Documentary review Take them to the river

Every 12 years, 1 percent of the world's population experiences spiritual ecstasy at India's Kumbh Mela

Transcendence at the tip of a spear: The many gurus who hold forth at Kumbh Mela promote a multitude of paths to enlightenment, some more visually impressive than others, such as this spiritual leader perched on a bed of spear tips over a fire.

If you thought Woodstock was the greatest coming together of humanity for peace, love, and music, you should cast your eyes to the East. India's Kumbh Mela festival, held near the town of Allahabad, is the largest single gathering of people in history according to the Guiness Book of World Records, attracting up to 70 million people to the sangam, the convergence of the Ganges, Yamuna, and spiritual Saraswati rivers. Shortcut To Nirvana: A Pilgrimage to the Kumbh Mela, from directors Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day, attempts to take the viewer inside a festival that brings a little more than 1 percent of the world's population onto a single riverbank.

Kumbh Mela celebrates a Hindu legend in which gods and demons fought over a pot of amrita, the nectar of immortality, for 12 days. During the struggle, drops fell from the pot onto four locations in India: Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nashik. Every 12 years (one god day = 1 human year) pilgrims gather at the four holy sites to celebrate life, and faith, and take a spiritual cleansing bath in the Ganges River.

Shortcut To Nirvana opens with a satellite photograph of the convergence of the two rivers during Kumbh Mela, revealing a dark amassing of camps on the bank of the Ganges. From here the film loosely follows the journey of Swami Krishnanand, a Hindu monk, and his two American companions, Dyan Summers and Justin Davis, through the tent-villages at Allahabad, the holiest of the four locations. Camps are erected around various gurus, each with their own interpretation of meditation and spiritual awareness, but all emphasizing the same messages: There must be peace, there must be love.

Shortcut to Nirvana:
A Pilgrimage to the Kumbh Mela

Dir. Maurizio Benazzo,
Nick Day (NR)
While some of the gurus offer wisdom in conversation and song, others take a more dramatic approach to spirituality. A Japanese woman is buried in a pit for three days in order to meditate more powerfully, while another guru climbs into a throne of nails hanging precariously over a bed of fire. A visit from the Dalai Lama with other Hindu and Buddhist leaders brings the festival to a climax before the day when pilgrims gather together at the river's edge for a sacred cleansing.

Benazzo and Day are clearly enamored with the festival, and their enthusiasm comes through in the compelling responses they garner from Kumbh Mela celebrants. Unfortunately, that same enthusiasm threatens to turn the film into a festival sideshow. One of the gurus interviewed by Swami Krishnanand warns that the stunts and tricks of other spiritual leaders are like a peep show for outsiders. And though a proper investigation of the festival would be incomplete without the more extreme elements, lingering on a man who ties his penis around a stick which he then holds behind his back and invites onlookers to stand on seems like a shortcut to entertainment, not enlightenment.

Benazzo and Day save the most compelling aspect of the documentary for the end, when Dyan, Justin, and Swami Krishnanand compare their conclusions. None of them walks away with the same understanding of what the Kumbh Mela meant, proving that a spiritual festival doesn't have to be limited to its particular faith. Krishnanand puts it best when he concludes, "I no longer want to be a Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist ... I want to be a perfect human being."