Are religious festivals unique or universal?
Festivals like Kumbh Mela are unique to a specific time and place, but share some characteristics with other celebrations
Posted on: 21st January 2013
The rituals that have recently taken place in India to mark the start of Kumbh Mela – like those for the Ganesh Chaturthi festival which I blogged about last year – are an indication of the colour and visual richness which are typical of Hinduism.
They also highlight the paradox that while religious customs across the world are each unique, they also tend to share characteristics in common. At the beginning of the Kumbh Mela festival, millions of people gather at Allahabad, where the Ganges and Yamuna rivers meet, to bathe in the cold waters.
Naga sadhus (ascetic holy men) smeared in ash provided a spectacle by rushing into the water on the festival’s first day. (Over 110 million pilgrims are expected to follow them during the festival, which lasts for 55 days.)
This kind of spectacle is of course unique to a particular religion and a particular time and place. That is partly why it is so remarkable. However, bathing and purification rituals are a central part of many religions. It is not too hard to see some parallels – as well as major differences, of course – with epiphany rituals that are part of the Orthodox Christian Church, when men compete in icy water to retrieve a crucifix.
When I was in Kathmandu following my trek through Annapurna, I had the chance to witness a ceremony that involved killing a bullock. It was during the Durga Purja festival , which precedes Diwali, and in which animal sacrifices play a large part. Everywhere in the streets were shrines with beheaded ducks and chickens, and so on.
I went to watch a sacrifice in the army square, where there were priests, soldiers, and huge bullocks. The priests sprinkled water on the bullock’s back. The animal shook its head, which was deemed to be consent for being sacrificed. Then, with one blow, the soldier would behead the beast.
It was an amazing but very bloody sight - which I think might have made many people feel uncomfortable. Personally, I thought it was an interesting illustration of how other people lived and what they believed in.
This ceremony also demonstrated the paradox of difference and similarity. The experience was certainly unlike any religious ceremony that I had seen in Britain. But the idea of sacrifice is a recurrent one, and often a central one, in many religions.
My fascination with this endless religious variety, amid similar broad themes, is one of the reasons why I continue to want to learn about the many religious traditions that exist in the world – and the stories and cultures that surround them.