It's been called the largest gathering of people in the history of mankind, and yet most of us around here haven't heard of it. I hadn't heard of it, anyway, not until I watched Short Cut to Nirvana, Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day's eye-opening documentary about India's Kumbh Mela, a religious festival held every 12 years for the last, oh, couple of thousand, give or take a few hundred. Part revival meeting, part chautauqua, part psychic fair and full proof that Hinduism remains one of the world's most beloved religions, the Kumbh Mela may now be too massive for mere mortals to wrap their brains around, and Benazzo and Day don't even try. Instead, they seem content to wade through the crowds, take in the spectacle, let it all wash over them.
Actually, we're ushered through the experience by an American couple and the swami who's serving as their spiritual guide, introducing them to all sorts of seekers and sought-afters ' a man who sits on a throne of nails suspended over an open flame, a man who's been holding one arm aloft for most of his adult life, a Japanese woman who descends into a dark pit for three days, then re-emerges, smiling and waving. What exactly these people are up to is not entirely clear, and you can sense a certain skepticism on the filmmakers' part ' in that mocking title, for instance. By bathing in the muddy waters of the Ganges, the faithful are said to receive credit "equal to a thousand regular pilgrimages" ' hence, Short Cut to Nirvana. But from the looks of it, these people are prepared to devote their whole lives to getting there.