Varanasi is such a special city. India as a whole has been such a different traveling experience for all five of us. Each of us in turn has taken our trips to the bathroom to throw up or have some diarrhea. Alex, Kieran, and I most of all. It is known to be not the funnest of places to travel, and yet it is so memorable.
Delhi and Agra were memorable, with the traffic and the Taj Mahal, but the Hindu religion, the part of India that makes the country so sacred, is here in Varanasi. The whole of India has Hinduism as its main religion, with about 80% of the nearing-one-billion population praying at temples or shrines for the Hindu gods and goddesses.
Varanasi is truly the Hindu capital of India. People come from all over the country to bathe in the Ganges river and preform ancient funeral rites to cremate the dead. Death is ever so present. Though it is not the grim death with veils and subtle weeps. It is so normal. We have already seen multiple bodies wrapped in tinsel and cloth, ready to be cremated and have their ashes scattered across the Ganges river.
The river is one of the central points of Varanasi’s deeply spiritual reputation. Though the city itself is the really old part. Varanasi as a small commune could have been here for ten thousand years, and it still exists today. The Hindu religion is the oldest living religion in the world, coming about around four thousand years ago. You might think of the fantastical greek gods of Zues and Poseidon as made-up legend. The Hindus believe in Gods as fantastical like Shiva and Vishnu. And their religion is even older than that of the greeks.
9 out of 10 of all Hindus live in India, so I think it’s safe to say that India is the land of the Hindus. Varanasi is the land of the gods. Monkeys jump around, so Hanuman, the god of monkeys, strength, and energy is there. The Ganges river is personofied as the Goddess Ganga, who is also there. And all the hundreds of millions of other Hindu gods are said to reside above Varanasi. Varanasi itself even sits upon the trident of Shiva (mentioned later). It must be and definitely is a special and sacred place to have all these gods make their homes above, in, or around it.
Hinduism does not have a set of rules that all Hindus have to follow. It is a religion in which you can worship any god you like, or maybe not any gods at all. You could theoretically worship the Christian God, or Allah, and still be a Hindu. Hindus don’t have a mass that people attend to worship together. Worshiping is done at home, with family or as a solitary activity.
Hindus do not believe in a Heaven or a Hell, but rather in a cycle of death and rebirth know as Samsara. The goal of Hindus existence on Earth is to escape the cycle and become enlightened. When you die, you are supposedly reborn into another form on the Earth. If you were a good person, you might be reborn into a rich family and start a good life with a good education and eventually a good job. If you were a bad person, you might not even be reborn into a human body. You could come back as a hungry stray dog, forced to scavenge for food on the side of the road, or even maybe a cockroach. The idea is that you are repeatedly reborn, again and again, until you escape the wheel of Samara. You continue like this forever until you are good enough to become enlightened.
Whether you were a good person or a bad one in a life is determined by Karma. If you do something good in life, you earn yourself good Karma, and if you do something bad, you are given bad Karma. Your Karma at the end of your life determines the form and position in which you are reborn.
The problems I see with this is that if you walked by an Indian begger on the street, you would think that they must have had bad Karma in a previous life to deserve something like that. You might not have sympathy for the beggar, because you might think they deserved it.
After you have acheived such a good Karma (a good life makes way for better karma) to be worthy of something greater, you achieve Enlightenment. After you achieve enlightenment, you kind of become one with the universe and everything in it. It is still a little fuzzy to me. I have learned all of this from being here, listening to the content Alex and Janet read me, and taking the tour we went on, so there are still a couple little gaps in my knowledge. As far as my understanding goes, you kind of meld with the universe and all the past souls that have achieved enlightenment. You become part of the universal spirit.
As I walk down the street, I see the poor conditions that people live in. Some people’s homes are piles of cloth on the side of the road. I can imagine how the religion would have developed around the idea that you want to escape the suffering of life on Earth. I could imagine myself as one of the children on the street, whose parents only have enough money to afford horrible living conditions and just the right amount of food. If I were them I would desperately want to achieve enlightenment and leave behind the troubles of the world.
Hindus have millions of gods and goddesses to represent different parts of our everyday life. There are only 3 that you really need to know: Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Preserver, and Shiva the Destroyer. Shiva is a good destroyer, destroying the bad, rather than a god that destroys everything. Different sects of Hinduism worship one over the other 2, though that is not really what is important in Hinduism.
Brahma is the Hindu creator god. He had four heads, and is responsible for the creation of the universe. There are many variations of how Brahma created the universe. I am still very fuzzy on him.
Vishnu is the four-armed, blue-skinned preserver of the universe. He is said to hold the universe together with each of his four hands, each one stretching to a far corner of the cosmos.
Shiva is the one we know the most about and have seen depicted on tapestries and in paintings. In every picture he looks the same. He has blue skin, with long black hair. Sitting atop his head is a bun from his black hair, and sprouting from it is a stream of water that represents the Ganges river. Around his neck is a beaded necklace. The beads are made from a wood that can only be found in the Himalayas, and are supposed to be good for the heart and the circulation of blood. He normally wields a three-pointed trident in his left hand. He usually has large rings through his earlobes. There is also always a cobra that has coiled itself around his neck. Draped across his lap or stretched across his chest is the skin of a Leopard. I am still unfamiliar with the significance of the cobra or the skin of the leopard.
One of the most important characteristics about Shiva is his third eye. His third eye is situated in the center of his forehead, and is said to have the power to destroy the universe. From that eye he can bring a destructive fire. In Varanasi there is an “Eterrnal Flame” that is always burning. That one, single, special flame is used to light all the other fires that cremate all the sacred bodies that die in Varanasi. Many people come to Varanasi to die because it is said that if you die in Varanasi, and have your ashes scattered across the Ganges river, it is like a get-out-of-jail free card to escape the cycle of Samsara.
Here in Varanasi, the main deities that are worshipped are Shiva and Ganesh. Ganesh is a half elephant half human god with four arms. He can be seen holding many different things in his four arms.
The Story of Ganesh (written from my memory):
One day, the goddess Parvati, Shiva’s wife, was going to take a shower to help get the dust and dirt that had accumilated on her body off. She brushed some dust off of her arm, and from that dust came a little boy. Parvati told the boy to guard the door and make sure nobody entered while she was taking her shower. The boy obeyed. While the boy was guarding the door, three people, ambassadors of Shiva, told the boy that Shiva wished to see Parvati. The boy told them that she was busy taking her shower. The ambassadors said that they needed to see Parvati at that moment, and no later. The little boy challenged them to a fight. The ambassadors, thinking they could beat a little boy, accepted. But the boy overcame them in the fight. The three ambassadors returned to Shiva with nothing. So Shiva came himself, and with his trident cut off the boy’s head. Of course when Parvati found out she was furious. She told Shiva that she would destroy the universe if Shiva did not bring the boy back to life. Of course Shiva was scared by the prospect of Parvati destroying the universe, and immediately set out to find a way to heal the boy. He told his ambassadors to find somebody that carried their baby on their back. The ambassadors could not find any person who did. They eventually found an elephant who carried its baby on its back. So Shiva cut the head off of the elephant and put it on the boy’s body. So came about Ganesh.
Ganesh represents the mind. Intellect, Knowledge, Wisdom, and as well as good luck are all the traits of Ganesh. Read Kieran’s post: Ganesh and Hinduism for more information on Ganesh.
Three is a very important number in the world of the gods. Shiva’s trident has three points. Shiva has three eyes. There are three main gods. I bet there are many other things in Hinduism that encorporate the number three.
I have told you about all these gods and goddesses of the Hindu religion, which may lead you to think that hinduism is a Polytheistic faith. But that opinion varies. Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Ganesh, Hanuman and all the other millions of gods are kind of all just sides, faces, representations, or parts of one god. That god is everything. That one god is the Creator, the Preserver, and the Destroyer all rolled into one. All the gods are just part of it. Ganesh for example is the wise part of the huge spirit or god that is kind of all the gods.
As previously stated, cremation on the Ganges is an old and important tradition. Most people are cremated, but there are some exeptions. Children under seven are not cremated on the Ganges because they haven’t seen enough of the world in just seven years to learn the lessons of this world. They want the child to come back and have another chance. Same with pregnant women because they believe that the unborn child has not seen the world. If the person died from a snake bite, then they are not cremated either, because Shiva (Shiva has a snake around his neck) does not think they are worthy and must come back again. Here in Varansi and in other cities, city animals are abundant (read my other post: Busy Cities), but cows are sacred. They do not cremate the dead cows. If someone died of leprosy, it is also not customary that they be cremated and escape the cycle. People that suffered from leprosy have essentially led lonely and solemn lives, and need to come back to experience it again the right way. They also don’t want people that are observing the cremation to inhale or take in the ashes, for fear of catching the sickness. Last but not least, Holy men. Holy men are not cremated because they need to come back again to continue their teaching (I think).
After learning about the significance of Varanasi and the Ganges river, I am confused about some things. Varanasi is a messy place, no kidding. The streets are covered in water, mud, dirt, trash, and old food. And it only gets worse. A big thing here is something called paan. It is a mixture of spices and tobacco wrapped in a green leaf. Many people here eat it. They chew and suck on it, and then because they can’t swallow the tobacco, they spit it out. So the streets are a bit dirty. Spitting is almost a sport here, because people practice it so much. The streets are also littered with dog, pigeon, and cow waste, and there is no avoiding getting your shoes quite dirty.
The Holy City (Varanasi) and the Ganges river are not clean. You would think that the inhabitants would want to keep the most spiritually important (by far) city in India clean. But is is the dirtiest city I have ever been to. If the Hindus believe in Samsara, why would they pollute a city that they know they will be reborn into and maybe live in again?
Half the waste in Varanasi eventually ends up in the Ganges river. Not to mention all the bones and ashes that probably now reside at the bottom of the river. Some time ago the Government made a limit at how much bacteria you could put into the Ganges. People are exeeding that rule by over x120. There are also pesticide factories that lie upstream on the river, and dump their waste into the river. People wash their clothes and even bathe in Ganges, something that I would not want to have done to me or to my clothes. It is hard to imagine how the polluted river could be a goddess.
Below: Small Hindu Shrines