Holy Water

“Twenty-five centuries ago, at the least, it was famous. When Babylon was struggling with Nineveh for supremacy, when Tyre was planting her colonies, when Athens was growing in strength, before Rome has become known, or Greece had contended with Persia, or Cyprus has added lustre to the Persian monarchy, or Nebuchadnezzar had captured Jerusalem, and the inhabitants of Judaea had been carried into captivity, she had already risen to greatness, if not glory. -Reverend M. A. Sherring, a mid-19th cent. missionary in Benares

Although any point along the Ganga can serve as a pilgrimage site, a number of especially powerful thirthas (sacred crossings) along her banks allow pilgrims to cover multiple spiritual bases with a single visit. Banaras is the largest and most visited of these thirthas, presenting itself as Kashi (“the luminous”), an otherworldly abode that rests Shiva’s trident and grants instant liberation to all who die within its boundaries.
Skanda Purana (IV.I.28:80), p.40 (Aghor Medicine: Pollution, Death, and Healing in Northern India (3 February 2008)])

The longer I spend in India, the less I understand Hinduism. I’ve expressed this sentiment before, I know, but I’m going to spend this post talking about it, so I might as well re-iterate it, for those of you would aren’t taking extensive notes of reference for each of my blog posts.

There are many people who come to India for a spiritual experience. I am not, as you probably know, one of them, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to understand what’s going on here, especially given the fact that I married into a Hindu family. I’ve always been excited to share aspects of Judaism with my in-laws and Mr. India, regardless of their own interest. I’m pretty sure they range from polite interest (Mr. India) to confused tolerance (my mother in law) to complete disregard of practice but fascination with culture (my father in law) to rare moments of total lack of registering (my brother-in-law, who recently asked why we weren’t going to the US for Christmas this year).

So anyway, I would really like to understand something about Hinduism, but I can’t help but feel I’m getting further and further away every time I try.  Every ritual feels so fundamentally different, and because Hinduism is practiced so differently home to home and temple to temple, and because there seems to be a strong split between individual prayer and priestly ritual, and because there is no collective aspect of the religion in a way that mirrors Judeo-Christian prayer structures, and because its regional, and town to town, and culture to culture, and god to god, the ways to NOT understand Hinduism seem bigger than the ways TO understand it.  Honestly, between my research for my new novel and general curiosity, I can honestly say my understanding of Islam has really grown as my Hindu knowledge has shrunk. Irony, thy name is India.

Of course, some might say I’m making a mistake trying to unify what has essentially always been an amorphous and individual practise, that the very concept of “Hinduism” as a whole is laughable, an external colonial projection first by the Turks and Timurid-Mughals, then by the British and the Portugese. Some might say that there is no definition of Hinduism, but they know it when they see it. But what can one do, if one wants to try, but dive in, knowing that much may never be clear?

So I was rather excited to visit the holy city of Benares in the state of Utter Pradesh, neighboring state of the much reviled Delhi (which I have detailed here). After all, as the quote above details, Benares is ancient, beyond ancient, and its been holy for as long as it’s been in existence. The city, also known as Varanasi and Kashi, its ancient name, is dedicated to Shiva, its mythological founder, and it’s also allegedly the birthplace of Buddhism, as the site of the Buddha’s first sermon in the nearby enclave of Sarnath. It is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited settlements, with archaeological remains dating back to the 20th Century BC. The city grew as an economic and cultural center, producing muslin and the famous silk in addition to other goods, and it became a cultural center in the Mauryan and Gupta periods, the home of the sub-continent’s great intellectuals and the birthplace of numerous significant pieces of poetry and literature. It’s reputation as an intellectual center grew even as Adi Shankara, the hindu philosopher credited with the unification and establishment of the central concepts of Hinduism, established that  the city officially be dedicated to the worship of Shiva. Although waves of invasions from different groups of primarily Muslim rulers lead to a decline in the city’s prominence and the destruction of some of its temples, the Mughal Emperor Akbar’s interest in the city led to a revival in the 16th century, just in time for his great-grandson Aurengzeb to try and destroy it again 100 years later. Kids, am I right?

British control and pro-Hindu kings gave the city a break from the constant waves of temple-destruction, and several major universities were founded, allowing the city to recover a bit of its air of intellectual melting-pot cum religious pilgrimage destination. Now, millions of people visit Benares yearly to bathe in the Ganges, to pray at the Kashi Vishwanath Temple, or one of the other 23,000 temples in the tiny city, or, most importantly, to die. To die in Benares and be cremated on the ghats is an extremely holy act. Which makes sense. Because you really wouldn’t want to live there.

One might think that this extremely Hindu city with its deep significance to so many, not only a massive tourist site but a fundamentally essential place for Indian Hindus would, in these days of rising Hindu fundamentalism, with a Prime Minister famous for his nationalist Hindu agenda, be, in some way, well preserved.One might think that a place with such a rich history, such an enduring tradition, would be India’s Vatican, and be cared for and treated like Mecca, like Jerusalem, like the many holy cities it pre-dates. One would, in fact, think all of these things….but then, one must think about India.

Because this, my friends, is what Benares looks like:

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My in-laws do a pilgrimage to Benares every year, with another couple, friends of theirs who have been doing pilgrimages to Benares for the last few decades. Interested in its history and lusting for its silk, I decided to join them this year, and Mr. India and I make the two-hour journey from Mumbai to Benares for three days in the city of Life.

On our first day, we are ushered in and out of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple at lightening speed, the hundreds of people pouring into the space and pouring their offerings onto the lingam as a priest drones and guards push. The area around the temple is a rabbit warren of horribly narrow streets, barred to cars but clogged with motorcyclists, cows, cats, people selling offerings, and disgusting puddles best undefined. Because we had to take off our shoes before we could walk thought the mess this is the part the sticks out to me the most, my feet tip-toeing through scum and mud, my head hastily covered by a scarf, my mind completely confused. People were waiting in line for blocks to enter the temple, all for thirty seconds at most with the holy emblem of Shiva, jostled from behind, crushed up against the person ahead, moving through the tiny temple as workers cleared out the soggy flowers in back of the shrine, poking through the garlands and bouquets for something valuable.

When we emerged, I asked Mr. India what it meant. Hr shrugged, as clueless as I was.

I had hoped the holy city would impart some kind of revelation for me, or at least give me the chance to witness the devotion of others, to watch religious ecstasy, to see the history of Hinduism unfold in the present. We walked to the Ganges, swollen with the monsoon rains, and I asked Mr. India what he felt. This is his holy river, the mighty majestic life-giving waters, sweeping through India like a dowager countess. He shrugged again. All we could hear were the honks of a thousand motorcycle horns, hawkers trying to sell us a thousand pieces of junk, and bathers in the river, pilgrims in orange who during this auspicious month walk barefoot from miles around.

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They bathe, and pray, I suppose, and then walk back.

I’m not really sure why.

Returning to the hotel, we watched a movie on Benares, a conversation with a priest about the magical powers of the city, it’s resonance, it’s energy. As we lay back, our feet finally clean, learning about the city we had been so disappointed in, we nodded along. Yes, that seemed like a beautiful place to visit. Such a shame we hadn’t found it.

Somewhere underneath all the rumble and decay, under the ads and the wires, I know there must be something special about Benares, some history, some glow of power. But you can’t see it underneath all of the mess, and you can’t find it unless you are looking so hard. You have to want to feel something in Benares, I suppose, you have to know that it’s there and be so certain of that knowledge that that carries you through the mess.

Still, spiritual resonance or not, the city as a historic site is collapsing on itself, and if Modi is as Hindu as he claims to be, so intent on restoring Hindustan for Hindustanis to its former glory, the least he could do would be to put some time and effort into restoring this holy city and making it look like the layered historically significant place that it is. My in-laws agreed with me, telling me to write to Prime Minister Modi, remarking that nothing gets done in India until a white person tells someone to.

Well. Here’s hoping, then, that he reads this blog. That’s pretty likely, right?

Some more images. See if you can spot the pretty underneath all the rest:

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