The Largest Pilgrimage on Earth

Although most Western religions have their pilgrimages, none can compare for sheer size with a Hindu celebration that takes place in India. Seth Doane has sent us this Dispatch From Haridwar:

It's one of the most extraordinary displays of faith on Earth, a spectacular journey drawing tens of millions of people.

Even before daylight reveals its staggering scale, you can feel the mounting energy.

The streets leading through the north Indian city of Haridwar have become bed , a place to brush one's teeth, and - most importantly - a boulevard to the banks of the Ganges River - the destination for tens of millions of people on an incredible journey of faith.

For some, this pilgrimage took hours or days. For others, a lifetime.

"You give up your framework, your paradigms - you just let go, and that is part of the experience," said one participant.

One man, Viral Shah, came from New York, "Just to do this."

A 15-hour flight from the U.S., and seven-hour drive, were no hurdle for Shah and his friend, Deval Desai:

They say that this is the largest gathering of faith on Earth, and you think about that," said Desai, "the magnitude of this meeting and what it means from a spiritual side."

"I'm not much into that spiritual part," admitted Shah, "but I wanted to come and see the crowd and the excitement."

We watch as this New York State civil engineer cautiously leads the way as he and his buddy - an auto parts executive from Michigan - take part in the holiest routine of the Kumbh Mela . . . a spiritually cleansing dip in the Ganges River.

"Going into this water, what do you feel, other than cold"" Doane asked.

"It just feels like we've accomplished a milestone," said Desai.

It is a milestone. The Maha Kumbh Mela festival comes just once every twelve years to Haridwar, where the holy Ganges River rushes down from the Himalayas.

The word kumbh means "pitcher," and the word mela means "festival."

The story here is, in an ancient battle among the gods over a pitcher carrying the nectar of immortality, some drops were spilled. Those drops fell into the Ganges River, right about here.

(Arden Farhi/CBS)
According to the Hindu belief, bathing at the most auspicious time cleanses the souls of the faithful.

(Left: A participant in Kumbh Mela.)

"In Hinduism, it's never too late - you can always clean things up," said Rajiv Malhotra. "You can always be a better person."

"There's always a chance to start over?" asked Doane.

"You always have the chance to start over - that's the whole idea," he said.

Malhotra studies Indian culture at his New Jersey-based Infinity Foundation. We met him after he took his dip . . .

"Kumbh is the largest gathering of humanity in one place, with no central body that organizes it," he said. "There's no events manager. No one sends out invitation cards."

And no one needs to.

On the last main bathing day, we're told around 5 million people turned out to dip into the Ganges River.

That's equivalent to the populations of Houston and Chicago combined!

To put that into perspective, the epic Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, called the hajj, draws about two million.

Times Square on New Year's Eve? About a million.

But over the course of this three-month-long festival, it's estimated as many as 50 million people will assemble.

Still, there are very private moments.

Even though there are all of these people together, it's still very individual, it seems.

"Yes, yes," agreed Swami Avdheshanand Giri. "We are all the same on the banks of Ganges."

Giri is a Hindu spiritual leader who boasts half a million followers.

In his view, Hinduism is quite liberal, with few boundaries for its believers, the idea being that God is everywhere, and everyone can choose their own way to connect.

"To a skeptic who says, 'You could dip in the Ganges or you could dip in another river, this is all nonsense,' what do you say?" asked Doane.

"This is our faith," Giri said. "if you have faith, faith can give you many things."

Among the most faithful here are the so-called sadhus, or holy men, who cover themselves in ash to represent that in the end that's all we are.

Radheyshyem Buri says he's sat for 30 years under a 300-year-old tree. As he talks, he dispenses blessings . . .

"When the Ganges flows down from the Himalayas, this holy man tells me it will clean everybody," said Naga Sadhu. "But who will clean the river? We sadhus will clean the river."

Three engineering students told us most of all the Kumbh makes them proud of their country, to see such a massive, peaceful assembly of faith.

"Is this something your parents wanted you to do?" they were asked.

"We didn't tell our parents!" they replied.

And after the dip?

"All my sins cleared!" laughed Ashish Bansal.

A hope . . . shared by many here.

Dusk awakens another set of senses. It is an experience that, in many ways, is beyond comprehension.

But maybe that's that point of it all . . .

"Each person is not sitting here philosophically analyzing every bit of symbol and every bit of meaning," said Rajiv. "They're just taking it in, and that is part of the spirit of Hinduism."

For more info:
Kumbh Mela 2010
Five Die in Stampede at Hindu Bathing Festival (BBC News)
Taking a Sacred Plunge, One Wave of Humanity at a Time (N.Y. Times)