The Shit of the Saintly is Still Reeking

Garbage on the River Ganga (Ganges)

The Kumbh Mela, the world’s largest religious festival, has just rounded its halfway point in Parag, near Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh. Occurring roughly every three years, the Mela coincides with certain astrological events, and lasts approximately eight weeks. This year’s festivities, will be attended by an estimated eight million people, including the traditional quorum of spiritual poseurs, religious exhibitionists, and voyeurs. Only the most uncritically relativistic, everything-is-beautiful-in-its-own-way, intellectually blinkered observers could possibly see the Kumbh Mela as anything other than a spiritual freak show, notwithstanding the devout piety of the rank-and-file superstitious who also attend.

The rather poor 2005 film, Kumbh Mela, depicted a small slice of the brainlessness of the event. My evidence for the spiritual vacuity of the Kumbh Mela and its participants, however, is drawn from today’s Times of India headline, “Heaps of Garbage Lie Unattended in Mela Area.”

Allahabad’s Senior Medical Officer, Dr. B.P. Singh, describes the situation as critical, with residents of the localities in the proximity of the Mela facing the threat of diarrheal diseases, typhoid, and hepatitis as a direct result of the trash and human waste. The state and local authorities are using heavy equipment to dig pits more than two-meters deep in which to bury the waste, and toilet trenches are in the process of being covered. The authorities plan to spray the entire area with DDT – a chemical agent long-since banned in the US and Europe for its cross-ecosystem toxicity and bio-endurance up the food chain – to stem infestations of rodents, mosquitoes, and other pests.

I am told by those who ponder such things that concern for something beyond oneself is a basic litmus test of spirituality. (I don’t claim any understanding of spirituality whatsoever, so I rely on their assistance in these matters.) If they are correct, the Kumbh Mela participants have revealed themselves as spiritual frauds. Their willingness to make their trash – and their shit – someone else’s problem amply demonstrates their hypocrisy.

Some may argue that an event as large and the Kumbh Mela is bound to suffer waste disposal problems. Certainly any large event attended by thoughtless, self-concerned people will be problematic. Indeed, in India, even tiny gatherings, such as family picnics, almost invariably generate litter – and as a result of exactly the same small-mindedness. But there are excellent examples to show that where event participants are mindful – whether because they are self-aware or have been reminded – everyone takes care of their own garbage.

Last year, we held a number of reasonably large events for our Friends Without Borders project, including stadium gathering at Chinnaswamy, Wankhede, and Gaddafi cricket stadiums, and other major venues such as the Gandhi Ashram, Jalianwala Bagh, and the Wagah Border. Drinks and biscuits were distributed at all the events. The thousands of children and adults who attended these events were told to be sure to put all their trash into dustbins, which we provided. This formal request was all it took for the grounds to be kept essentially litter-free.

Every Saturday night, hundreds of members of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry gather in the school playground for an outdoor film screening. Much of the audience brings snacks; and yet the grounds left are without so much as a single bag or wrapper.

While these examples do not begin to approach the scale of attendance of the Kumbh Mela, there is no logical reason why the concepts of personal responsibility, thoughtfulness about the needs of others, basic ecological consideration, and simple public hygiene should not be infinitely scaleable.

Consider the wildly successful Burning Man Festival, held for one week each year in the fragile environment of the Black Rock desert of Nevada. It is attended by more than 25,000 people annually. And yet, when it concludes, the land is left with only footprints and tire tracks to indicate that the event ever took place. Limiting the environmental impact is an express priority for the organizers of Burning Man; and they successful convey this message to the participants, who respond accordingly.

I’ll not be attending any major religious festivals in India any time soon. But if I do, it will be to help spread the message of public hygiene — and as voyeur.


6 Responses to “The Shit of the Saintly is Still Reeking”

  1. 1 Gregory Fegel 13 May 2008 at 1:19 pm

    The Burning Man gathering occurs in the American desert, where participants must have the means drive into the site of the gathering, and therefore have the means to leave with their garbage, which they can easily dispose of elsewhere. The ‘reasonably large’ Friends Without Borders gathering you mentioned was not the sort of multi-day affair attended by millions such as the Kumbha Mela. A great deal of the responsibility for arranging clean and hygenic practices at the Mela falls on the municipality and organizers.

  2. 2 mbjesq 13 May 2008 at 1:47 pm


    Depending on circumstances, those of greater means may, indeed, have an easier time properly disposing of their waste than those of lesser means; and there is also no doubt that the local government and the event organizers have their own responsibility for establishing sufficient infrastructure to accommodate the attendees. But these factors do not absolve Kumbh Mehla participants from their own environmental thoughtlessness, nor from the blatant spiritual hypocrisy and enormous selfishness their conduct entails.



  3. 4 Kaffir 20 February 2010 at 7:06 pm

    “But these factors do not absolve Kumbh Mehla participants from their own environmental thoughtlessness, nor from the blatant spiritual hypocrisy and enormous selfishness their conduct entails.”
    Dude, your annual environmental footprint would very easily be 100-1000 times (a very conservative guess) than that of a participant of Kumbh Mela, who lives like an ascetic. The pollution produced by all the objects you use on a daily basis is likely much more poisonous and causes more damage to the environment than the shit at Kumbh mela, Mr. holier-than-thou white man. The shit from Kumbh mela would be a drop in the ocean of industrial sewage and sludge that’s poured in rivers on a daily basis, a by-product of “things” that you and I buy. So, focusing on only one aspect (Kumbh Mela) is not only misguided and fallacious, but shows your own prejudices.

    Look, Indians and their ways of living are not your burden to carry – the days of colonialism and white man’s burden are over and done with, except maybe in your mind and in your thinly veiled anti-Hindu attitude. So, relax, have some bhaang, and drop this burden from your shoulders.

    • 5 mbjesq 24 February 2010 at 1:58 am


      You raise an excellent point concerning cumulative environmental footprint. As usual, you do so with a venom that is both unattractive and uninformed. And your fixation on the “white man’s burden” ceases to be laughable when it continues betrays your profound and unnecessary feelings of cultural shame. If one of us is suffering from a post-colonial hangover, I suggest you are the one who seems bent over the toilet bowl of a national inferiority complex.

      At least you have the great personal virtue of maintaining a small environmental footprint — or so we must assume from the degree of self-righteousness with which you address the issue. I cannot claim the same — especially in the context-free, cross-cultural comparison you insist on making: my North American life versus that of some idealized Indian ascetic. Still, I cannot help but believe that you might be mildly impressed with the extent to which I am thoughtful and conscientious about the way in which I live on this earth, both in limiting and mitigating my personal impact and in my active involvement in conservation, restoration, and public education programs. I don’t actually give a rat’s ass about impressing you; but your “guesses” about my life are always so wildly off-base and so heavily biased in favor of insult that, at some point, you ought to be called on it.

      With respect to the generation of solid waste based on patterns of consumption, consider the following figures. The average American generates 1.8 kg of waste per day; the average Indian produces 0.5kg per day. My household — my partner and I, for ourselves and accommodating our guests — generates about 0.6kg of mixed or unrecyclable solid waste per week, on average. We compost all organic waste and, the small amount of recycling we have (approximately 0.7 – 2.5kg per week) is carefully segregated to ensure efficient processing by the municipality.

      But, there are more basic fallacies in your argument which earn reproval.

      To begin with, the subject of my essay was not cumulative environmental footprint; it was solid and human waste. My point was not simply that the attendees of the Kumbh Mela manifest filthy public hygiene; it was that the environmental and social thoughtlessness they display seems a contradiction to their professed spirituality. While your suggestion that Kumbh Mela attendance is limited to “ascetics” is absurd on its face, participation clearly consists entirely of spiritual seekers, spiritual poseurs, and spiritual voyeurs. These folks are fair game for my critique.

      Do you really think I have an anti-Hindu attitude? Honestly, I find Hinduism no more idiotic than any other religion. In fact, I find it exactly equally idiotic to all the others. And I happen to believe in absolute religious tolerance, if only because the more intuitive position, absolute religious intolerance, is morally objectionable and impracticable. I am the ultimate in religious egalitarianism. You must have me confused with someone else — a recurring problem, it seems.


  4. 6 seo 13 May 2014 at 8:19 am

    This is a topic that’s close to my heart… Cheers! Where are your
    contact details though?

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