Researchers studying the largest single gathering of people on earth may have unlocked the secret of how large communities can live together in harmony.
Psychologists from the University of St Andrews have just returned from studying the largest crowd event on earth – the 30 million strong Kumbh mela in Allahabad, Northern India.
In collaboration with researchers from the Universities of Dundee and Lancaster, Professor Steve Reicher and Dr Clare Cassidy observed crowd behaviour at the mela, a month long Hindu festival held on the banks of the Ganges. The festival provides a unique setting in which to study mass psychology.
"As well as academically interesting, the mela is visually amazing and an incredible event – like a vast biblical scene," Professor Reicher explained. "Despite the fact that the mela seems designed to increase stress in every way – it is very noisy, very unhealthy, very packed – what we found was that actually people feel serene, peaceful , and unstressed. It raises very important questions about the nature of collective participation and how it can affect both individual well -being and social cohesion," Professor Reicher said. "While Western research has always suggested that being crowded with strangers is a bad thing, the mela shows that crowding can be highly positive as long as we share a common sense of identity with others. The mela is much more than a wonderful spectacle. It promises to unlock the secrets of how large communities can live together in harmony".
Commenting on events such as the Kumbha mela at Allahabad or the Ratha-yatra at ]agannath Puri, Srila Prabhupada stressed that these events are evidence that the followers of true Vedic culture are not lazy_ Many Western thinkers (and many more in India, too) have criticized the Vedic way of life as fatalistic and encouraging lethargy. Once, when Srila Prabhupada was attending the Kumbha mela one disciple had to go to the Allahabad Railway station. As that day happened to be one of the important bathing dates he did not get a ny rickshaw-wallah to take him to the station. Exasperated, he offered five times the usual fare, but the man said that he would not miss the chance to take his bath. When Srila Prabhupada heard this he appreciated the rickshaw-wa!lah's behaviour.
A second thing Srila Prabhupada noted about these events is that there is no advertisement. Pilgrims come on their own. In Srila Prabhupada's words, "By their birth Indians are trained in spirituality. Through the veins of Indians, spiritual fluid flows. Unfortunately leaders are misguiding them and they are becoming atheists."
Finally, Srila Prabhupada warns that such gatherings are not just a gathering of masses for taking a ritualistic bath. Lord Krsna Himself issues a stern warning in the Srimad-Bhagavatam:
One who identifies his self as the inert body composed of mucus, bile, and air, who assumes his wife and family as permanently his own, who thinks an earthen image or the land of his birth as worshipable, or who sees a place of pilgrimage as merely the water there, but who never identifies himself with, feels kinship with, worships or even visits those who are wise in spiritual truth- such a person is no better than a cow or an ass. (SB 10.84.13)
Ultimately the real purpose of the Kumbha mela is sat-sanga or the opportunity to associate with the devotees of the Supreme Lord. If one takes the opportunity afforded by such a gathering only to take a dip in the waters, then he is no more intelligent than a donkey.To conclude, it is heartening to note that Westerners are appreciating the significance of the Kumbha mela (albeit for a tertiary purpose), but if they realize it's true relevance through hearing from a bonafide spiritual master, then they can achieve the real sense of harmony.