The Mammoth, Multi-faith Kumbh Mela: A Place of Practical Plurality amid Colossal Chaos

Location: OCHS Library
Speaker: Kalpesh Bhatt
Date: November 9, 2015
Time: 11:00am to 12:00pm

This lecture is based on the 2013 Maha-Kumbh Mela held in Allahabad, in which Kalpesh Bhatt conducted field research as a part of the Harvard Kumbh Workshop. Recognized as the largest religious gathering in the world, the Kumbh Mela is a mammoth, multi-faith event that hosts around 100 million pilgrims from diverse and at times antithetical Hindu traditions ranging from polytheistic to monotheistic to atheistic. Even a few Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, and other South Asian traditions also participate in the Kumbh, making it an intricately convoluted convergence of manifold beliefs, practices, and rituals. The enthusiasm of and differences among the millions of laypersons and ascetics who flock to the Kumbh occasionally culminate into a fierce commotion arising from mundane issues such as space allocation, crowd control, unchecked competition, and crass commercialization.

Despite embodying such a colossal chaos, the Kumbh Mela provides an example of practical pluralism by effecting a mostly harmonious confluence of diverse belief systems and practices. Drawing from textual sources as well as his ethnographic fieldwork in the 2013 Kumbh Mela, Allahabad, India, Bhatt examines how does the spirit of sacrifice embedded in the spatial and spiritual vastness of the Kumbh engender the active seeking of understanding across lines of differences without leaving one’s identities and commitments behind? Although grounded in disparate theological, philosophical, and sociocultural foundations, millions of lay people, religious leaders, wandering sadhus, and solitary ascetics coexist and coalesce, albeit temporarily, in this month-long event. How we can extrapolate this ecumenical model of the Kumbh Mela to embrace pluralism pragmatically in a larger context.

Kalpesh Bhatt joined the collaborative doctoral program at Department for the Study of Religion, Centre for South Asian Studies, and Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto, after completing Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. Prior to that, fusing his interests in science, religion, and art, Kalpesh led a number of creative projects, including the production of an IMAX film, Mystic India, and a high-tech water spectacular, Sat-Chit-Anand, based on the Upaniṣadic story of Naciketā. Kalpesh’s doctoral project is to do modern Hindu theology from pre-modern Hindu texts such as the Bhagavad Gītā and study its role in Indian diaspora’s grappling with everyday personal and socioeconomic struggles.