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The Ganges: India’s River of Life and Death

text and photos by Joan Clifford

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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.”

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Tags: India Pilgrimage/pilgrims Hindu