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Pulling At The Fringes: Varanasi
When people ask me now what I learned in India, it can really be summed up in this one weekend, or this one day, or this one moment.
In India, I visited the holy city of Varanasi (formerly Benares), which dates back 3,000 years...and looks it. This is the holiest city for Hindus, as it is said to have been founded thousands of years ago by the Lord Shiva. It is the place where Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, gave his first lecture, thus founding a new religion which still thrives to this day. There is also a large contingent of Muslims here and the adhan, or call to prayer, can be heard five times a day, echoing in the distance. The city also includes one of the holiest temples in Jainism. And thus, you have one of the world's oldest pilgrimage sites for people from a wide array of faiths.
The trip into town from the airport took about 20 minutes. It was one long stretch of tree-lined road with a constant flow of traffic from people on foot, bicycles, rickshaws, motos, tuk-tuks, trucks, buses, taxis – any and all modes of transportation that have ever been used, and probably a few you've never even imagined, all sharing the roadway, bigger vehicles in the center, smaller ones out to the sides. As I entered the town, I was greeted by a dusty swirl of yellows and oranges and browns, but the buildings themselves were all of a grubby brown that didn't look so much weathered by the elements as just a natural part of the landscape, as if growing out of the earth itself slowly over the span of a few thousand years.
Once in the center of town, which is one long, wide dirt road with shops and kiosks taking up every available space, every path leads through a million tightly packed alleyways down to the ghats, with their steps that fall right into the Ganges River. It is here along the banks of the Ganges that Hindus believe they can escape the cycle of rebirth if their bodies are cremated at this spot within 24 hours of their death. So, all day, bodies are washed in the river, wrapped, and placed on pyres. The ash and dust from the recently departed spew a black-gray cloud high up into the sky. Families watch as their loved ones' bodies burn, while children play, chasing each other between the pyres, or even flying kites.
I made my way from the center of town to one of the main ghats as the sun was beginning its descent to the east, shimmering off the river in waves of deep amber and gold. Men with weathered skin sat in nooks and crannies of every building, looking as if they had been in those precise spots for all eternity. Cows wandered amongst the crowds, buffalo sat beside people, much the way a domesticated cat might in the West. My guide found a small boat and boatman, I climbed aboard and we gently drifted off the shore.
Afloat on the river, I was watching the cremations to the west. As we got further out the panoramic view of the riverside came wider into view. It was a breathtaking sight, these immense temples jutting out of the river, with grubby steps that led right down into the water. The other side of the river was the polar opposite, completely bereft of any manmade structures – just a sand bank, with some reeds cropping up and trees off in the distance. It was a picturesque scene, with people washing clothes on one side of the river in relative serenity, while the other side was abuzz in activity, with many people ritualistically descending the steps to bathe themselves in the river, what they saw as a cleansing of the soul, just as pilgrims had done here for thousands of years.
Drifting slowly toward the east, there was a calm that seeped into the pores of my skin and wrapped itself around my bones, my soul. I saw men, women, sadhus, sitting along the river, in total stillness. They seemed at peace with everything. And I realized they were listening to the river as it spoke the eternal OM - that from which everything springs, that into which everything will return. And I suddenly became aware of all the extraneous nonsense that had been heaped upon me from birth...
As I drifted along in this ancient city, I became acutely aware that I was not merely 8,000 miles away from home, I was in another world; not only was I in a different time zone, but a place where time was irrelevant. I thought about my life, the core foundations I had been raised with, and what supposedly constitutes happiness in the West: achievement (which should really be in quotes here), acquisition, conformity. Then I laughed at the glaring hypocrisy of so many of America's finest cliches. "Go to school, work hard, earn a good living" – oh, and by the way "money can't buy happiness." The society is so confused, it can't even get its own lexicon straight.
But when I looked out at what was in front of me, linear thought began to disappear like a lit fuse burning out toward the horizon, and it all fell away...my hometown of Los Angeles, the hamster wheel of perpetual consumerism, the cars, the clothes, the electronic gadgets, the large house you can't really afford and mostly certainly can't afford to maintain, the $20 martinis in hipster clubs, the plasma screens, the double-wide stainless steel refrigerator...nonsense. The notion that one should choose a mate, call it love, and procreate so that a whole new generation of consumers can be brought up to buy, buy, buy more things – a notion that is constantly reinforced by the corporate, and thus social, mechanisms that are so hard at work guiding people's choices in life...that fell away, too. The desire to have a career through which I am supposed to derive some self-satisfaction and identity, and feel I'm moving above the crowd, that I'm achieving, I'm rocketing myself into a whole new strata of buying power...bullshit.
It's the OM they are hearing in this place. Not just the knowledge that all of the ephemera is fleeting, but the acceptance of that impermanence. It is the removing of the layers of crap that have covered over our true nature and soul. It is the leaving behind of the socially-defined roles that we play in different aspects of our lives. It is the taking off of the shades, the blinders we've put on to distance ourselves from the truth of existence. The great Western lie - that it is not good enough to simply BE, you have to BE something else, and to BE something else you must BUY something else – that lie doesn't hold water here. Literally and figuratively.
As the sun set and disappeared, the sky became a darker shade of blue until the blue was drained entirely of color and turned to black. The moon's bright incandescent reflection rippled in slow moving waves in the waters around me. People had made their way to the ghats for evening prayers. Men performed a ceremonial chanting beneath enormous colored halos. Smoke poured out from brass pots. The chants and clanging metallic rhythms echoed out across the river and reverberated through the alleyways and out the senescent spires hanging above the city.
I wandered in a trance through the masses of people that crowded the streets. As I got close to the center of town where I had started hours before, I became aware of a rumbling sensation to my right. Just as I turned to look, I was swallowed by a massive crest of people marching and chanting at the top of their lungs. As the unending mass of bodies moved by for several minutes, I saw a large gray object approaching in the distance, its size quickly growing until I stood before a giant elephant in the middle of the crowd. It was enormous and regal, wearing a deep blue jeweled headpiece and shawl of some sort, carrying two men on its back. As it passed by, its massive eye seemed to keep me in its view and I could swear it threw a subtle, knowing smirk my way.
The rest of the night is sort of a hazy memory. I somehow drifted back to my hotel. I probably had something to eat. I slept for a couple hours and met my guide before sunrise to get the morning river experience. My body, my whole physical being was numb, like it was vibrating at a whole new frequency. I can't remember speaking any actual words the rest of the weekend, though I know I somehow boarded a plane to Delhi, and then from Delhi I took another plane to Kolkata, where I returned to my apartment.
When people ask me now what I learned in India, it can really be summed up in this one weekend, or this one day, or this one moment. For, I too, heard the OM in the river. And now that I have, I know I can never go back to draping more sheets of distraction over myself. In my twenties, I took a cross-country trek by car in an attempt to find myself, to find my identity in the great American landscape. And there I was, 15 years on, half the globe away, stripping away everything I thought I had found, the illusions and trappings of the self, and feeling freer and more at peace than ever before.