Flashbacks: Varanasi

At first glance, the mighty Ganga struck me as quite small. Having seen the Brahmaputra in Assam, I expected this river to span a seeming infinity. But, it was mid June and monsoon was coming late this year: maybe Al Gore was onto something. Riding from the airport, I sensed a distinct vibe that permeated the city’s outskirts. Although the the placeless aesthetic remained pervasive, the whole area exuded some intangible subtlety that I remain unable to put into words.

Down a few more intersections, my driver pulled up to an obscure alleyway. Outside, the host of my guest house greeted me. Pointing down the dimly lit crevice, Sonu instructed me to follow. We made a right, then made a left, then made a right, shuffling down one tight corridor after the next. These were streets, not alleys, I soon realized. Cars weren’t allowed – because they wouldn’t fit – and only the occasional motorbike made its way through the musty cobblestone breadth. I kept imagining a young Steve Jobs roaming down these streets, drawing influence, affirming good taste.

After unpacking at the guest house, I departed and found my way to the closest ghat. Down the staircase and across the concrete steps, I ambled between strangers coming from all directions. Before, behind, beside, between, every next local propounded a boat ride. Past another flight of stairs, there it stood before me: the river of legends, the key to Moksha, the Mother Ganga. Crouching down ten feet from the water, I looked across to the sandy banks exposed on the opposite side.

I didn’t know what to think.

Is this the medium of a holy goddess or is the semantic notion of holiness just an extension of economic importance, one, in this case, that bears on millions? When I was younger, my father would spout mythology to me, recounting the river’s sacred aura and divine importance. Yet, I now stared into its depths, and all my mind could do was go blank. I felt something, but no words could articulate clairvoyance.

To my right, a group of teenage boys jovially waded into the water, yelling and shoving another into the shallow depths, like boys at the neighborhood pool. To my left, an elderly man and two women alternated between bathing, prayer, and washing their clothes. The raggedy, aged fellow particularly caught my attention, him methodically scrubbing each centimeter of cotton dhoti. Every minute or so, he muttered to himself, sending an embittered glance to the boys playing off to my right.

From the distance, a boat veers off towards us. Painted red and white on its side: Airtel 3G & 4G. Even the Ganga has a weakness for the banknote, all the watercraft reflecting the familiar corporate landscape. While a shirtless local cranked the paddles in cyclical succession, one man laid stretched out on the canoe, sprawling in the sunshine. Yet, instead of looking out across the water or observing the masses along the banks, his eyes were glued to his phone, taking selfie after selfie, searching for the angle of his face that would generate the most traction on social media. It was disgusting. Yet, the more and more boats I looked out to, the more I saw of people trained on their phones instead of embracing the aquatic serenity.

I looked back to the old man and the woman doing devotions beside. Tilting a small vial above her head, a stream of water bounced off noggin and cascaded laterally. Meanwhile, this fellow continued to wash his garments, intermittently scrubbing his loose skin flab.

A boy – my age – then came over from the right, gently removing his shirt and resting it on his backpack. Approaching the river, he perched along its edge, toes barely skimming the water’s surface. A few feet from the elderly man, he looked out to the currents, caught between decaying maturity and vivacious youth.

The old man turned to him and furiously commanded him to step away from the river, and, at the very least, to get out of his field of vision. For a short while, the boy fought back, but as the conversation escalated, the youngster backed down. Shifting over literally 4-5 feet, he descended into the pocket of water between these polarized camps.

I decided to move closer to the river, walking further left than both the elderly man and the women beside him. At the end of the concrete walkway, I sat in lotus position, a mound of trash tucked between the free space of this ghat and the next.

I meditated.

Thoughts draining from my mind, I pondered about all the choices that led up to this moment. Born to immigrant parents in the hills of West Virginia, I have continually shifted and adapted to new cities and new places. Now here I was, meditating along the banks of the holiest river of my homeland. I thought about the youth, my vision, my ideology, my dreams, how this summer in South Asia has made me conscious of what I will mold my future into.

Then I opened my eyes and looked again to the boats and to the people. Bits and pieces of trash floated along in front in front me. The old man furiously scrubbed away at his thighs while the youth raucously cheered another along.

I believe every human has the right to Internet access. Universal, non-biased anonymity: it comes nowhere else. It’s the farthest along we’ve come in our evolution into cyborgs, and its western ubiquity has given birth to millennial hyper-consciousness.

I scan across the river, examining the faces of man, woman, boy, girl, and child, all taking selfies on the Ganga. It’s also birthed a brazen overconfidence that no longer subsides after adolescence. The already expansive generational disconnect is only becoming increasingly disparate. The old man continued to bitterly mutter to himself. Tears rolled down my eyes as I struggled to fight the emotion.

Nothing is sacred anymore.

Holiness is dead.

I woke up around 5:00 my last day in Varanasi to watch the sun rise over the river. The deep-red orb climbing above the horizon, the local townspeople began their day, undocking boats, bathing in the Ganga.

Sauntering down the banks, I got lost in thought – as I usually did here – mulling over all the questions this city induced. I stop at some random ghat, satisfied with the view. Feet dangling, a couple story drop separated the river from my seat on the concrete pedestal. It’s so peaceful, the sweet breeze and temperate morning weather.

Footsteps behind me, I turned to see a figure – a man in his mid-twenties –approach and sit down beside me. Introducing himself – first name Jayprakash, last name nonexistent – he described his lifestyle as a local, working in a silk factory, wandering the ghats and temples with his friends in his free time. A huge smile across his face, he told me that he makes friends with strangers – people like me – learning their stories and discovering something new. So I introduced myself, and he was shocked to hear I was from America. I blend in well here. Anyways, we chat for a bit before he decided to take me to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple: the holiest Hindu temple in India’s holiest city.

Walking side by side, we turn down several tight street corners. As we approached the lockers near the temple entrance, a Brahmin dressed in all white stood preparing himself.

“You got lucky, you’ve got yourself a great tour guide.”

In the next few moments, a basket of devotions gets thrust into my hand before I’m shuffled off into the corridor of the temple entry. Even by Indian standards, this line was huge. Bypassing the queue, I’m taken to register my passport with the authorities. Ink goes to paper and I’ve just initialed a fresh legal document. The Brahmin waved me down and instructed me to follow. Clutching an AK-47, an armored guard barred the entryway ahead of us. It was only a couple words from the Brahmin before space was cleared for me to enter. Across the threshold, another line circled the inner sanctum of the temple. Waving again to the next armored guard, the Brahmin had me cross into the center courtyard.

Hand on my shoulder, he told me to repeat after him. A minute or two of chants followed. Finishing, he pointed me to a corner where I was to stand while he approached a couple more guards. The number of pilgrimage sites as heavily armed as this one must be in the single digits.

A guard pulled open a barrier and allowed me cut into the front of the line to the inner sanctum. I’m not Hindu, so I only have the faintest idea of how to give an offering properly, so I just followed whatever was the norm inside. Each time someone emptied their devotion basket, a guard would immediately yank him or her out of the small shrine. Soon pushed outside like the rest, I was greeted again by the Brahmin who muscled me into the next corridor. Again unfamiliar with proper convention, I obeyed the custom, pressing fingers to a statue before being led by a priest into the next room. Crouching into lotus position, he asked for my name and instructed me to repeat some chants.

“1000 rupee donation minimum, 2000 rupee preferred.”

I gave him 500.

The Brahmin lifts me up and takes me to the next shrine. Handing me a lotus flower, he bid me write my parents’ names on the nearby stone, afterwards walking in a circle 4 times. Another round of chanting ensues before he delivers me to the next priest who asks for my first name, family name, parents’ names, and sibling’s name. Touching my shoulder and mumbling a quick chant, he fanned out the fattest wad of bills I have seen on any person in India, probably upwards of 30,000. I couldn’t help but notice a couple tattoos that graced his neck and arm.

“2000 Rupee for a puja. I can do 1 puja, 2 puja, 4 puja, 11 puja, however many puja you need.”

No puja for me. I gave him 500.

Increasingly disgusted by the recurrent cycle of temple-centric extortion, I tapped on the Brahmin’s shoulders and told him it was time to go. Approaching the temple entrance, he motioned again for the armored guards to clear a way. Past the threshold, we turned left and headed towards the lockers.

Inside the sectioned off room, the Brahmin sat me down on a bench and pulled up a chair across from me. Breaking silence, I asked him how he felt honest parading around as a religious devotee when half his trade was glorified extortion? I asked him if standing in a temple and calling it a holy place meant something to him, or if it was just another medium that he – and all the rest – could exploit for material gain?

Spirituality and religion intersect, but neither is a subset of the other. Religion goes beyond the individual journey of one’s attainment of ideal self; it extends into the realm of the political. Whether considered within government or private industry, any organization of political nature has a tendency to serve its members instead of its aims. It’s human nature, but that doesn’t make it any less wrong.

This is just the way it is, he told me. All temples in Varanasi work like this. A man gives devotion to God through money. The conversation halts and we lock eyes for 30 seconds, maybe even a minute. This may be his religion, his culture and his ideals, but could he honestly believe that belief and devotion to God came only this way?

Dissolving silence, he asked one question:

“So where’s my donation?”

2 thoughts on “Flashbacks: Varanasi

  1. It is interesting how different a place can be than the image we have in our minds. Especially with the history and mythos of the Ganges, it can be disheartening. I’ve witnessed (and been burned by) the “I want to make friends” business before, but luckily not in the realm of tainting holy sites (although pretty much every holy site I’ve been to around the world has had a “suggested” donation). Did you ever get into the water? How did it look, besides the occasional garbage? I’ve heard they’re working on cleaning it up a fair amount, but I wouldn’t exactly throw a pool party there.

  2. I wish we could have met up! I’m doing an internship in Varanasi now and was frequenting Ganga before it all flooded up… I hope you had a good time, though!

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