Many Indian cities are a jumble, a mix of the ancient and modern, but nowhere I have ever been compares in this regard to Varanasi. I come from a country, and from a city, which has a long history and many ancient sites of worship, but even the 1000 year old site of Saint Pauls in London pails next to the 3000 years of worship maintained here by the Vedic priesthood. Its mythical history goes even further back than this. The legend is that Varanasi was founded by none other than the Hindu deity Lord Shiva himself.
It is that this point that the average Westerner or British’er should try to forget everything that they have ever been taught in school regarding Hinduism.
When I was at school, Hinduism was brought up in Religious Education classes. Unfortunately, these classes forced all religions into the structure of Christianity in order to compare them. So, where in Christianity you have God, you had Shiva and under that you had, in place of Jesus, Krishna, and so on and so forth through the angels (the Deva), the priests (the Brahmans), the Bible (the Vedas) and the Kingdom of Heaven (Rebirth). The one thing is that it is clear from such a muddle is that the people who wrote the RE syllabus had little-to-no idea of Hinduism either. Placed into this twisted context it all looks a little crazy and no wonder as the Hindu faith isn’t like Christianity in almost every way possible. It is a totally different beast. In the first instance it is vital to realise that “Hinduism” is an umbrella term for a whole host of beliefs all interlocked only by their founding geography – that is they all come from India. Then you must realise that when we discuss the Hindu Cosmology we are not talking about a Celestial Hierarchy in the same way that we do in Christianity at all. I.E. with God at the top and you near the bottom just above the animals.
No, in Hinduism you are God.
For the Christians reality is like clay. There is a very clear analogy of God being like a potter at his wheel, or perhaps a watchmaker at his table and we are his creation. In Hinduism the analogy that fits is that of a play, a performance, which you are a part of. You leave and re-join the stage, you may exchange masks or play many parts, but this reality is all “in character”. There is another “self”, a spiritual self, under all this baggage of flesh and bones that is the mask we all wear. This is the spark of the divine, which is exempt from the black and white duality of reality. What we call “reality” is only an illusion because in the true reality you are God – but you have forgotten that you are God. That divine spark is a part of God, part of Brahman.
A meditating man seated towards the morning sun.
But what of Shiva et all? This is where it gets complex. Essentially, he is an aspect of the Godhead just like everyone else; just with a cosmic job to do. If you were to ask Lord Shiva, “How do you do all this creation and destruction?” he would answer “I just do. How do you breath in and out?” These “Gods” are not like God in Christianity or Allah to the Muslims, they are like forms of a greater nature a connection with which we have lost.
Keep this in mind when you read about the Hindu’s. It explains another massive difference; the belief in self-improvement. The Hindu’s believe that you can improve your self, your awareness of the self – that is of reality – through training. Religious training that takes many forms. For some it is through Vedic ritual; passed down over countless generations; for others it is by denying the body; the mortification of the flesh; but in all cases it is about release. The release from the chains of your mind. This spirit pervades almost all of Indian inventions. Take their food, Thali, which is devised from the scriptures of Ayurvedic medicine and is all about maintaining the right balance in the body to promote mental clarity (which it sure does, I miss it every time I think of it). This release, this blowing out, is what the Buddhists call Nirvana and is to escape the cycle of birth and death to which we are all (apart from the Buddhas) trapped in. The escape of the self is the waking up and remembering who you really are and the enlightenment of the true self. This is why Buddhists and Hindu’s put their hands together and bow to each other and why their rituals are full of bowing, because they are bowing to the self in each other that is part of the divine.
A man prays in the Ganges
This is the reason that Varanasi, the center of the Hindu universe, is so important. Because Lord Shiva said that anyone who bathed in the holy river Ganges that flows through the city and burned in its pyres would achieve the Moksha (the blowing out and escape) that all Hindus aspire to. Being there on that river is a very special honour not to be forgotten and something to be cherished.
I tried really hard to keep all this in mind as I regarded the Aghori seated on the steps with his human skull bowl. The Aghori are worshipers of Shiva and totally devoted to their ascetic doctrines. They maintain that all opposites are in fact an illusion and make it their business to – at all times – liberate themselves through the un-acceptance of the duality of life. What this means in real terms is that the Aghori cover themselves with cremation ash and perform the taboo breaking rituals of eating meat, residing in cremation grounds, enjoying tantric sex with menopausal women, sleeping on corpses and even eating the dead found floating in the river or not burned up in the Ghat pyres (which I am coming to).
I must admit that I found it a struggle to maintain the perspective needed to achieve this. It was, if you will forgive the pun, hard to digest.
The previous night, before tucking into bed, I had wandered down to the river. The old part of Varanasi is all based around the Ghats. These are the steps that lead down to the waters. Many are unique or special to just some groups. Some have washers cleaning clothes, others have cremation death ceremonies being performed, all revolve around the water.
Ours was full of boats, so I booked an exceedingly early boat ride from an excitable boatman and turned in.
Old parts of Varanasi contrasts marvellously with the new. New Varanasi has some of the best universities in the world, some of the most modern hospital facilities and lots of money to run it all. The old Varanasi on the other hand is for pilgrims and tourists and had a vibe almost beyond belief.
In the morning, far too early in the morning, we got up and made our way to the boat. The guide/boatman was waiting and we hopped in.
Our Boatman rows us out at the beginning of our day
I am seriously not a morning person, but even I soon was amazed by the view of the city from the water as the sun rose. The city wakes up slowly and as the sun rises and starts to illuminate the buildings, turning them into a golden glowing red and orange colour, the pilgrims and Ghat’folk come down to the river to wash and meditate.
We went passed people slamming washing on rocks, priests performing the morning prayers to the sun (the same priests that would feature in the evening ceremony described below), monkeys climbing the buildings and seated brightly coloured Hindus enjoying the morning sun.
The stunning Varanasi Ghats
It was quite magical and a vital ingredient in enjoying your visit here. Then we passed the “burning” Ghats and the cameras went away. The funeral pyres were already in progress. The bodies, lightly wrapped in muslin, had been laid on a precisely calculated amount of firewood and then set alight. Even though the practice of wives throwing themselves onto the pyre is now banned, I can understand that the fundamentalist Hindus (that “f” word being the key to almost all the world ills) still want their women to go through with it. The prospect looked horrifying to me. As we passed along further I saw people swimming in the river and drinking the water, which is surely an extremely bad idea as the Ganges is polluted almost beyond belief. Perhaps they are adjusted to it, I thought. I was careful not to get any in my mouth anyway. The entire experience was very peaceful and broken only by the ubiquitous Indian music coming from behind the shoreline.
I filmed everything I could and at the end of this post there is special edition of the film I made of the footage.
After about 3 hours we arrived back at the hotel’s Ghat and retired to a very good travellers shop/cafe/hostel to take it all in. We had lots of planning to do because we were arranging a Tiger Safari on our next stop. I sipped a coffee and Cesca and I slaved over our computers arranging everything. It was there that we learned that there had been a murder discovered along the Ghats that morning. A quick look through the camera footage and we realised that Cesca, quite by accident, had recorded the crime scene. We look at each other and silently determined to remain cautious about Varanasi.
The poor dead man.
Feral dogs roam everywhere.
As night fell, we got back in the boat and were rowed towards the real show.
“Dashashwamedh Ghat is located close to “Vishwanath Temple”, and is
probably the most spectacular ghat. Two Hindu mythologies are
associated with it: According to one, Lord Brahma created it to
welcome Lord Shiva. According to another, Lord Brahma sacrificed ten
horses in a yajna here. A group of priests daily perform in the
evening at this ghat “Agni Pooja” (Worship to Fire) wherein a
dedication is made to Lord Shiva, River Ganga, Surya (Sun), Agni
(Fire), and the whole universe.”
The evening puja location at Dasaswamedh Ghat
Every evening the priests come down to the edge of the river to perform a special ceremony to worship fire.
This is incredible and, like all good ceremonies, goes on far too long entirely on purpose. Its colours and special ambience is on the film as well. This time we were amongst multiple boats that had come to see the event and I soon tired of the tourist horde and so had our boat drop us of on the bank to get a close look at the proceedings.
There was a large crowd involved in the ceremony who were all clapping away to the music as they watched the five priests play conch shells and burn offerings all while wielding increasingly and uncomfortably hot looking fire goblets. It was here that I saw one older women cutting up carrots and praying under her breath. I took some footage and a photo of her and it is one of my proudest shots.
I remember being mesmerised by the look on her face. Whatever she was doing it was a fundamental part of not only her belief, but of her self and her life. That was the first time I stopped and wondered at Hinduism, but it certainly wasn’t the last.
After the ceremony we walked out of the Ghat along with the crowd and caught a cyclo back to the hotel. The poor rider struggled to get us moving and I paid him a bonus for his efforts. I had a lot to think about regarding what we had seen that day. It was all to come to an unfortunate conclusion in the next post, when Cesca and I found ourselves in the maze of back alleys in the “old city” and at the mercy of the unscrupulous…
For now then, here is the Special Edition of my Varanasi film about that day: