The entire game of liberation or bondage is enacted on the stage of the mind,” wrote Tantra scholar Georg Feuerstein. “Unenlightenment is a matter of being ignorant of what is always true of us. Discipleship is a matter of unlearning the way we think about ourselves and reality at large.”
If the travelers to Kumbh Mela had any mantra in mind, this would be fitting. On the journey to making Short Cut To Nirvana (Mela Films), reality checks seem a daily practice. What the pilgrims—some 70 million, the film claims—are interested in is transformation, self-purification. The festival, which occurs every three years in four different cities (making the cyclical 12 years per region), serves as a mass cleansing and direct connection to the divinities of the Hindu pantheon.
Yet Nirvana documented no ordinary Mela; this 2001 event in Allahabad was the Maha Kumbh Mela, occurring every 144 years (12 x 12 = planetary alignment). The rotating Melas, attracting great numbers themselves, take place in Prayag, Nasik, Haridwar and Ujjain. For Hindus, this numerological hopscotch is part and parcel of their faith. Take, for example, the yugas (world ages): Krita, Treta, Dvapara and Kali. These are the four stages this planet goes through, represented by algebraic enormity. Kali Yuga, the “Dark Age,” lasts 432,000 years; Krita, total righteousness, goes on for 1,728,000. We are currently in Kali (with a few hundred thousand years left), hence the necessity of purification rites.
To put this into perspective, we need to understand the psychology of cleansing. In the West, we absolve sins, a word that originally meant “ignorance.” In India, ignorance is avidya, and it is the goal of yoga/meditation to dispel this darkness. Hence, when millions of pilgrims run into the Ganges River (India’s symbol par excellence of purifying) after days of bhakti, devotion, the waters clear the muddiness of the mirror of their soul; their confessional doesn’t talk back, it merely soothes. These acts, like rituals worldwide, are symbolic, a tough concept for the Western mind; Short Cut To Nirvana is an attempt to explore and explain these takes on reality.
Comprised of numerous interviews with various swamis and gurus, the film itself was transformed on the first day. Instantly the crew met Swami Krishnanand; no better fate could have met them, as he dominates with poignant commentary. Krishnanand is a realistic figure; his spirituality arises from human connection, something lacking in many of the interviews. He makes a point of asking gurus why gurus need Mercedes, and gets a host of answers (most concurring they do not, whether or not they have one, or many). Most importantly, Krishnanand gives to the film something entirely absent in Western spirituality: humor.
There is a place for being “spiritual” (such an objectionable word; the premise partakes in the dualism it seeks to dissolve, separating the everyday and the cosmic into separate spheres) and living everyday. At root, Short Cut To Nirvana attempts to balance this tightrope. Through dozens of interviews with swamis of varying orders there is a general sense of camaraderie between guru and disciples, although the pageantry is often disconcerting. There are too many forms of Hinduism to express, and many gurus hold disciples like marionettes spun around the axis of rhetoric.
Fortunately this crew, much to the credit of Krishnanand, does not fall into the spell of word-weaving. As the great Indologist Heinrich Zimmer wrote, “The fundamentals of the Western view are so close to our eyes that they escape our criticism. We are prone, therefore, to take them for granted as fundamental to the human experience in general, and as constituting an integral part of reality.”
One of the most spot-on moments occurs during an interview with American Dyan Summer, whose aura puts its ow