Greetings From Hindustan
Part Three: Ben Meets God
Having spent a lovely time with the Communists down in Kerala it was off to Varanasi for the burning of the Ghats. If you are into strange religious practices then Varanasi is the place for you. Over a billion Hindus dream of ending their spiritual journey here on earth on the banks of the sacred River Ganga, ascending into the heavens as a puff of smoke.
At dawn, amongst yogis saluting the rising sun, women bathing discreetly in the shallows and Sadhus choofing on their first reefer of the day, the body is placed on a big pile of wood and set alight. It is said that the moment the cranium bursts from the heat is the moment the soul leaves the body. One can usually hear a loud pop! The ashes are then tossed ceremoniously into The Sacred Ganga. At dusk, after the mourners have gone home, the poorly paid fire monitors sift the river silt for valuables such as gold teeth.
No sooner had we left the banks of The Ganga before we came across a pure white temple of solid marble, spiritual home of the Jains. Of all the sects in all the world the Jains are possibly the most extreme. They believe in total non-violence. If you thought vegans were far out, this mob are like vegans on steroids. Not only do they eschew all animal products, they won’t even pull up root vegetables because it disturbs the microbes in the soil. They rarely leave the house at night to avoid squashing bugs in the dark.
When l was a lad a couple of Jain devotees happened to stay in our house. They wouldn’t drink from the water tank because it had wrigglers (baby mosquitos) in it. They would only drink vegetarian water. They wouldn’t eat the sugar if it had ants in it. Very fussy.
No sooner had we left the Jain Temple, lured by the aroma of the tandoori chicken stall across the road, than we stumbled across a Sadhu sprawled across the sidewalk in a disheveled state of undress. Your Sadhus and Sadhuis (women sadhus) seek enlightenment through extreme self-denial. They have no home, living in caves in the forest or wandering the streets; some live in cemeteries and talk to ghosts. They have no worldly possessions save for a begging bowl and a saffron robe, the most devout have even discarded the robe and wander around stark naked. Upon initiation they attend their own funeral where they discard their ego and all sense of self and are considered ‘dead unto themselves’. Then they get to smoke gunja morning, noon and night, as they consider this their Eucharist.
Every three years the Sadhus and Sadhuis get together in a gathering called a Kamu Mela. This is the largest gathering of humans in all the world. Some say there are 10 million people in attendance, but how could you even count that many?
No sooner had we stepped over the Sadhu than we came across yet another exquisitely beautiful temple in the shape of the sacred lotus. Spiritual home of The Baha’is. This is a fairly new religion. It popped up in Persia in the 19th century and is steaming along with a set of thoroughly modern beliefs: the attainment of world peace being their primary goal here on earth, along with the unity of all human kind under one God. They believe that Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohamed and even Freddy Mercury are all emissaries for that one god.
It certainly has a catchy ring to it, doesn’t it? We’ve only got the one god so we just have to learn to share her/him/it.
In the next exciting episode: we will finally get to that big fat Indian wedding, God willing.