It is now two weeks since we were in Varanasi and I’m just feeling able to write about it. I don’t know what I expected. A spiritual revelation? A mystical experience of an ancient ritual? We joined the host of pilgrims setting out just before dawn walking barefoot to the ghat to bathe. There was little conversation, some couples holding hands, groups of women walking together, only a few non-Indian. The Man Mandir Ghat, a series of broad steps leading down to the Ganges, is one of 88 here, most for bathing, a few for cremating. As the sun rose across the river, people begin slipping into the water, women in their saris, men in underwear or a towel. I stepped into the murky brown water up to my ankles and felt the sandy bottom, amid the decomposing flowers, a piece of old clothing, and other unidentifiable flotsam.
Nothing happened; I felt disconnected. Even our boat ride up and down the Ganges, which I had greatly looked forward to, didn’t change my detachment. We passed meditators on the steps, the crowds in the water, the cremation ghat with a low smoking fire and giant piles of wood ready for burning the forty bodies that will be delivered here today. Still I felt no connection to the place or the process.
Mother Ganga plays multiple roles. For Hindus, immersing in the river washes away sins and restores health. Dying here can relieve the faithful from the cycle of rebirth. The Buddha often used the Ganges in his teachings and delivered his first sermon here, establishing Buddhism. The river is also a place for bathing, swimming, boating, doing the hotel laundry, and dumping tons of sewage and vats of ashy remains. The interplay of spiritual belief and practical use was baffling.
When our boat docked a little further up the river, we began a walking tour through the old city lanes. Here my growing dissonance intensified. We picked our way carefully through the filth and debris, garbage strewn everywhere, piles of cow dung, our guide repeatedly saying, “Watch out!” We were there to see the numerous small temples built into the walls of the houses in this original residential area but even they looked unkempt and decaying. We marveled later at how this squalor merited a tour and how, in this holiest city in India, this could not only be acceptable but a point of pride. I have seen signs of poverty all over the world but have never seen anything like this. I am still mystified.
As we departed Varanasi, I was left with deep questions. Perhaps this is the revelation I have been given. That suffering not only exists but is accepted and welcomed as the path to enlightenment. That my reactions are based on my Western values and may not be relevant here. That this most spiritually blessed city is also the most materially challenged. Darkness and light…