Originally posted 5February2008
“In that state, free from attachment, they move at will, laughing, playing, and rejoicing, They know the Self is not this body, but only tied to it for a time as an ox is tied to its cart”. – Chandogya Upanishad
Varanasi. City of Thieves. City of Light. City of Final Liberation This is how one of my guidebooks described Varanasi, also called Benares. The oldest constantly inhabited city in the world, it is also the holiest city in India and the most auspicious place to die. Being cremated on the banks of the holy Ganges and then scattering the ashes into the flowing current ensures that the soul will be purified of sin and that one will have a peaceful passing into the next life. For the living, three dunks in the river will erase seven generations of bad karma and allow you to start fresh. Everyday the city nearly doubles in population through the influx of pilgrims and those who come there to die. It is a city of fresh beginnings and endings, a constant flow of life forces, some leaving a bodily vessel and some residing in newly purified vessels.
We watched the sun rise from a boat on the river one morning. At the edge of the river people were bathing and washing clothes and meditating and cremating their loved ones. I saw a man brushing his teeth in the water one ghat away from the main cremation ghat. This should have disturbed me, and it did, as I contemplated all the potential diseases he was basically rubbing into his teeth and gums. The Ganges is so polluted in Varanasi that the water is septic. More than disturbed, however, I was taken aback by the jolt of admiration for his faith that I suddenly felt. How amazing that this man believes so fiercely in the sacredness of this river and its healing properties that he is willing to brush his teeth in this clearly filthy water. He, along with all the faithful in Varanasi, will bathe in this water, three dunks, and fully believe that the benefit to their soul is far greater than any harm it could do to their body. Blind faith? Absolutely. But isn’t all faith blind? One could argue that I was witnessing, not acts of faith but acts of ignorance, and I suppose it is possible that there is simply a lack of understanding of just how foul the water is and how waterborne diseases work. Then again, the filthiness is quite visible. (see pic) Along the banks of the river there are these life-aquatic-style mini “submarines” that periodically test the toxicity of the water, the results of which are completely ignored. I do believe that it is faith that not only allows but compels these people to ignore the obvious, and instead trust in the invisible powers that they know exist. Perhaps this kind of faith is foolish or worse, but I wouldn’t mind having that unshakable of a faith in something. (Incidentally, it didn’t rub off on me, not one bit. While we were sitting on that boat, I gave my traveling companian strict instructions to throw me on one of those cremation pyres if I fell in.)
When my mind wasn’t occupied considering my decrepit faith, I was trying to internalize all of the other lessons to be learned from this holy city. Varanasi, in general, can be described as surreal. Supremely surreal, perhaps, if there are varying degrees of surreality? It is a place where life and death and devotion and commerce and beauty and ugliness and criminals and holy men and women all smash into each other in a swirl of color and sound and smell and painfully exposed humanity. It is the loudest quiet city you will ever visit. The sounds of supplication are constantly heard, overlapping into a symphony of fervent worship that has no finale. Children play at flying kites mere steps from where cremations are happening non-stop. Hustlers stalk the ghats alongside sadhus. Nothing and everything makes sense there.
The moment I acknowledged this, I began to wonder, Why am I always trying to make sense of things anyway? Does all the energy I spend trying to “figure it out” take away from my ability to be present in each moment? Perhaps “it” will reveal itself if I just relax and let it. Maybe it won’t. Either way I’ll probably enjoy myself more. My whole life I’ve had this sneaking suspicion that everybody knew something I didn’t. Standing there in Varanasi, I wondered – What if nothing makes sense to anybody, except when it does?
Every night, five Brahmin perform a ceremony to put the Ganges to sleep. Their chants and repetitive movements with candelabras and incense are meant to express humility and thanksgiving. These two things, humility and thanksgiving, may be the two greatest things I took away from this holy place. I was absolutely humbled by how little I understood and knew and could ever understand and know about this place. I was humbled by the reminder of what a small part I play in the cycle of life. I am just one body and one soul, and my time occupying this body on this planet is but a mere speck of time on the great timeline. I was humbled by the deep faith and devotion I saw. I was thankful to have witnessed it, thankful to have shared it with someone I love. I was thankful for my very good life. Mostly, I was thankful that I don’t have all the answers. Answers are the one thing you don’t need in Varanasi.