An Indian Civilizational Perspective

Study: Participating in MahaKumbh improves physical and mental well-being of Pilgrims; Positive impact remains even after the event

The MahaKumbh 2013 has been talked about a lot as it started this week.  It has attracted attention for its Naked Sadhus – the Nagas; the crowds, the celebs who have been and will be there.  The pilgrims who go there, go for a Spiritual aspiration.  Of liberation.  Now, without any deep enough awareness of the Spiritual experience, one may or may not be able to experience a liberated state.

Does that mean that ordinary folks are just restricted to experience large crowds, din above which you have make sense, and some unsanitary conditions?

Well, a new study using several methods to understand the impact of going to something like a MahaKumbh Mela has come out with startling results!  Kalpwasi here is the Pilgrim.

We have been studying the Mela for six years now, using a range of methods from surveys to ethnographies to experiments, and it seems that – far from being stressed – people talk of their experience in powerfully positive terms. In one interview, conducted in shouts in order to be heard over the background noise, our kalpwasi described himself as “serene” and “blissful”.

What is more, these effects seem to endure well beyond the event itself. The results of our survey have just been published in the journal PLoS One. They show that, compared with a control group of people not attending the festival, kalpwasis’ wellbeing was better after the Mela than before.Despite the overwhelmingly bad press that crowds tend to receive, it seems they can be good for you.

Why does this happen?  For one thing, when you participate in such a large gathering, where working together in cohesion with others, without much management, is paramount to your own life itself.  Failure to do so will mean – and has happened in past – sure death for many.  In that kind of a situation, your own identity loses important.  You become – at least physically – part of a larger whole.  A larger humanity than you have ever experienced – in a family or even in a village.  Cities obviously tend to fragment you further.

Our rich ethnographic data, and the statistical modelling of our survey data, show that the combination of intimate social relations and the ability to live out the aspirations rooted in one’s group identity (what we call “collective self-realisation”) are critical to the extreme positivity that kalpwasis experience during the Mela.

This is an interesting result.  If, only if, the Government could conduct this kind of an event in a more sanitary conditions and make it easier for an even larger number of humanity to join the Mela, it would do the country and its citizens – actually even the world, since a million pilgrims will be from outside this year – a world of good!

Finally, the civility and the collective beauty it introduces into the being of the pilgrims endures well after the whole experience of being there.

What our work demonstrates, then, is the power of identity in transforming collective experience and the power of collective experience in transforming everyday life. It shows how a sense of shared identity provides the underpinning for that sense of community and civility about which so much is spoken. And, perhaps most remarkably, it suggests that shared identity also improves our physical wellbeing, with symptoms of ill health less apparent after the Mela than before.

The Mela metropolis may only come into being for a month a year, but it has many effects that endure well beyond.

The study by a team led by Stephen Reicher, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St. Andrews.  The overall findings of the Mela Research Programme will be presented at a press event on 24 January from 11-1pm at the Centre for Behavioural and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, India. To attend, please contact Prof Reicher, Dr Nick Hopkins or Prof Narayanan Srinivasan

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