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Kumbh One, Kumbh All: A pilgrim on the path of enlightenment.

Bliss Whipped

Short Cut to Nirvana: Party!

By Richard von Busack

The goddess Indra had a fight with a group of demons over a bucket containing the Nectar of Immortality. For 12 days--12 years in our reckoning--she chased the devils across the sky. Four drops of the nectar fell on India. One of them landed at Allahabad, on the junction of the Yamuna and Ganges Rivers. Thus every 12 years, hordes of pilgrims turn up to camp on the Ganges floodplain for the "Kumbh Mela." Participators number in the many millions. Compared to it, Burning Man looks like a swap meet.

Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day's Short Cut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela has a subject that it would probably be impossible to make a bad movie about. That isn't the same thing as saying it's the definitive account of the Kumbh Mela, or even that it's free from the repetitious generalizations of the spiritually enlightened.

While a very blissed monk called Swami Krishnanad runs interference, three Western pilgrims sum up what we're seeing. These are Dyan Summers, an international public health student; Justin Davis, a religious studies major from UCSB; and Jasper Johan, an older expatriate returning to India for the first time in years.

There's a reason why the ineffable is called ineffable--it's impossible to describe it. People seem to have the same trouble answering the question "What is India like?" as they do "What is God like?" Zeroing in with the camera on the zonked-out, cow-calm eyeballs of the God-struck doesn't induce inner peace in everyone. Actually, it's rather scary.

Even the spiritually tone-deaf can enjoy a really outstanding carnival midway, and you aren't going to get a spectacle like this at the state fair. It's a riot of color and rolling clouds of bhang and cooking smoke, shimmering sitars and dripping tablas. The smell of several million human beings has got to be memorable, too. There are Mardi Gras statues of Krishna, and street vendors selling deep-fried foods. Barkers, brass bands and snake oil salesmen compete for attention. Customers line up to get their future read by a fortune-telling parrot, which pulls a prediction out of a stack. The camera glides by a devotee burying his head in the ground, like a peace-seeking ostrich. And it stops to hear Devara Hans Baba's chant, which sounds almost exactly like "The Hamster Dance" performed in Sanskrit.

Short Cut to Nirvana interviews many sadhus--I guess the word "fakir" is insulting--who provide enough gawk-thrills to fill five years of the old newspaper comic Believe it or Not. We see that Robert Ripley favorite, the guru who has held his arm in the air for 20 years. The wow factor is higher when Avadhoor Baba takes a walk in nail-studded shoes, and rests in a spear-tip-lined swing, swaying over a smoking pit, with a large iron bell donging sadly below his chair.

Speaking of dongs, Handiwar Giri windlasses his three-piece set into a broomstick, then invites witnesses to mount said broomstick, while his courting tackle bears the weight. All the better to spread the message that the only happiness on earth is to live for others.

These mortifiers of the flesh want to teach that the body means nothing compared to the spirit. But one fears these sidhus attract only the sensation-crazed. It's like explaining something to a dog: if you point, the dog doesn't look at the object, he looks at your finger.

The well-fed American reacts more easily to the speech by the Dalai Lama, a very reasonable gent as long as the subject isn't sex. He's all plump good humor and acceptance of all religions, jovially dismisses the essential disagreements between Buddhism and Hinduism, as if it were a $5 debt. If only there were some way to slide him in as pope when the next vacancy comes up.

Loaded with ethnographic appeal, Short Cut to Nirvana is an easy take even for the impious. The path to enlightenment is rigorous, but it is unmarked--a message of hope for the skeptical. All these myriad gurus are untroubled by rivals; all pray for a vanishing point in which all the world's faithful are united.

Some Westerners find all religions equally ridiculous. Yet inside their hearts, they long for an alternative to being just another helpless passenger in the SUV of consumerism, speeding at 80 mph toward its dead end.

Short Cut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela (Unrated; 85 min.) directed by Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz. Metro Santa Cruz staff writer Richard von Busack also appears on Santa Cruz Community Television's 'CinemaScene.'

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From the March 17-23, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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