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The Ganges: India’s River of Life and Death

For more than two centuries, the Ganges River has drawn pilgrims from all over the globe.

Every day as dawn breaks in the holy city of Varanasi, (also known as Benares) India, thousands of Hindu pilgrims descend the stone steps to reach the sacred waters of the Ganges River. Ritually the pilgrims plunge in the river’s dirty waters, wash their faces and, facing the rising sun, cup their hands, submerge them into the water, lift them and let the dirty water fall back into the river.

Considered one of the most sacred cities in India, Varanasi has drawn pilgrims for more than 2,500 years. Some of these pilgrims bring the ashes of a loved one to sprinkle on the river. In their faded orange garments, renouncers – those who have relinquished all worldly goods – wade in the waters. Widows in white sari’s crowd the river’s edge while the sick and elderly linger to live out their final days. It is believed that dying in Varanasi liberates the soul from its pilgrimage.

“The Ganges River is mythologically important to the Hindus,” asserts David Eckel, associate professor of religion at Boston University. “The story is that the goddess Ganga falls down from heaven onto the tangled, matted hair of Shiva (the resident god of Varanasi), which breaks the fall of her descent. She then flows through the Himalaya Mountains, across the plains of northern India, to the Bay of Bengal and back to heaven again, making a cycle from heaven to earth.”

“This makes Varanasi a very attractive place to die and be cremated,” he continues, “because to have your ashes thrown into the Ganges River means that your soul will be carried hack to heaven.”

Along the riverfront, there are more than 70 bathing ghats, stone steps that lead to the river. Some are quiet, neighborhood sites, while others are crowded with worshippers from all over India. Temples and ashrams – retreats – surmount these steps.

At the city’s center is the Manikarnika, one of the city’s major crematoriums. Here a sacred fire has burned since time immemorial. The fires are kept by the doms, an untouchable caste.

Approximately 85 percent of the Indian population is classified as Hindu. Hinduism has developed over a period of 4,000 years and has no single founder or creed. It consists of a complex system of beliefs and practices; organization is minimal and a hierarchy, nonexistent. Not conforming to Western definitions of religion, Hinduism suggests a commitment and respect for an ideal way of life, dharma.

“One perception that Westerners have about Hinduism is the idea that they worship many gods,” states Diana Eck, a scholar of Hinduism. “The reality is that Hindus do believe in the concept of oneness but in such a way that they realize there are many ways to access this oneness. The many gods are seen as starting points or points of view, and everyone is allowed his point of view. India has a cultural genius for embracing diversity so that diversity unites, rather than divides. God has many faces and a divine reality is manifested in many ways.”

Says Stephen Hopkins, a Harvard Divinity student who recently completed a year of study in India, “One interesting aspect of the Indian psyche is the holding and adhering to sometimes disparate or contradictory theories. They simultaneously have a scientific skeptical view of the world and a religious, devoted view.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than when viewing the thousands of Hindu worshippers in the waters of the Ganges at Varanasi. The pollution and harmful bacteria that have desecrated the waters do not deter the multitudes from immersing themselves – they maintain that the water is sacred and that it is spiritually pure because it comes from heaven.

According to Paul Levy, formerly the executive director of the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority, efforts have been made to clean the Ganges. Levy recently visited Varanasi as a consultant at the invitation of the Sankat Mochan Foundation, an Indian advocacy group.

“The problems with the Ganges River are similar to the water problems in Boston. The sewer system is too small, the pumps are not reliable, and all this raw sewage is spilling into the river where tens of thousands of people do their bathing daily. The main problem, again like here, is money. The central government does not want to commit money to cleaning up the Ganges when they have so many other pressing problems.”

“No other city on earth is as famous for death as Varanasi,” asserts Diana Eck. “It [Hinduism] is a religion that understands life as an integrated whole. Here the smoke of the cremation pyres rises heavenward with the spires of a hundred temples and the ashes of the dead swirl through the waters of the Ganges, the river of life.”

“In Varanasi, one sees one’s own soul.”

Joan Clifford is a freelance writer and photographer based in Boston, Mass.

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