A new view of lepers in Jesus' time: 1-17-19
How to fix the crisis of Christian theology: 1-19/20-19

What draws 120 million people to the same festival? 1-18-19


For my birthday today, I'm taking me (and you) on a virtual trip back to India, where I spent two years of my boyhood.

Our home was in Allahabad, which today (every place seems to change names) is called Prayagraj. Our house was on the campus of what then was called the Allahabad Agriculture Institute (known today as the Sam Higginbottom University of Agriculture, Technology and Sciences).

In the dry season, I could walk from our front veranda to the Jumna (now called Yamuna) River in a few minutes. In the monsoon season, the river came up to our driveway. (The 1957 photo of the Jumna you see here today was taken from our front yard, showing farmers harvesting a crop in the field between our house and the river.)

But from the banks of the river I could look off to my right and see at a distance where the Jumna and the Ganges rivers meet. Hindus also believe that a mystical third river, the Sarasvati, also joins that confluence there. It's there that Hindus periodically hold Kumbh Melas, some of the largest religious gatherings on the planet, involving as many as 120 million people. And that's no typo.

This article in The Guardian says that "Festivals are thought to have been held at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna since ancient times, but historians have more recently argued the Kumbh in its modern form may have started around 1870, emerging from a power struggle between the Hindu clergy and the British colonialists."

The largest of these periodic festivals are, as I say, called Kumbh Melas. As The Guardian reports, "An entire city about two-thirds the size of Manhattan (or 15 sq miles) emerges from the banks of the river to accommodate the numbers attending. This year, that includes 185 miles (300km) of roads and more than 120,000 toilets."

When I was a boy, we attended a smaller gathering at the rivers' confluence, between major Kumbh Melas, and even that festival felt incredibly large. I have a memory of thousands and thousands of people at the edges of the two rivers.

What's interesting to me about all of this is the idea of pilgrimage. What drives people of faith to travel to some sacred geography? Are they interested only in their own personal salvation or is there something broader at stake? Places that I, as a Presbyterian Christian, might think of as pilgrimage spots (many of which I've been to) would include Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Geneva, Scotland and others.

What I mostly was interested in at the time I went to those places was to put some geographical meat on the spiritual bones of my tradition. I wasn't hoping to die there and go immediately to heaven. I wasn't hoping for some kind of life-changing blessing. But I wanted to see the sidewalks, the streets and the other locations where the history of my tradition developed.

But I'm pretty sure I don't want to be one of 120 million people on the banks of two rivers near which I used to live. And yet I'm drawn to the idea that something compels others to make that journey.

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A new study says people of faith tend to get a better night's sleep than others. For one thing, they're more convinced that God's government never shuts down so guardian angels aren't furloughed or working without pay.


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