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In India, Counting Pilgrims by Tens of Millions

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The New York Times, Apr. 15, 2005

Photo: Short Cut to Nirvana

Last week, something like a million pilgrims came to Rome to pay final respects to Pope John Paul II. An impressive number, to be sure, but Short Cut to Nirvana, a new documentary directed by Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day, puts it in an interesting comparative perspective. In 2001, the Kumbh Mela, a pilgrimage that takes place every 12 years near the Indian city of Allahabad, drew many times that number - estimates vary from 20 million up to 70 million, according to the film.

To convey the sheer size and density of the gathering, at which various Hindu holy men (and a few women) assembled with their followers in makeshift tent cities, the filmmakers begin and end with satellite photographs that show the mass of gathered humanity as a heavy shadow on the map. Down on the ground, their video cameras amble through the crowds and the dust, following a few spiritual seekers through the clamor of gurus and disciples.

Most of the viewer's time is spent with a handful of visitors to the mela, both Indian and Western. They function as guides and also as fellow tourists as they migrate from one encampment to another, listening to the wisdom of the sadhus and yogis and trying, with open minds and generous spirits, to separate genuine spiritual insight from fakery.

The main character is an earnest, witty young monk named Swami Krishnanand, who is especially curious about the affinity of certain wise men for expensive luxury cars. One of them lectures him that asking questions about such matters betrays a karmic deficit, but Mr. Krishnanand's skepticism does not seem entirely out of place at the mela, where commerce often rubs shoulders with piety.

Indeed, part of the event's distinctive character seems to be its hectic mixing of asceticism with gaudy display, as well as a willingness to make room for modernity amid ancient, esoteric customs. There is an Internet center, and one of the most popular gurus is a former Indian Air Force flyer known as Pilot Baba, whom Mr. Krishnanand describes as 'a Buddha for the modern age.'

Another guru notes that every country and culture offers the world its own specialty. 'In electronics, Japan comes first,' he observes. 'In righteousness and spirituality, India comes first.' Mr. Day and Mr. Benazzo seem to agree, and 70 million pilgrims can't be wrong, though for the untrained ear it is sometimes hard to distinguish holiness from humbug.

The filmmakers also glimpse a subplot that seems to have nonspiritual implications, when Mr. Krishnanand meets Dyan Summers, a traveler from New York. The two of them speak of their friendship in the language of enlightenment and inner truth, but to the secular eye it looks more like a mutual crush. And they do seem well matched, approaching the mela and each other with an appealing mixture of open-minded curiosity and sly common sense. They never mock what they encounter, but they also don't uncritically accept everything they see and hear.

And the sights and sounds - and, one gathers, the smells - are extraordinary. The circuslike elements of the mela, and the stuntlike nature of some of the practices captured in Short Cut to Nirvana, are clearly part of its religious quality. Given the event's size and complexity, it is perhaps inevitable that this documentary feels haphazard and superficial, more tourist's photo album than analysis. Still, the glimpses it offers are never less than fascinating.