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Largest human gathering in history, Hindu festival highlights the religion's growth and influence

Published: Thursday, Feb. 21 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

Millions of Hindu devotees gather early morning Jan. 14 at Sangam, the confluence of the Rivers Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati on one of the most auspicious days, Makar Sankranti, and the first day of the Maha Kumbh Mela, in Allahabad, India. Millions of Hindu pilgrims are expected to take part in the large religious congregation that lasts more than 50 days on the banks of Sangam during the Maha Kumbh Mela, which falls every 12th year.

Manish Swarup, Associated Press

Imagine everyone in Manhattan walking to the tip of Wall Street at midnight to take a dip in the Hudson River.

That's how Robert Moses, a 63-year-old photographer living in Dublin, New Hampshire, described his experience at the 1989 Maha Kumbh Mela, the Hindu festival that attracts tens of millions of pilgrims to northern India every 12 years.

“We were walking in a river of people that was probably a double-lane highway wide,” he said. “All moving in one direction, barefoot, quietly, in the middle of the night, so tightly it would’ve been impossible to walk in the opposite direction.”

For Moses, a Jew who has embraced the Hindu way of life, the ritual bathing at Sangam — the confluence of the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers — was nothing short of sublime.

“I have to say that it was surprising to me that it was a very powerful spiritual experience. I had this feeling that there was this flow of light, kind of a vertical flow of light, coming down.”

The 2013 Kumbh Mela, which lasts 55 days, is now at full tilt. A sprawling tent city blankets the flood plain near Allahabad as devotees gather to wash away the sins of past lives and free themselves from the karmic cycle of death and rebirth.

The size is beyond staggering, closer to unfathomable. Imagine 7.5 square miles, 99 parking lots, 3,600 buses, 14,000 policemen, 342 miles of water pipelines, 21 million gallons of drinking water, 42,500 toilets, 14 hospitals and an average of 10,000 people lost and found per week.

As for the ultimate figure: on Feb. 10, the festival’s most auspicious bathing day, an estimated 30 million people congregated, making it the largest human gathering in the history of the world.

As Kumbh Mela grows larger each cycle — roughly 100 million will participate in 2013 — so does the number of Hindus throughout the world, including in America.

When Moses attended 24 years ago, there were only a few hundred thousand Hindus in the U.S. That number now exceeds 1.5 million and may be closer to 3 million, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

With that growth comes increased influence in the business community, religious circles and national politics, as well as an evolving definition of what it means to be Hindu in America.

Gideons of the Gita

“In the morning I bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita.” So said Henry David Thoreau more than 150 years ago.

Travelers in motels across the country can now follow Thoreau’s practice thanks to an organization called Motel Gita, which places the Hindu scripture in motel nightstands a la Gideons International.

The Gita's growing prevalence is a testament not only to Hindus' faith, but also to their business prowess.

Indian Americans own about two million hotel rooms in the U.S. — nearly half of the total — according to the book “Life Behind the Lobby.” Half of these owners are surnamed Patel, and 70 percent come from the western Indian state of Gujarat.

“Our mission is to place a million Bhagavad Gitas in the motels across the USA,” said Nisha Chopada, a director for Motel Gita in Florida. “Right now we are at 150,000.”

The Gita — and Hinduism — now have a prominent place on Capitol Hill as well. On Jan. 3, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) became the first Hindu member of Congress. She used the Bhagavad Gita for her swearing-in ceremony.

Gabbard, who was born in American Samoa, adopted Hinduism in her teens. There is no formal "conversion" process for Hinduism, a faith largely void of dogma.

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