India. Just the name invokes images of priests, esoteric ceremonies, and a pantheon of gods that would put the ever-expanding Marvel Universe to shame. For centuries, intellectuals have been drawn to the subcontinent in a spiritual quest for enlightenment. Sure, Muslims have their Mecca, Catholics Rome, but religion has India. So it’s no wonder that people from around the world flock here to practice yoga, spend time meditating at an ashram, or visit the thousands of pilgrimage sites scattered throughout the country.
Now, this is all fine and good, but where does it leave the skeptic? It’s not that I have anything against religion. On the contrary, I find the world’s religions to be immensely interesting, hauntingly beautiful, and yes, even uplifting. But I also have a healthy distrust of institutions and anything “New Age.” In most cases, religion is a business, and money and religion mix about as well as a vodka martini (I don’t care what Bond says, martinis are made with gin). But when in Rome Goa…
I decided shelling out $10 for a crash course in yoga wasn’t too much to ask. Hell, everyone else in Goa was doing it, and despite the unsettling haze on the horizon, Goa was about as paradisiacal as you can get in India. If there were one place I might find some inner peace and rekindle my own sense of spirituality in this country, it would be here. After all, that’s what people do in India; they become spiritual. Why should I miss out?
Should I have been surprised that my class was taught by a westerner or that there was not another Indian among the 15 or so people attending? Probably not. As far as cultural appropriation is concerned yoga takes the cake. But what I thought would be some relaxing meditation coupled with a bit of light stretching soon turned into a nightmare as my body was contorted into shapes straight out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.
There I was, going from downward dog to vasisthasana, my muscles straining under my own weight, sweat running down the front of my forehead and dripping in a pool on the mat below, as my instructor rambled on about aligning my chakra and expelling the hate inside me. I must have been doing something wrong because while I wasn’t exactly feeling hate, I could definitely sense some loathing. And any chance of moving along the path of enlightenment was irrevocably broken after I was told how to cleanse my kidneys by touching my big toes. Oh, if only they knew this trick in the dialysis clinics; think of how short the transplant list would be!
OK, an hour and a half is obviously not enough time to stir the humors of spirituality. Though, it was certainly enough time to leave me sore and aching and my instructor $150 richer, which in India can buy you some serious peace of mind. No wonder so many people were studying to become yogis. Who wouldn’t want to earn enough to live comfortably for a week in the time it takes to do a routine workout?
So maybe Goa wasn’t for me. I mean, did I really want to sit on a mediocre beach surrounded by a bunch of weekend hippies from New York? What I needed was something different, something that could rekindle the dying embers of piety buried beneath the sands of cynicism. What I needed was something more Indian.
There is no site in India holier than Varanasi. The northern city of over one million stretches for kilometers along the banks of the sacred Ganges overlooked by impressive 18th-century Rajput ghats that lead down to the water. It is here that Hindus and Jains seek salvation and bid farewell to loved ones on funeral pyres.
I made my way dawn to Dashashwamedh Ghat, where Brahma supposedly sacrificed ten horses to welcome Shiva back from exile to earth. It was just before dawn, the cold, acidic air hung heavy over the river. A number of Indians, mostly man, had gathered along the edge of the water stripping down to their underwear. Some wore kaupina, a loincloth associated with Shiva. As the first red rays of sunlight peeked through the haze across the river, the faithful plunged themselves into the murky waters of the Ganges.
People who visit Varanasi say that watching the devotees perform puja (ritual prayer) and bathe themselves in the Ganges is a sobering and moving experience. Maybe at one time this was the case. But today, for every Indian who has come for absolution, there is a tourist, camera poised, to capture it. Along the river, longboats full of Chinese ply the waters, a guide belting out facts through a megaphone.
Why were we here? I wondered. Were we searching for some form of lost spirituality or just engaging in religious voyeurism? At the end of the day, will we have learned anything from this experience or just go home with a few colorful photos as trophies to show our friends and family?
I left Dashashwamedh Ghat and began to walk along the river, away from the tourists and the touts that swarmed over them as thick as flies on a rotting carcass. I bumped into a sadhu, a religious ascetic, clad in a saffron robe his hair tied up in long dread knots. He was foreign, from California to be precise. The man spoke slowly as if he had found total peace or his mind had been permanently damaged by drug use. My guess was on the later. He begged for money as is the profession of the sadhu. I ignored him and continued along the river.
At another ghat, I passed several groups of men in white dhotis, naked from the waist up. They were following a Brahmin in puja, chanting while they prepared ritual offerings. No doubt they had paid a hefty fee for the privilege. But who can put a price on salvation?
As I continued, flames and thick columns of grey smoke rose up in front of me. I knew what this was. I knew I shouldn’t go there, that I had no business going there, that I would be just another voyeur every bit as bad as the obnoxious Chinese cruising offshore. But I went anyway.
Standing on a platform above the muddy shore, I watched as a family gathered around an old woman lying on a pile of wood, her face taut and gray. Around the family burned several other stacks of wood, the acrid smoke wafting through the air and into my lungs.
A man who appeared to be the head of the family was arguing with an untouchable. Eventually, some bills exchanged hands, and the dispute was resolved. The untouchable walked around the pyre five times before putting it to the torch. The flames quickly spread, lapping up against the sides of the woman. In due course, her body too began to burn, the fat under the skin boiling up and spilling on to the wood below.
“Do you know how long it takes for a body to burn?” It was an older man with a thick bushy mustache dressed in a white robe. “Don’t worry; I work here. Those are my sons down there helping with cremation.”
“Three hours,” I said, dryly. “But I’m not interested in an explanation right now.”
“You shouldn’t be here if you are not interested,” he said with a smile.
“I’ve already read about it. I don’t need a guide.”
His friendly demeanor suddenly changed. “Then you cannot stay here.”
“Actually, I know for a fact that I can.”
“This is a family place. You should leave now.”
I knew that he was right. Here I was watching a family grill their grandmother as if I was at a neighborhood barbecue. But I wasn’t in the mood to let him get away with his sanctimony. “At least I don’t extort money to look the other way.” If there is one thing a tout can’t stand, it’s to be reminded of his own moral failings.
“You’re stupid! A stupid man!” he shouted, storming off.
I stayed a little longer, if for no other reason than to assert my claim to a false moral high ground.
Some people come to India and find God. But everywhere I looked, religion was being used to pray upon people’s sensibilities. Whether it was yoga classes steeped in pseudo eastern science or the simple blessing of a supposed holy man, profit not piety was the motivating factor.
For me, there is nothing particularly spiritual about India. It is, in fact, one of the places I feel least connected to “God.” India is a world of man, and if God does exist he does not reside in any house of worship no matter how ornate and grandiose, nor can he be conjured up through elaborate ceremony or ritual. If I feel anything at all, it is when I look upon the beauty of a night’s sky illuminated by the light of an infinite number of brightly shining stars. It is the rays of the sun as they refract through the atmosphere and flood the earth in a thousand different shades of color. Nothing created by man can rival the splendors of the universe, for there is no truer manifestation of the divine than the miracle of nature.