Wherever large crowds gather – for sport or religion – more organisation and safety is required
The news that 140 people, 30 of them children, were killed in yet another stampede at a religious festival is very sad. Events like this should not happen, especially at times when crowds are gathered seeking some spiritual blessing. I believe this is the third time this year that people have been crushed in India. At the annual Rathayatra in Puri two months ago six people were crushed to death when the crowd surged erratically. Of course, it is not just in Hinduism that crowds behave dangerously; some years ago many people were crushed to death during the annual Muslim Hajj in Mecca. Not just in religion either; many people have been crushed at football matches and other sporting events.
Whenever people are gathered in unusual circumstances, in places that are unfamiliar to them, and whenever they are under the emotional sway of either religious or football fervour, it is then and there that extra attention must be paid to safety. This is particularly so if the event happens in places where crowds do not normally gather.
Last week I spoke at a gathering of the local officials who have the responsibility to ensure that our largest gathering of the year passes without anyone being harmed. Three police officers, three officers from the Fire Brigade, members from the Health and Safety department, and Food and Hygiene inspectors, all came to Bhaktivedanta Manor to make their annual pre-Janmashtami inspection.
30,000 people at a religious festival need protection. Not that the devotees are bad hosts, or careless with fire, or that pickpockets are also planning to attend, or that we are expecting a stampede. But if something can go wrong it most probably will, and the idea of such pre-festival meetings is to eliminate any risks by identifying any possible causes of harm and removing them.
This is our 30th year of such large festivals, and our festival health and safety and procedural handbook detailing how the event is staged is now a massive three inches thick. It takes 350 volunteers in dozens of teams and weeks of training to put on the Janmashtami Festival, and the local council shows our handbook to other groups as an example of how it should be done.
Spiritual life is the process of allowing the soul to have complete freedom, above and beyond any material conditions. Religion is what happens when the human bodies and minds of those free souls gather together. And wherever and whenever they do that, organisation and safety are required.