We leave our compound early, at 4:00am. Parshwanath Vidyapeeth is a Jain research center, specifically interested in ahimsa and global Jainology. It’s also a Jain dharamshala, and provides residence to sadhus, sadhvis, and students like ourselves. From the gates of the compound, we start walking down the long and bumpy road, past markets, past rickshaws, past pigs and goats and cows.
People scrutinize our contingency with a bit of curiosity, but with kindness and goodwill in their eyes. We are not a new set of faces. Westerners looking for a pilgrimage away from industry, secularism, capitalism, and decadence often make their way here. They are called by the myriad faiths and religions that keep a spiritual summer home here. They are called by the river which every day embraces all life in this city. They are called by the mystique, the sunrise and sunset, the sequence of metaphors that are embodied in the topology and ecology of Varanasi.
Varanasi, Banaras, Kashi. As with any city claimed by multiple groups, it goes by many names, each of which is a reflection of a different legacy. It is perhaps the most prominent city on the banks of the Ganga—the Ganges, to some ears—and boasts itself as a holy city for Hindus, Jains, and Buddhists, alike. Edging the Ganga are many ghats, dock-like structures that consist of many steps descending into the water. The ghats are useful for negotiating the tides and floods, as there is always an easy way to climb higher. Ascent and descent, day by day, year by year, as the river flows.
We walk down to the shore at the first of these ghats, Assi Ghat. We are called to by multiple men, asking us if we’d like to take a boat, bargaining with us, enticing us. We board a motor boat, a bit rickety, but safer-looking than the others, and painted prettily in viridian and teal. We’ve heard stories of boats capsizing, of tourists drowning under the fierce undercurrent of the Ganga. But the prospect of seeing the sun rise over the river is too tempting. Our guide, Avi, is about my age, and is studying Ayurvedic oils. He treats this as a side job. It is not a source of much revenue, but is something enjoyable, allowing him to meet new and interesting people, while still filling his pockets.
Like the taxi system in many cities, the boatmen and guides do not own these boats. Instead, a few owners own all of the boats, and the workers lease the boats from the owners, hoping to make a bit of profit. The owners generally make quite a bit of money without needing to do much work, as broken boats are rarely repaired. If the boatmen themselves do not fix the boats, they are usually scuttled. The boatmen, as a result, try to haggle tourists for a bit of extra money, to make ends meet. One can read this as a scam, but it doesn’t seem to me to be a useful way of looking at the bargain. It’s an exertion of power, but the tourist and the boatman are equally powerful. And so the bargain is a game, with low stakes individually—sometimes a mere difference of ten or twenty rupees, or about thirty cents–but with considerably higher stakes in the long run.
The Jains argue that all living things have a soul, equal to the soul of any other being. The Hindus believe that at the end of all things, all souls join together into one universal soul that encompasses all. So it is possible for a city such as Varanasi to share one soul, to beat with one pulse, to hold together in synchrony. That is certainly the feeling we experience on our boat tour. Everything on this river helps everything else, works with everything else as if it were a corpus, a system, an organism. We pass by a small cremation site, where families throw grains of rice upon the bodies of their loved ones, soon to be anointed by the holy waters of the Ganga. These grains of rice are quickly eaten by chickens and goats, waiting to be fed by the cycle of life. Our motor breaks down, later on, and a number of boatmen hop over to help us get started again. On the return trip, we see a boatman struggling to row back on his own, and tether his boat to our motorboat, towing him into shore. It’s a constant mutualism, justified by a spiritual fervor that underlies everything here.
We take a tour of the main cremation site. I confess that I feel incredibly uncomfortable, and ethically torn. The mythos of the place is that, thousands of years ago, the Hindu god Shiva cremated his first wife, Sati, at this spot. Since that time, a temple was built, which houses within it an eternally burning fire. Many Hindus believe that if a person is cremated in this holy place by the eternal fire, that soul immediately attains Nirvana. As such, the faces on the families are not sorrowful, but triumphant, having accomplished the best possible death for their loved one. But we slowly learn about the darker side of this place. As we approach, we are yelled at by an older man, who tells us that we cannot enter, and we cannot take pictures. He directs us to a balcony from where we can witness the place, but as we go where we are directed, he stops us again. He asks us, “Do you want to see the inside of this place?”
We hesitate, but the man, divining our curiosity, introduces us to one of the priests of the site, who agrees to explain the process to us. He is soft-spoken and incredibly knowledgeable, describing how the bodies are anointed with the water of the Ganga, how the fires are lit, how the prayers are done. But I’m not entirely sure if I trust him. He describes for us how the fire must be purchased. Rice, also, and oils. And the wood. The wood is expensive. A kilogram of wood is about two hundred and fifty rupees, and a body must have at least two hundred kilograms to be cremated. Poorer folks must beg from house to house, asking for donations to support five or ten kilograms of wood for the cremation of their loved one. Moreover, the site is stratified by caste. The pyres at lowest elevation are for the lower castes, whereas higher castes are generally cremated at a higher elevation. A platform above all others is reserved for ministers and other “important persons.”
At the end of the tour, the priest enters into a monologue about how tourists are asked for donations to support the cremations of poorer individuals. These donations are good karma for tourists, and will help them along in their future lives. Feeling both guilty and confused, having walked through families to satisfy our own curiosity, we give a bit of money. But the priest aggressively demands more from us, claiming that are donations are too meager. We are certain, at this moment, that very little of this money goes to support the cremations of the impoverished, but probably just into the pockets of other people. We do not give any more. He recoils, and takes us back to the main entrance of the site.
As I walk out of the place, I am torn by contrary emotions. It is not the surround of death and cadavers that bothers me—indeed, Hindu cremation is such a beautiful ceremony that it causes me no discomfort–but the conditions under which the funerary process is taking place. On the one hand, I believe this place to be exploitative. Nirvana cannot be bought, after all. That is simply not how it works. The entire premise of this location is a sham. And yet, the families seem so happy with what they are able to perform for their loved one. Perhaps the price is not for Nirvana itself, but for the feeling the families had of having done good? Perhaps that merits the cost? It is hard for me to know, and it is not for me to decide. I step back, and step out, never to return to this confusing place. These are choices that have always been made here, and I imagine, will continue to be made, forevermore. Who am I to challenge such a legacy?
We move on down the river. Every evening, a large aarti, an evening pooja or prayer, takes place at the main ghat. A row of priests perform identical ceremonies facing the river, in front of a large audience, some on the steps of the ghat behind them, and others watching from boats on the river. Aarti at the Ganga sets all of the senses alight. One smells sandalwood incense and rotting garbage, delicious food and putrid feces, rose water and burning corpses, river water and toxic waste. One sees the wispy rhythms of the smoke, the circles of fire and chains of light, the colorful clothing of the priests and onlookers, the falling light of the setting sun. One hears the melodious ringing of bells, the rigid unison of pooja, the cacophonous haggling of hawkers, the mooing of cows and the barking of dogs. One feels the soothing heat of the fire, and the cool wind of the waterfront.
As we walk back, children and youths are playing cricket on every ghat. A young Hindu priest with honest eyes calls out to us to hit a ball or two. One boy knocks his ball into the water, and a bathing fellow throws it back. Many people here bathe in the Ganga daily, and dharma bums from around the world come to Varanasi to bathe in the river just once. The holy water is said to be purifying, and yet, the cruel irony is that it is perhaps the most polluted water in India. So much is dumped into the river—so much of what we smelled at aarti—that it is simply not safe. A mere dip can lead to disease. Yet, just a year or two back, National Geographic published a piece of research noting that the combination of microbes and chemicals living in the Ganga are so adept at breaking down toxins that, somehow, it is less polluted than it would be if it were any other river. That is, to some extent, the Ganga has self-healing properties. They are nowhere near effective enough to keep up with the amount of toxins entering it. But, given some time, perhaps the Ganga could purify itself once more, allowing the river dolphins, the birds, and the people living along its banks to thrive again.
We watch the sun set in the steps by Assi Ghat, near scores of other people, tourists and locals, sitting and taking in the day. It is windy, and the dust kicks into my eyes. We meet a girl named Pooja, and the irony of her name is not lost on me, having just witnessed aarti. She asks us to buy her flowers. We don’t, but she asks us for a pen, and we give it to her, instead. She draws pictures on our hands. If I allow myself to think freely about these children, my heart falls apart. I know that this girl is about seven or eight years old, and is already working harder than I have ever worked. I know that she probably makes much less than she deserves. I know that much of her work probably goes to serve somebody older and more powerful than her. I worry that she may not have a family to look after her. I worry that she might be trapped in this lifestyle forever. I worry that this may not be what she wants. I worry that there is nothing I can do.
Careful, now. Even though these children may need help, perhaps, they are also not helpless. It is hard to keep these two facts in my head at once. I think we are used to thinking of a person as either innocent or guilty, but that framework is hollow here. We can say that these children have “lost their innocence,” but we also know that is false, and we also know that it is meaningless. These kids play together, laugh immensely, smile brightly, and have lost none of their charm. They are brilliant. Many of them know multiple languages with proficiency. They have a creativity and an innovative spirit that is hard to find at any age. And, many say, as soon as these children enter school, they lose these abilities, as they are stomped out by public standards, honesty, and conformity.
I don’t know what I mean by any of this, except that it is impossible for me to categorize anyone as a victim or a crook. These kids are all both, and, more importantly, neither. They are something else. They are individuals, with names and stories, and I have to remember that. I have to remember that for every person I meet, every street I walk down, every temple I enter, and every city I ever live in.