The week spent at Varanasi was entirely unlike I wanted it to be. Nursing a badly swollen ankle sustained in a fall at Kolkata railway station, activity here has been, like my mobility, restricted. It has been salutary to relax within the hotel, read a little and chill out after a busy time in Kolkata but the exploration of the City of Light and photography has been limited.
Varanasi is a very special city within the Hindu world. One description of it has suggested that it’s primary function is a bridge between this world and the next. The indisputable fact is that people journey there to die from all over India. Dying there guarantees moksha – in other words freedom from samsara (the trials of re-incarnation) and union with Brahman, “the unchanging reality amidst and beyond the world”, an existence which cannot be truly and adequately be described though is absolute. It is a city physically and spiritually attuned to welcome and accept death.
A much used quote attributed to the Indian writer Raja Rao is ‘Virtue does not grow easily in Banaras. And vice has no better place. For all come here to burn’. The quote is from a document or book called Allegory to Banares, but even though searching Rao’s bibliography I cannot find reference to this work. It is a shame – I would like to read more of it. The suggestion though that incontrast to the spiritual benefits of dying here and being interred in the flowing waters a plethora of alternative and less salutary experiences can also be found. This I can attest to; whilst watching the flames lick voraciously around the bodies on the wooden pyres I was invariably approached and offered all manner of drugs and the services of prostitutes. Even descriptions of the rites of the cremation by ‘priests’ come demands of payments of hundreds of rupees, often accompanied by a request to see the ‘temple’ next to the fires where the poor live and wait to die. In effect this ‘temple’ is a 3 tier building without windows with cattle living on the bottom floor and several poor old ladies sitting on the stairs with their hands extended for money. The invitation is to climb to the top floor to see the flames better, but here solicitation for money occurs away from the eyes of others.
I have been told and have also read that these ‘priests’ have nothing to do with the ghats themselves but a blind eye is turned to them by the owners of the ghats, the police and bereaved families because that is how it is in Varanasi.
Despite this conundrum it seems important for me to understand the relationship between the river, faith and death more comprehensively. If I am truly to comprehend how and why the Ganges is a goddess, I need to research the mythological/spiritual origins of the river, to apply this understanding to the wider Hindu pantheon of gods and belief systems and research the link between the Ganges and death. It is very clear to me now that the Ganges offers a form of spiritual recycling; a removal from this temporal dimension into a more transcendent dimension where contact with divinity or Brahman is promised. A slightly facetious way of looking at it would be to compare it with Star Trek’s teleportation device, where a benevolent engineer Mr Scott physically relocates people often to save them from some disaster; the statues of Durga’s immersion symbolically restored her to her rightful place in the Hindu divinity, people bathing at the Sangam at Allahabad erased sins for generations of families both antecedently and for generations to come, people dying at Varanasi and their ashes being offered to the Ganges guarantees spiritual pardon and/or release.
On the train from Varanasi to new Delhi I shared a compartment with a Dr Nagendra P Dubey whose business card says he is the Founder President of the World Association of Integrated Medicine. Checking online this evening he is an extremely well regarded physician who adopts and integrates holistic practices into his treatments. He is also a well respected academic and is an adviser to the World Health Organisation on his specialty. This morning as the train, 4 hours late, approached Delhi, I asked him why the river Ganges was a Goddess. Without taking a breath he kindly explained to me the basic tenets of Hinduism, the creation of Ganga the goddess, the reason why she came to earth, her relationship with her sister river Jamuna and her subsequent accession to the heavens again. He explained that Ganga appears in her divine form to some people, similar to the Virgin Mary appearing ‘miraculously’ in western religion. There was little time to discuss this further, but what struck me was that a learned man of international repute readily accepted the creation stories behind the Ganges belief system and accepted without question the river’s divinity.
He did acknowledge that pollution was a terrible problem, but did not swerve from his inviolable belief that the Ganges was a goddess.
Having seen the millions of people at the Mela and being overwhelmed at the sheer multitudes of people drawn to the confluence at Sangam, the power of the Goddess Ganga to influence and attract is phenomenal. The promise of something better than this current existence straddles all social classess within India; it is not only the dispossessed who seek ‘moksha’. It is not the quality of existence which appears to be the motivation for liberation but existence itself; does the concept that life is nothing but Maya, or artifice, permeate every class throughout India, regardless of wealth or status? Is this belief waning with the assimilation of a more western lifestyle, with greater contact with a more ambivalent world? But what is Maya; how can apparent reality be explained away as an illusion?
Dr Dubey explained, as others have done, that family life in India is more integrated, supportive and affirming than perhaps in other cultures. Greater moral expectations are demanded from children, inter-generational support axiomatic in familes, and this system supports and Yet Ahmed, the owner of the hotel I stayed in at Varanasi, firmly believes that the social standards which exist are hypocrisy; he talked about honour killings, child prostitution, corruption of local administrators, politicians and the police, the existence of local Mafia organisations which obtain all the local major development contracts. he believes that family and social order is in decline. Both Dr Dubey and Ahmed see a cross section of society; can they both be correct? On my own walks around Varanasi I have been offered all manner of drugs relentlessly, and occasionally offered the services of prostitutes. I have been lied to by unscrupulous stall holders, who offer goods and then change prices, or apply pressure to purchase more. Conversely I have witnessed acts of great charity and met many people with kinder intentions. Ahmed says that intense poverty and the lack of regular employment for the majority lead to these behaviours; he carries little favour for society as it really is in India. Dr Dubey, to his credit, also suggests that corruption is rife in politicians and believes that the puruance of money for its own sake is a huge problem for India.
Despite these enormous problems the peoples of India apparently still spend a lot of their time devoted to their faith.
The power of natural symbolism within Hinduism is also immense; there are inordinate numbers of rituals and combinations of ingredients that it becomes bewildering. My research of Durga Puja suggested that
So where now for my journey?