One of the initial discoveries of the early man could have been that there is a difference between air and water in sustaining life.  Air comes to us and we breathe, but we reach out for water.  We have the ability to filter the odor and filth in air in moderate amounts, but water with slight pollution is capable to kill us.   We need air to sustain life, but we need water to nurture life.  Water is the lubricant in the body.  Man dies because of lack of water and not by lack of air.  Early humans searched and settled near good water sources. This gave rise to river based civilizations.


It has not been estimated when man might have discovered that water can heal.  The simplest therapy to any ailment is to cleanse the internal organs of the body with water.  Water is a great solvent and it has the ability to wash off the deposited germs and residues in the internal organs.  In this manner, water is used as a medicinal healing agent.   In such experimentation in life, man might have discovered that the qualities of all sources of water might not be same.  Though appearing transparent, there could be a difference in stream water and rain water; pond water and river water.  We do not know how many thousands of years must have gone by in making these experiments.


Then the most important discovery might have taken place; that is to observe the span of life.  That human life could be prolonged with proper nourishment might have been the most important intellectual discovery in human civilization.  This also leads to an imagined scenario that the human body may ward off germs and impurities with the inherent force of purity of life.  With the added observations that the sick person can heal, the dying person can rise bring us to the concept of the administration of “holy water”.  Compounding with the further observation that the celestial objects like the sun, the moon and the stars show up “fresh” day after day, and year after year, it is easy to create the mythology of the existence of an “elixir of life,” which must exist somewhere.


As I am writing this, I must confess that the required study of human settlements and human discoveries is still to be conducted.  We only reconstruct a possible evolution based on the compositions in the Vedas.  It so happened that the part of the Vedas were composed when the poets lived near the River Ganga and they were pleased with the bountifulness of the vegetation including the amazing healing property of the water in the river.  This possibly led to explore the origin of River Ganga in the Himalayas and the whole mythology of “Ganga ” deity developed, being imagined as the nourishing divine mother alighting from the sky to serve the mankind. The Milky Way was connected to “Ganga” in the sky.


“Sin” as a concept in Indian tradition was slow to creep in.  There were observations in the ancient pre-Vedic people that all people did not maintain happiness in life.  Some were tormented with bad health more than others;  some received more of their share in grief than others.  This led to institute a logical explanation, which has come down as “karma” till today.  “karma” develops through the deviation of “truth.”  Since the “truth” remains unknown, one may not even know that one is accumulating “karma.”  The accumulation is exhibited through the “quality of life”, which may take several generations to “heal”.   This kind of social philosophy with the fear of the unknown became eventually the founding belief in Indian tradition.


“karma” did become a tool that tried to keep order in the structural hierarchy in the society.  Some people who had good living, who were endowed with intellect, who managed good families were assumed to have the benefit of good “karma” against those who suffered, or were sick, and were helpless.  Naturally the thought would arise if the poor and not so privileged could do something physically to rescue themselves from the condition of penury.  Philosophically a set of noble code of conduct was developed which has come to be known as the Jaina faith.  The idea is that “karma” pollutes the mind, which can only be “cleaned” by the rigorous practice of austerities build into the “noble code of conduct.” Truthfulness and practice of nonviolence are important edicts in this code.


The Vedic tradition accepted the “karma” and did adopt its cleansing tool in its own metaphysics.  Elaborate purification rituals were engineered in order that the person might absolve himself or herself from any accumulated “sin”.  The declared goal of life was to merge with the cosmic ideal, religiously called “moksha”, loosely translated as “liberation.”  The idea was that it was possible to get rid of whatever “karma” one might have and one could aspire for the transcendental heavenly abode by performing a whole host of rituals which included massive sacrifices.  Since the youth and middle age are necessarily busy and involved, it was prescribed to set aside the old age for the necessary austerities and to prepare for the death.  This scheme became the core of Hindu faith.


While the Jainas and Hindus believed that man must be “reborn” in order to “suffer” from the “karma”, the Jewish faith created a belief system incorporating a “heaven” and a “hell” to be reached after death.  Through tradition and social conditions, they developed intricate cannons of conduct.  Through the complexity of the code, all adults would be considered “sinners” in some way.  This led to the ritual of purification through “immersion” as a religious exercise where some “sins” could be washed off.  Repeated “immersions” could lead to more purity as an article of faith.  The ritual of “immersion” got transformed into a ritual of “baptism” in the new religion of Christianity.  Here the idea was that the “body” itself gets polluted with the “sin” and could be “cleaned” through ritual dips in water.


While the Hindus were extremely diligent in purification, the idea of cleaning up of “sin” through ritual dips in holy water was a foreign concept in India.  It was practiced by the Greeks and might have entered India during the Greek interaction around 300BC.  Megasthenes, the Greek traveler around that time does not mention about such a ritual in India, while Huen Tsang in 600AD talks about elaborate bathing ritual at the confluence of Ganga and Jamuna at Prayag in Uttar Pradesh, India.  That the “sins” could be cleaned by a “holy dip” did catch on to the Indian psyche strongly.  Penances and sacrifices prescribed in the Vedas are difficult, but a “dip” is doable.  The process has evolved to be a “Mela” (Assembly Festival) in its own right.


We must consider two other concepts.  The first is the concept of “kumbha,” the “sacred pitcher.”  Water was carried from the “sacred rivers” in order to consecrate a king to wish him welfare and a long reign.  Consecration when water is poured on a person’s head is an old Vedic prescribed ritual.  It made the person to remember “evenness” as an attribute learned from water.  “Evenness” in a royal regimen was required for maintaining unbiasedness and in administering justice equally to all.   It does take a form of “rebirth” that the person assumes the new role as the “King.”    Consecration through ritual water continued as a practice when a metal or a stone deity is ceremonially poured holy water over it in order to invoke “life” in the object.  Sometimes the holy water kept in the pitcher is further purified through sacrificial rituals in order to increase the “potency” in the water.   Sometimes the pitcher is compared to the human womb in order to ascribe it the life-giving energy of human birth.


The second concept is that of “elixir of life” we talked about before.  Indian mythology developed through a physical build up that the “evil” in the world must be destroyed by “good” for the survival of the planet.  Since the “elixir of life” has to be liquid, it was conceived to be hidden in the deep ocean in the mythological story.  The “good” and “evil” forces churned the ocean to collect the “kumbha” containing the “elixir of life”.  The “kumbha” could be collected by the good forces and drops of the “elixir” fell at four different spots on the earth.  Two of these spots happen to be on the River Ganges, one at Haridwar and the second at Prayag; the third spot was on River Godavari at Nasik and the fourth spot was on River Sipra at Ujjain.  It is possible that these four spots have been used by the masses for ritual ablution for a length of time and the mythology has been attached to the physical ritual to build a story.


So, what is the purport of the ritual?  Again various mythological stories are attached to create a sense of sanctity.  But the fact remains that running river water particularly that of the Ganga has a healing effect on the human body through its balanced composition and an extra dose of dissolved oxygen which acts as a purifier.  The “holiness” of the water is declared by its perennial nature and its resistance to bacterial growth.   The lower Ganga however currently extremely polluted through arbitrary sewer discharge and disposal of dead bodies.  Water quality is extremely bad by the time the river reaches Bengal.  The water at Haridwar however still remains clean and pure.  The ritual now becomes a mammoth faith assembly where a person may join only with determination and effort.  The purification “dip” of the millions on special days is a human spectacle having no parallel in the planet!


The Festival schedule is calculated through Hindu astrological calculations.  The cycle of repetition is twelve years.  Events at Nasik and Ujjain happen to be held the same year or a year apart, while those at Haridwar and Prayag separate at least by three years.  The waters at River Godavari and River Sipra lack the disinfectant quality of the water of River Ganga, but are considered equally holy because of mythological connections.  The Festivals are dated with astrological positions of Sun and Jupiter in the night sky.  While the Prayag and Haridwar festivals are connected with the solar extreme transit points, the Nasik and Ujjain festivals are scheduled when Jupiter is in the constellation Leo.  Though not much significant scientifically, the periodicity helps to plan and organize in order to maintain the tradition.


The “Maha Kumbh” is an astrological event that recurs every one hundred forty four years.  It occurred in Prayag in 2013.  A “Kumbh” was celebrated in Nasik in 2015 and an “Ardha Kumbha” is in process at Haridwar as of this writing.  A “Simhastha Kumbha” is scheduled in Ujjain later in the summer.   Like the affirmation in the western tradition, the Kumbha Mela event becomes a public affirmation of the Hindu faith that “liberation” was possible and the “dip” in holy water would help clean any incurred sin.  Mark Twain, the American writer observed in his “Journey around the World” (1895) : “It is wonderful, the power of a faith like that, that can make multitudes upon multitudes of the old and weak and the young and frail enter without hesitation or complaint upon such incredible journeys and endure the resultant miseries without repining. It is done in love, or it is done in fear; I do not know which it is. No matter what the impulse is, the act born of it is beyond imagination, marvelous to our kind of people, the cold whites.”


Let Sai bless all.