came. Seeing that my team and I were exhausted after two sleepless nights, the saint of Allahabad gathered us beneath a tent, warmed us with blankets and disappeared into the darkness.

A Deadly Stampede

That Sunday evening, following a day of processions and holy bathing, a stampede at the train station killed three-dozen pilgrims and cast a pall over the Kumbh.

The next morning, I rushed to see our Hindu holy man to thank him and say goodbye. We had agreed to meet, but he was nowhere to be found. With a flight to catch and time running out, reluctantly I headed to the hospital to talk to survivors of the stampede. In the critical care unit, my phone rang. "I am here," said a familiar voice.

We dashed outside, and in the midst of a media scrum I spotted Kamal, who had just come from the morgue, angry and saddened.

"Bad administration is to blame," he told me. "I will file public interest litigation in the courts." And so he has.

I recalled the night before, as Kamal poked himself and said, "This body is immaterial. But your body and his body," he said, pointing to a follower, "everybody else's body is important to me."

A holy man at the site of the disaster, he had come to console the living, cremate the dead and remind us of Vonnegut's observation of the saints among us.

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Julie McCarthy
Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.