Varanasi, India A Lesson in Karma

Yesterday was one of those days that deserves its own entry.

After spending the afternoon catching up on email and writing that last post on a dingy old computer powered by a car battery, I walked back to the hotel to meet up with Tom for a late lunch. We commiserated on the intense heat outside and our shared revulsion at the town of Veranasi in general. Nevertheless, here we were on the banks of the Ganges River. We had just over a day to kill and this would certainly be our only chance in life to experience what is undeniably a fascinating place, so we decided to check out of our hotel near the train station and make the journey into the heart of the Old City.

The auto-rickshaw driver took us as far as he was allowed to go. The roads become extremely dense near the center, and no powered vehicle larger than a motorbike is permitted inside. We walked the rest of the way to the hotel we’d picked out in advance. While many friendly strangers were eager to tell us about the wonders of other nearby hotels, we kept our heads down and found the place without any serious hassles.

It’s amazing how exhausting it can be in India to do something as simple as hopping in a cab and checking into a different hotel. By the time we’d dropped our bags and flopped down on our beds, Tom and I had each lost about a liter of sweat and a gallon of patience and were ready to call it a day.

We recharged with an episode of West Wing, then decided to forge onward toward the belly of the beast – the river itself.

The Ganges River is one of the holiest sites in the Hindu religion. Bathing in its water is said to wash away all sins, which is why something like 400 gazillion people come here to do it every day. Unfortunately, bathing in the Ganges is counterproductive for all non-spiritual sanitary purposes, as there are thirty sewers emptying directly into it. For water to be suitable for bathing, it must contain fewer than 5000 fecal coliform bacteria per liter. A liter of Ganges water has 15,000,000. The water is literally septic; no dissolved oxygen exists.

To make matters worse, the river is an integral part of burial practices, and an enormous number of people come here to dispose of their dead. The bodies are carried down to the river, doused with its water, then cremated along its banks. I’m a little fuzzy on the details of this next part, but if I understand correctly, there are also five categories of dead people who are simply cast into the river without cremation. These categories are: pregnant mothers, children, holy men, people killed by snake bites, and my personal favorite – victims of small pox. Let’s assume that last one doesn’t happen very often these days. Regardless, it’s apparently not uncommon to see rotting corpses floating
downstream amidst the chunks of raw sewage.

Did I mention people bathe here?

Another interesting aspect to Veranasi is that dying here offers guaranteed Moksha; release from the cycle of birth and death, or in Buddhist terms, Nirvana. For this reason, old people flock to the city en masse to wait out their remaining days until they finally kick the bucket. This seemed like a bizarre practice to Tom and I until we realized that we have something very similar in America. We call it Florida.

So we walked down to the river and stopped at the first of many Ghats. I’m unclear on what exactly a Ghat is, but it seems to basically be a big open space where people congregate, with stairs leading down into the river for bathing. The place was the usual rigmarole of obnoxious touts and unspeakably tragic cripples begging for cash. Despite that, it was also powerfully beautiful.

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There’s no denying it. Somewhere beneath all the knuckleheaded religious nonsense, there’s something deeply affecting about what goes on here. The search for absolution, the act of cleansing away sins, the process of death and all its hidden rituals. It’s heavy stuff.

And then there’s also plenty of monkeys running around. You know, for kids.

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The cows are out in force too, and so is their shit. It’s all over the place. People even collect it and dry it in the sun for use as kindling in funeral pyres, cause it’s a lot cheaper than wood.

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Okay, this next part is a story, and while it may be kind of longish, I encourage you to read the whole thing without skimming. It pays off.

We walked down the river a ways until we reached the main Burning Ghat. This is where the bulk of the cremations are done. No pictures are allowed in the area, but it’s all happening right out in plain view. Several fires are burning, each for a different category of corpse: young, old, male, female, and so on. The bodies are wrapped in cloth, so it’s not quite a backyard barbeque, but they are doing wha t it looks like they’re doing and it’s most definitely for real.

Tom and I were both a little stunned and docile, so we sort of followed whoever was there to point us in any direction. We were led into a building and taken up a staircase to where a balcony overlooked the proceedings. A man was there, and he began telling us about what was going on. This is where I picked up the details about the five categories that don’t get cremated and a few other interesting tidbits, but it was all kind of sketchy and I was too stunned to really absorb it.

The man explained that the building we were in was where the widows live while they’re waiting to die. Their husbands are gone, so they have no use in society, and their children either don’t care about them or are too poor to be able to. We looked around and saw a couple of sad old ladies sitting on the floor nearby. They had that unmistakable look on their faces that I recognized from my one day of working as a temp – they were most definitely waiting to die.

The man went on for a while about karma. He explained that a lot of people here would pester us for money, and it is very bad for their karma to do such a thing in a place like this. He was there simply to teach people about what went on here, which would help his karma and improve his standing in his next life. "Cars, houses, clothes, jewelry, these things you can’t take with you," he explained. "Karma is the only thing that remains."

Then, of course, he hit us up for money. He signaled to one of the old ladies, who dutifully ran over with her hands cupped, waiting for the cash to roll in.

The whole thing was a racket. There’s no doubt about that. And it was a particularly infuriating racket for being so goddam brazen and manipulative. But what are you gonna do, NOT hand a couple bucks to the old lady so she can afford wood for her funeral pyre?

I’m not made of stone, people.

They even had a set price. 110 rupees, or about $2.50 USD, buys her a kilogram of wood. 110 rupees could also get her a 2 bedroom condo with a yard and covered garage in a respectable Delhi suburb.

Okay, it couldn’t buy that, but 110 rupees is a lot of money in India. It’s a lot to give out to a charity case and it’s sure as hell not what it costs to buy a kilogram of wood.

Anyway, Tom gave her 50 and I kept pulling out change until she’d gotten her full 110, which amounted to every last rupee I had on me. When she was satisfied, she walked away and left us with Captain Karma, who then proceeded to ask for his payment. Our other expenditure was irrelevant to him, though he’d undoubtedly be getting a cut of it, he wanted separate compensation for his tireless efforts in reciting the same boring speech he gives to every stunned foreigner that gets brought his way.

Aside from being broke, I felt a little violated and angry toward the guy. It’s a dirty thing to do to people and a rotten business to be in. Tom and I started walking out of there, and he became belligerent as he followed behind us.

He started lecturing me about karma again, and that it was very bad for me to walk away without giving him something.

"What about your karma?" I asked him.

I didn’t get an answer. As I was saying that, I stepped into an enormous pile of cow shit and went sliding face-first into it.

First off, let me explain that this was more than just the shit of one cow. It was a large collection of shit from many cows that had been pushed aside and gathered in what I consider to be a poorly chosen location.

I must admit that while I was walking away from the guy, his warnings about bad karma were worrying me. But I never in a million billion years would’ve dreamed the check could be cashed so quickly.

As I lay there buried in shit, Captain Karma looked down at me with a big smile on his face. Here’s what he said:

"See?"

Falling into the shit was one of those split second moments that last for about ten minutes. I had more than enough time in those ten minutes to ponder the seemingly impossible irony of what was about to happen. Before I hit the shit, I’d already resolved that there were two ways I could handle the situation: I could either freak out completely, or I could just laugh.

I laughed.

I called Tom, who was well ahead of me. He turned and saw what had happened, and I find it interesting that his instinctive, primal reaction at that moment was to pull out his camera and start
taking pictures. I got up and told him that if he was going to do that, he could at least have the decency to use my camera.

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By this time the shit-covered white guy was attracting lots of interest. There was laughter coming from all sorts of little nooks and crannies nearby. And yeah, okay, it was pretty funny. Even without the backstory, big dumb white guy falls in a pile of cow shit. This is not esoteric humor.

I looked down at my major points of impact and realized I was bleeding in several places and the open wounds were caked in festering cow shit. This was a fairly serious situation that had to be dealt with immediately. That’s when the next wave of irony hit me. I needed to clean myself up fast and there was only one way I could do it; I had to wash myself in the stinking, wretched, disease-infested, holy River Ganges.

Lest a moment of this event go unphotographed.

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I got the majority of the shit off me there, then emerged with the concerted intention of making a bee line for the shower in our hotel room.

I was distracted by a cluster of local kids who decided they wanted me to take their picture. These things take priority.

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I got back to the hotel, only to realize that our room had no soap. It also had no towels, toilet paper, or bed sheets, but that was of less urgent concern. After going to great lengths to acquire the strange and unfamiliar substance we foreigners make such a big deal about, I washed like I’ve never washed before.

I appear to be okay. No serious harm done, except for that my kneecap has swollen to a freakish size and I can’t really bend it very well.

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Nothing’s out of place or hurting, though, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to walk okay once the swelling goes down.

Assuming I didn’t wind up getting hepatitis, cholera, lepros y, or some other awful disease, I’m actually really pleased with the day’s events. Most people who come here do the "ooh" and "aah" thing, take some pictures, maybe go on a boat ride, decide it smells, then leave. Not everyone gets to incur the wrath of Hindu Gods, then symbolically cleanse themselves, all in the discreet span of a minute or so.

I feel like I really got the full Ganges experience, you know?

Okay, that’s it for today. I hope you enjoyed my suffering. Come back soon.