I had come at the quiet time in the season for at other times of the year, even before the sun has risen, the streets of Varanasi throb to the movement of thousands of devout pilgrims that make their way to the wide concourse of steps that bound the Ganges; hardened cement maybe, but there upon is a streaming of life. But nothing about it is offensively sudden, the harsh beauty of the ghats resting upon necessity and an endurance of purpose. There pilgrims and residents perform ritual ablutions in its sacred waters. Hundreds of priests, and shop vendors in their multitudes, attend to the specialized religious needs of the devotees. The breaking of dawn also heralds the commencement of activity in the many temples and small shrines, each dedicated to the numerous deities of the Hindu pantheon, but I lingered rarely and little near their doors. There were voyeurs and digital cameras enough in attendance to intrude upon the privacy of the proceedings within. Even in this off-season, if my crude definition is valid, the shoreline of the Ganges was vibrant with activity, priests and devotees occupied with giving ritual ‘puja’ to their chosen god or goddess. I am told that the sum total of the shrines of all sizes number in their thousands. I did not doubt the tally, and quickly learnt that a miss-timed step or an awkward retreat from an approaching procession, though courteously intended, too easily could result in unforeseen offence to a little shrine unnoticed at your feet. Shiva ‘lingas’ and ‘yonis’ abounded, but I suspect the byways and confluences of pilgrimage that I investigated sampled only a small portion of the places and intricacy of worship.
It was all colour, reds and yellows, tiny thumbnail-sized patches of gold leaf in profusion, bright marigolds strewn about, the diversity of deities reflecting the wealth of experience through which the divine is reflected in the richness of Hindu tradition: Vishnu, one of the three deities of mediaeval and later Hinduism, his chief cosmic function the periodic restitution and preservation of dharma; Shiva, like Vishnu, also one of the three great deities of Hinduism, sexually temperate, but dually also sensual, omnipresent and omnipotent, who will dance the world to destruction only to create it anew as part of the continuing cosmic cycle; Kali, the ‘black one’, a hellish goddess signified with death and blood, a hauntress of cremation grounds and a demander of sacrifice; Durga the warrior goddess, sometimes thought identical to Kali; and Lord Ganesha, the popular elephant-headed guardian of doorways, and the god of obstacles – he removes them, thus being evoked at the beginning of almost every undertaking.
But it is to the ‘burning ghats’, the sites of daily cremation, that western visitors are drawn. There, at a plethora of carefully tended funeral pyres, corpses are brought to the purifying fires. To pious Hindus liberation, ‘moksha’, from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth, ‘samsara’ (according to one’s karma, ‘reap as you have sown’), is sought in the ritual fires, and so the dead are consigned to the pyres in the hope moksha awaits them. It is to this hope that many devout Hindus come to Varanasi to die, and it is in this context that the many funeral processions proceed with a sense of joy, the dead covered in brightly wound shroud-cloths atop timber biers, carried openly through the streets of Varanasi to await riverside cremation. It is an auspicious occasion. No one wears black. It is alien to us, and to our sensibilities. Our dead go closeted, and quietly. But I did not look at the crackling fires. I was an intruder. I feigned attentive interest in architecture and innovative graffiti as I slunk past, but I could not help but notice the meticulously constructed piles of tree wood, hewn from some unseen forest, and stacked waiting their own consummation, and that of the dead. At some future time each piece would be arranged so as to collectively effect the final corporeal extinguishing of husbands and wives, daughters and sons, even that of lovers, plumes of smoke arising to mark the obliteration of the bodies and suggesting the longed-for liberation of each soul. Such was the scene and intent of the burning ghats. I did not venture to enlighten those entrusted with the fuelling of the pyres that their carefully arranged and tended pieces of wood were probably home to thousands of unoffending tenebrionid and cerambycid beetles, ants, aradid bugs, and numerous other creatures of the invertebrate kind, their fragile bodies secreted away within unassuming holes and cavities, or finding vainly-sought refuge below flakes of loose bark. Maybe liberation awaited these lesser beings too in the purifying fires paid for and meant solely for others.
Varanasi is home to, and attracts, many ascetics; holy sadhus and sadhvi. They sit in virtuous meditation around the steps. In their renunciation of the material world they have divested themselves of most of their clothing. Some are naked. They continue to own little, often nothing more than a wooden staff and a bowl, though I did see a documentary once where such an ascetic, devoid of all attire, sat proudly astride a Harley Davidson motorbike, a radio of ‘ghetto-blaster’ proportions firmly strapped to the bike’s upswept handlebars. This evidently being his sole compromise to the material world he had otherwise renounced. I admit, without judgement or criticism, that his quest for divine release had a certain style, a certain panache. To my eyes, in this world of earthly foibles he had achieved that sense of elan. But best he avoid the southern states of America. Others, their naked bodies smeared with ash taken from the cremation grounds, but not at all fond of such artefacts of the western world, instead nourished long matted lengths of dread-locked hair wound about their heads, or ornamented their sun-gnarled faces with bright pigments. My Celtic forebears, not so blessed with dyes of such industrial brilliance, daubed their bodies in blue woad, a plant derivative, yet are said to have looked no less imposing. And though we Celts could claim some especially remarkable goddesses, sadly they were fewer in number and more modestly clad. Though I could never understand why the Norse did not continue rowing to the sunnier shores of Spain – thus avoiding some truly depressing weather – the British climate was not conducive to the wearing of fine muslins, and as a consequence indigenous British deities exposed little more than an occasional bare shoulder, Britannia included. Fortunately for the British they later acquired a habit, usually unasked for and therefore unwelcome, of transmigration, so that now some of their descendents have found goddesses in newly settled lands in abundance; particularly on Sydney’s Bondi Beach, where each summer aged pilgrims flock in their thousands to gaze in silent awe and devotion at the lithesome sea nymphs floundering on its white sands.
But one ascetic sat quietly at a street that gave access to the ghats. He smiled each time I walked by, but made no attempt to solicit loose coinage, …or my email address. He had a companion, a macaque monkey not fully grown, and they sat in obvious friendship comfortable in each other’s company. The space that they claimed was no more than a metre square, yet this little patch of India seemed home enough, empty as it was of any appliance of worldly convenience. There was certainly no room to park a Harley. Fortunately for man and monkey, and my naive assessment of the illusion they presented, it was not raining, and the sun still gave warmth to my explorations, well clad as I was.
If my expectation from these explorations was a search for an understanding of the ritual and ceremony, of an outline of what Hinduism was all about, then no. From what seemed like chaos, no allusion to Vritra the Hindu demon god of chaos intended, I gained almost nothing from the diversity of ritualistic spectacle; other than what seemed the unique peculiarity that you will find no supreme person of authority in Hinduism. There is no equivalent of the Pope, however, a distinguishing tenet of Hinduism, if my gleaning of its essence is correct, is the primacy of the welfare of the entire cosmos. Hinduism has a world-maintaining view, the individual’s responsibility to seek liberation from karma/samsara and dharma existing with a parallel, paramount, responsibility to maintain social order. It explains, in the epic Ramayana, Lord Rama’s decision to banish his wife Sita following her release from long capture by the demon lord Ravana. Though she had remained chaste during her imprisonment, and Rama did not doubt this, the people of his kingdom gossiped and considered Sita’s reputation besmirched. So Rama, cognisant of his higher responsibilities as king, acted first out of his duty to the greater welfare of his people, and to world order. This overrode his responsibility to protect his blameless wife, painful as it was to both, and cruel as his actions might seem to us. Hindu responsibilities to the welfare of social order, within the context of the greater cosmos, find some reflection in that of the ‘good citizen’ of Athens in his or her duty of service and care to the well-being of the broader ‘polis’. The obligations held within Hinduism are kind of like those implied in the Roman definition of ‘civitas’, citizenship, but the commonwealth to which one should attend operates on a spiritual plane. This dualism of one’s responsibilities, within that of the ‘greater good’, differs from the dissenting world-denying, world renouncing, view of Buddhism and Jainism with their emphasis on the individual, and denial of the sacredness of the ancient Vedas. Though reverence to the Vedic texts is a prerequisite for any philosophical or religious system considered properly Hindu, Hinduism has never agreed on articles of faith, and offers a variety of spiritual pathways, circumscribed as they are, by which through devotional observance devotees may approach the divine. The Bhagavad-Gita guides that selfless action without desire for reward is an end in itself, and as such no tension need exist between one’s dual obligations to support the world and to seek personal liberation. Hinduism acknowledges that people are different from one another, and that these differences are distinctive, crucial even; thus the caste system, the mixing of individuals of different castes being an offence to orthodox Hindus. Basically everyone is trapped by the remorseless laws of karma, and whilst individuals have limited job opportunities in this world outside of the rigid prescriptions of their caste, the lowly sweeper can look forward to moving upwards in the hierarchy in later rebirths, whilst a bad Brahmin can just as easily fall to the bottom of the heap. Gandhi strived throughout his life to overcome the social dictatorship of the caste system yet more than 60 years after his assassination at the hands of a Hindu fanatic, it remains largely entrenched. Those strictly observing the Brahmanical rigidity of ‘varna’ and ‘jati’, the two ordering principles under which I understand the caste and subcaste structure, and individuals within it, to function, would probably find little amusement in the kindergarten ‘epistle’ my children repeated zealously to me after their first day at school: “First is the worst, Second is the best, Zero the hero”.
Hinduism sees the natural world as illusory, transitory and imperfect. However, some of the greatest of Hindu Sanskrit poetry, such as Jayadeva’s beautiful love poem of the passion of Krishna and Radha, the Gita Govinda, is set within the idyllic rural landscape of the natural environment, far from cities; thus inferring some level of perfection here on earth. Those more experienced than I assure me Hinduism does not readily yield to either description or analysis, so I will no further attempt it here. I have paraded my ignorance enough, though I was assured that my appraisal of events as chaos, marvellous as that celebratory chaos appeared to me, was a good one. It was a directed chaos. It proceeded to a place of the mind, as does my road trip.
If I could pick the bones of it just a little more, I would have to say that the concept of ‘ahimsa’, non-injury, as essential to Hindu philosophy and practice, appealed to me. This concept of non-harm is a theme also central to the New Testament, to Buddhism, the Western tenets of Deep Ecology, to the Chinese teachings of Meng Tzu, and to those of the English expatriate John Lennon, musician, philosopher and imperfect father that he was. It explains the Hindu emphasis on vegetarianism. Then your whole estimate of an all-enveloping sense of peace, love and harmony will be shattered by the death and slaughter found in a Kali temple. Being waved back and forth through purifying smoke and fragrant incense, then having your throat cut, does not work for me. The ritual wielding of the knives and subsequent sacrificial death of animals is up there with what I had the misfortune to once experience in a local abattoir – terror stricken living creatures at the front door, 44 gallon drums full of severed heads, their eyes empty of life, at the other. God did not live there.
Not content with that realisation, I later found cause to open a copy of the Arthashastra of Kautilya, a work written arguably somewhere between the 3rd Century BCE and the 2nd Century CE. It is an especially insightful tome, ruthless in its approach to the seizure and maintenance of power; lots of betrayal, cunning and deceit encapsulated by its pages. It’s a good bedside companion read to Machiavelli’s The Prince. And then there were all those swastika’s. They were everywhere, adorning house walls, emblazoned on motorcycles, embroidered on sari margins, and decorating gate lintels at the entrances to places of worship. Sometimes shown in reverse. I have some printed on old bank notes and postage stamps, historical mementos of a terrible time. Apparently the word means ‘well-being’, or ‘good fortune’. Something went horribly wrong in its cultural appropriation. Swastikas that are clock-wise, the right hand angled kind we are most familiar with for all the wrong reasons, are considered auspicious, anti-clockwise pointing ones are deemed inauspicious. Thus I didn’t really fathom the benefits of exhibiting the left-handed kind, of which I eventually encountered many examples. Later in my travels I found a neatly stacked cache of newly delivered building bricks, each with the symbol inlaid along its kiln-baked red face. If the bricklayers weren’t so close by having morning tea, I would have ‘knocked off’ a couple, as some of my countrymen would have coined it, as keepsakes. I had just the right spot on the library shelf for them; I thought they’d make nice novelty bookends. There were a lot of bricks in that cache. They’d sell like hotcakes at the local community markets in Hometown. I hope someone back in Germany is keeping track of copyright infringements.
I was obviously a victim of muddling the term Aryan, as appropriated by the Nazis to support their theory of world divinity and destiny, and confusing that of the Aryans, the invaders of subcontinental India and whose culture by the 2nd Century BCE had come to dominate and displace earlier civilizations, such as that of the Indus Valley. Although some scholars, mainly Indian, contend that the Aryans were an indigenous people they are more generally accepted as having entered India from the north, sometime between 1750-1200 BCE. The word ‘Aryan’ translates as ‘hospitable’, honourable’, ‘noble’, a meaning that various Western demagogues of recent history have overlooked in their enthusiastic claiming of Aryan ancestral ties, instead applying an inferred ‘better than’ in their free application of it. It is the Aryans that have bequeathed to India Sanskrit, and it is to their body of texts, the Vedas, that knowledge of the Aryans comes to us. In the developed social structure of the post-Vedic texts, Aryans are those represented by the three highest Hindu social classes; Brahmins, Ksatriyas and Vaisyas. The fourth, or lowest class, the Sudras or serfs, are considered to be non-Aryan (anaryans). To me this looked dangerously close to a political agendum of social domination in the guise of a theory of world divinity. I kept my thoughts to myself, as they probably suggested nothing more than the pretention and shallowness of my understanding.
You will recall that I was anticipating disappearing into a crowd of 1 billion Indians; to lose myself in anonymity. Well it proved a false hope. It was a good thought, but one based on a flawed premise. One based on an inadequate foundation of experience. There were a lot of cameras and smart phones at Varanasi, and they weren’t all in the hands of tourists. I was asked to pose with one family group, then a second. Then the word spread nationwide. I’m probably on Facebook, maybe even You Tube; ‘Strange Western world-renouncer spotted at Varanasi Ghats!’. ‘Click thumbnail image to play film clip, download full version free’. I never once put out my hand in expectation of financial reward. I should have thought things weren’t going to plan when a group of teenage boys, pleasant enough lads projecting not a hint of ill will or aggressive intent towards me, passed by as I sat in scenic contemplation on the steps by the Ganges. I was enthralled by a group of men who were positioning a bright blue coloured diesel engine in the hull of a boat. Alongside this was a second boat, its clinker-built form being patiently crafted by a man owning only an adze, a small hand saw, and a hammer, for the completion of his task. “Western Baba, Western Baba”, the boys called out. Then they laughed and ran off. I looked about puzzled as I had thought I was alone. Maybe a holy Sadhu, meaning no offence, had quietly arrived and was enjoying the shade of my back, out of sight behind me. There was no one. They meant me. I shrugged. The boys had gathered some distance off and were gesticulating in my direction. My clothes were still in accompaniment and in their appropriate place upon my body, everything buttoned as it should be. Suddenly, and inexplicably engaged by memories of my ancestors, I gingerly felt my cheeks, but found nothing moist, nothing resembling woad. Not even a trace of the vermillion coloured paint a kind old man had earlier placed on my forehead. Only charged me 40 rupees, Rs40. That’s a bargain at less than a dollar a dab. He’d even thrown in a blessing, and offered a flower.
I searched again, this time fingering the two long side plaits of my beard, then the oiled curls hanging down past my shoulders, in case some light-fingered street larrikin had cleverly decorated my long hair with votive marigolds. We used to do that sort of thing at school, the words ‘Kick Me’ written on a little piece of paper, gummed unknowing to your back. There was nothing, not even an odd crumb or sauce stain lingering from my breakfast meal amongst my beard, as often was my fashion. Maybe the days of George Harrison in India have passed, I thought to myself, and ‘short back and sides’ are now ‘de rigueur’ amongst the street chic that inhabit the banks of the Ganges here.
Later I contented myself with a slice of home made apple pie at a trendy tree-shaded cafe at the far end of the ghats. It had a gathering of backpackers, Israeli’s, Scandinavians, and a conspicuously loud and uncouth Scotsman. It was almost like Sydney’s inner city Newtown or Glebe, except the cafe did spiced marsala chai and sweet lassi, not latte. The late astronomer Carl Sagan, if to whom I hope I assign the quote correctly, said something like “to bake an apple pie first you have to create the universe”. My slice of pie had been on a long journey. But as I tried to reconcile the riverside scenes of Varanasi portrayed in the picturesque early 19th Century postcard reproductions I had just bought from an insistent young girl, with the wrack of humanity at their labour and ritual celebration below the cafe, and the sudden thought of the Ganges River dolphin, which was being allowed to slip perilously close to extinction, … the mirage of sacred majesty fell away. There was a terrible truth beyond the image of tourist industry advertising here.
The dolphin, the Shishumaar of the Ramayana, Platanista gangetica gangetica of the scholarly texts of biologists, had first sprung from Lord Shiva’s locks. The Roman natural historian and military commander Pliny the Elder, before dying during the eruption of Vesuvius that famously extinguished the habitations and citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum on the 25th August 79 CE, wrote in his Historiae Naturalis ‘In Gange Indiae platanistes vocant, rostro delphini..’. We do not know Pliny’s source, for he himself did not venture to India, and he might even have been talking about the separate dolphin subspecies that is confined to the Indus River in Pakistan, for Roman merchants once often voyaged there. But regardless, knowledge to the Western world of this strange ‘fish with a beak’ then slipped away, not to regain official scientific notoriety until the 19th Century. The Shishumaar is an obligate freshwater dolphin, confined to the waters of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra rivers; but like its oceanic relatives an eater of fish nevertheless. It still swims in the rivers of India, Nepal and Bangladesh, its diminishing populations increasingly threatened by toxic pollution, the building of dams, collision with riverboats, accidental capture in nets, and by hunting. Its close relative the Yangtze River dolphin, Lipotes vexillifer, barely survived into the 21st Century. It is now extinct, a nirvana of sorts. Of that species, only silent museum specimens remain.
I came from a different place, of subtropical rainforest at the back door of my house, and of waking to the calls of lyrebirds. I can venture to the seaside nearby, and predictably watch common species of dolphin at sunset, on whatever evening I choose. My minarets and church spires are the tall canopies of eucalypt trees and the overshadowing cliff-line beyond, its rock coarse conglomerate sediment; this once an ancient lakebed. I did not need to build a temple. At this moment it was all a long way away. I thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American philosopher, who in 1836, around the time the scenes in my Varanasi postcards had been etched, wrote in the essay Nature:
“the solitary places do not seem quite lonely. At the gates of the forest, the surprised man of the world is forced to leave his city estimates of great and small, wise and foolish. The knapsack of custom falls off his back with the first step he makes into these precincts. Here is sanctity which shames our religions, and reality which discredits our heroes”.
Not much comfort when faced with extinction. But it was a good slice of apple pie, so I ordered ‘seconds’.