Hello!! I am back after a very busy couple weeks and dealing with very s….l…..o…..w wifi in India. Today it appears that I can actually upload photos and should be able to post this entry from Agra (fingers crossed). I just arrived from a very long over night train ride from Varanasi–what should have been 12 hours took 15–and, undoubtedly, am inspired to write about this holy place.
So here I am, back in India after a two year hiatus. Mother India has succeeded in calling me back for a third time, where I will continue to be mesmerized and dazzled by her every day.
I returned to Varanasi this time very excited to spend 4 days there. Last trip I only spent one day and I regrettably only got a taste of it. This time I was on a mission to take it all in. It took only moments of me walking along the banks of the Ganges River to be reminded that this is the place where so many ancient ceremonies and ways of life originated. It is a diligently devotional city where sadhana permeates through the streets from sunrise into the depths of the night.
Sadhana is a daily, spiritual practice that allows a person to accomplish something that transcends the ego. Those of us who practice yoga or a musical instrument everyday, for example, are participating in the great exercise of sadhana. In India, this can take on many forms. In Varanasi specifically, one of the oldest and holiest cities in the world, sadhana shows itself within the labyrinth of alleyways where people go to pray everyday at the myriad of temples that seem to be on every corner. Many devotees dress in orange and white and bring with them some sort of food or flower offering for the Gods.
While I was wandering through these passages, I also saw people stopping to bow and pray for a moment to figures of Lord Ganesha or Krishna or Shiva before continuing on their way. These figures are not inside a specific temple but instead are shrines erected along the back roads. Opportunities to pray, to show devotion and practice sadhana are never ending in this city. I admire this way of life and allow myself to be swallowed by it all.
Another example of sadhana in Varanasi is the evening fire puja ceremony called aarti. It takes place every single evening around 6:45 pm and lasts around 45 minutes. It is a ritual that pays homage to Lord Shiva and Krishna, the Mother Ganga, and fire. It’s a magnificent display of holy men singing prayers and dancing. Incense, golden bells, conch shells, peacock feathers and fire are used throughout the ceremony, creating sounds, smells and sights to be remembered.
What may be the greatest example of sadhana in this holy city is the cremation ritual. Many Hindus specifically come to die there so that they can be submerged in and then burned on the banks of the Mother Ganga River before their ashes are then scattered into the holy water. It is said that once this happens, the cycle of samsara ends and they are finally free of the cycle of reincarnation.
This sacred custom is said to have begun over 3,500 years ago after Lord Shiva was cremated in Varanansi on the banks of the Ganges River. Each day, the same ceremony is held for hundreds of people, mostly Hindus, using the same fire from the cremation of Lord Shiva, a fire that has continuously been kept a flame since. Over and over again, bodies are decorated and marched down to the river by loved ones, the eldest son being the chief mourner. He walks around the dead body 5 times, representing the 5 elements–fire, air, water, earth and ether. The body is then submerged in the holy river, where it is then splashed with the water many times. Once the flowers and decor are removed from the dead bodies, the Doms, a lower caste born into this duty, then stack logs to hold a body which will burn for 3 hours. When the body is ready to be burned, it is removed of all coverings except one sheet. When the body is placed on the pile of wood, more wood is then stacked on top of the body. If possible, the eldest son carries over burning straw to start the fire. Now the burning begins.
The pyres of Varanasi are truly a sight to see. It is nothing short of spectacular; it is beautifully spellbinding. It is the only place in the world in which this tradition takes place. You can feel the devotion; there is a profound affect on you as you watch this sacred ritual. It reminds you how powerful doing something everyday is and how connected it can bring you to that which is greater than yourself.
Even right now, as I lay down on the train on my way to Agra, I can hear mantra over the loud speaker at a station we are currently stopped at in the middle of the night. I have no idea where we are but again, I am surrounded by the deep rooted admiration that runs through the veins of this country. Prayer and mantra are another way of connecting to our spiritual selves and to the God in which we pray to and believe in. Committing to something, someone or a diety every day brings with it so many possibilities. It is the beginning of our transcendence toward reaching a greater understanding of who we are and our purpose in this life.
Leaving Varanasi, I am forced to reflect on what I’ve experienced and seen. It is a place that imprints a deep memory in my heart. This city leads by example: if you want to understand what it feels like to live a faithfuls life, observe and embrace this place and it’s ways. The culture here is vigorous. It is tenacious and powerful. It is sadhana at its finest. It is a practice, a faith, that I aspire to in my life. I am grateful for seeing and feeling the beauty and fondness of ancient rituals that have carried millions of people to grace.