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Life, Death and Salvation along the Water's Edge: India

Experiences along the Ganges River in Varanasi, India

sunny 95 °F

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The ancient city of Varanasi (Kasi) has been the ultimate pilgrimage spot for Hindus for ages. Varanasi is the oldest living city in the world. These few lines by Mark Twain say it all: "Benares( a British corruption of Varanasi) is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together". Hindus believe that dying along the Ganges in Kasi would enable the soul to attain Moksha (liberation) from the cycle of birth and re-birth. The river Ganges according to Hindu mythology flows from the hair of Lord Shiva seated in the Himalayas.
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Born a Hindu, I have always had a special place for Kasi( Varanasi )in my heart. Growing up in a traditional Brahmin family, I often heard of tales about men and women leaving their family lives to spend the reminder of their life in Kasi seeking spirituality, self-reflection, meditation and atonement. Like a visit to Mecca most Hindus would like to bathe in its waters at least once in their lifetime.

My short trip to Kasi in 1998 was interesting but not eventful due to heavy rains that submerged most of the bathing Ghats( steps leading to the river). Coincidently on the day I was being rowed along the river banks where cremations were conducted, my mother’s only sister passed away, and I was thinking of her!. In 2011 I set out seek out the “real” Kasi where learned men once wandered in their loin cloths, where devotees by the thousands traveled for miles to bathe in the sacred waters of the Dashwamedh Ghat, to watch the burning pyres of the Manikarnika Ghats or simply revel in the joy and reverie of pilgrims enjoying themselves in the holy city. As a traveler I was trying to see through my mind’s eye the concept of Kasi, a land of spirituality. Those with no knowledge of its history will only witness a dirty and polluted river city with hordes of people.

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Early western visitors to this place were so fascinated that they waxed eloquent for many years about the greatness of India. George Harrison did his bit too!. India like the rest of the world is changing fast, leaving behind age old traditions, facing corruption and seeking a more material existence. In this scenario I am attempting here to focus on three important events experienced during my three day stay that were amazing and thought provoking.

My sister Ranee, brother-in-law Dave and I were staying at a wonderful haveli( nobleman’s home) on the banks of the Asi Ghats. This hotel, Ganges View, is very well known amongst the literati where small classic music concerts are common place daily . While we were enjoying the broad river view from our second floor terrace, there was a commotion and there arrived a man with a flowing beard , penetrating eyes and wearing the handloom outfit of a cultured man. He was followed by an entourage of bureaucrats, policemen and the like trying to appease him. Later that evening I stopped the gentleman as he was passing by and inquired about all the fuss over him. It turned out that he was 80 years old, was an IAS( elite Indian Administrative Service) officer from the Uttar Pradesh cadre, a former Cabinet secretary and “Minister” at the Indian High Commission in London. He mentioned that he was visiting with his family to do the annual rites for his parents who lived and died by the river Ganges for over 50 years. He continued that he was from a well to do Brahmin family from South India and after he had graduated from college and the IAS his parents decided that their only son was in a good station in life and they removed themselves from the material world and retired to an ashram, where they meditated, studied and did charitable work until mother Ganges took them into their fold. What makes it more interesting is that this gentleman’s one son is the Editor of a major US weekly magazine and an ex NYU professor, his American wife a contributor to Wall Street Journal and the other son is the Editor of India’s oldest National Newspaper,both educated in Oxford University, were all there with their families. He was also thankful that he served India when corruption was not an issue and politics did not prevent progress. It is a great story of an illustrous family connected deeply to Varanasi and the river ganges.

The second experience was absolutely surreal. We were walking along a quiet section of Asi Ghat at night . The Ghats are very busy during the day with pilgrims and vendors but at night it quiets down only with an occasional stray dog barking, or a small group of elders discussing the rotten state of politics or a group of young men laughing and lollygagging. Near the river bank in a dark obscure corner we saw a man sitting in the lotus position completely covered from head to toe in white cloth with a clean copper bowl of Ganges water next to him. We observed him for some time and realized that he was in deep meditation. I later read that “Covering the whole body above the crown chakra( skull) activates, what the yogis call the sarasu and it is from here that the soul is said to descend into the child at birth or leave when cremated.. Sarasu is also a huge energy field. By covering the head, the energy is retained to help the inner fire build.”
We were completely blown by this sight. One needs to be there to understand the gravity of the moment and not being an Indian did not deter Dave from appreciating the moment. The next morning I was up by 5:30 AM ,a time of intense activity amongst the ritualists and the purists along the banks of the river and there I saw the same slender figure in white cloth saying his morning prayers under the Peepal tree to Lord Siva. (see the picture of a slender figure doing Puja under a tree)

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The last experience that I am about to write was one of extreme sadness and raised the question of belief over propriety. It was around 11:00 Am as we approached Dashwamedh Ghat after a long walk along the 80 or so bathing Ghats on the river bank. The sun was shining bright and the temperature was hovering around 95 F. Close to the water the activities were numerous: pilgrims performing ritual dips, families taking a plunge fully clothed, local children playing, an occasional dog or monkey trying to grab some food offerings to the river, Brahmin priests conducting family prayers, barbers shaving heads of pilgrims who have vowed that as a sacrifice to Ganga. Amidst all these activities was a very old man, quite infirm, curled up on the steps writhing gently with very little sound coming out of him. Each lap of a wave would briefly inundate him with water. I realized that he was dying and was left there to die. We were distraught and did not know what to do and ended up inquiring about his condition to a nearby vendor of religious articles. He mentioned that many poor people leave their very old and infirm to die here since they have no money to cremate them and hope that the river will consume him . While we were shocked, all the activities around him were going on as though nothing happened. Full of guilt we walked away so as not to interfere with this cruel form of euthanasia. Filled with curiosity we came back an hour later to realize that he was not there anymore. We only hoped that one of the many volunteer /NGO took care of him. I searched the web for articles similar to what we had seen and found none.

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The water’s edge of Varanasi, where Buddha preached and Tulsi Das composed the Hindu epic Ramayana is still a place filled with wonderment; of life, of meditation, of sacrifices, of learning and the corruption of the body and its aftermath. It brings out emotions of love, sympathy, empathy, devotion, agony ,grief and misery.

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Posted by Ramdas Iyer 14:15 Archived in India Tagged ganges varanasi ganga kasi beneras

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Comments

Very interesting blog Ram. The last episode with the old man being left to die on the banks of the river is symptomatic of India. The act appears very cruel on the surface, but was most probably driven by extreme necessity. A country of extremes that cannot deal with the extremes....

by kumar Doraiswami

India is a great country but we also see so much sadness and misfortune all around us that some of us feel like war veterans numb to the things less palatable. It is harder on Indian women with lesser means who have to through hell yet put up a dignified face. My kudos to them

by Ramdas Iyer

Another fascinating , educational, entry. The dark warmth of the excellent and informative photos reflect the passages that they represented. What a good job, Ram!

by Mike Gerson

Can I have this article to send to a choreographer in NZ?

by Ranee Ramaswamy

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