Ancient Egyptians believed that upon death they would be asked two questions and their answers would determine whether they could continue their journey in the afterlife.  
The first question was, "Did you bring joy?"  
The second was, "Did you find joy?"

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Metaphysically Speaking, Part Two ~ I Went Down To The River To Pray

Varanasi likes to tell a person what matters.  It likes to make a lot of things that many would say are unreal, very real.  Reincarnation, for instance.  It wants to make sure that you understand why we are all here on this planet, why we suffer, and why and how we can be relieved of that suffering, if not in this life, then, surely the next one....or maybe the one after that.

I'm actually a believer in reincarnation.  There, I said it.  Have been for a while.

But like I began to say in that last post, before Varanasi jumped in with all that metaphysical marketing who-ha, I have been batting around the question of what matters and why we are all here and what is real, because you know I might be wrong....maybe we only get one shot at this living thing.  I've also been wondering why we all can't agree on the answers to those questions, even though so many people think they know THE answer.  I've been wracking my brain and querying my heart trying to figure out if all the metaphysical disharmony on this planet rules out the possibility that there is actually one reason, singular, that we are all here, that there is only one, or maybe two, things that really matter (if anything matters at all).

On my first morning in Varanasi I got up at 5:30 a.m. and went to watch the bathers and the mourners and the workers and the pilgrims from the safety of a little boat.  I told you about that.  Watching the young widower lighting the funeral pyre for his dead wife.  I sat in my little boat watching from the outside and beyond the incredible intensity of what was happening onstage.

On the second morning, I decided to go out again at 5:30, but this time I walked along the banks, mingling and taking pictures, almost from the inside of things.  Or at least from a more intimate and involved vantage point, sort of from the wings, if you will.  I even found a place to sit and to just be for a little while, without being hustled by boatmen wanting to take me out on the water.

I watched the sunrise, which I'd missed the day before because I was looking at the shore while the sun made it's entrance behind me.  I watched the sun rise over the Ganges and marvelled that only a week ago I watched that same sun rise over the Himalayas.  I tried not to make too much out of that.



When it started to get too hot, I decided to wander back to my guest house.  Holy men looking like Asian gnomes sitting under their little mushroom umbrellas called to me, "Namaste, Namaste.  Come. Come."  But I walked on, sometimes saying what I would say to any boatman, or souvenir hawker, "Nigh-che eh" or "I don't want any."

And, I didn't.  I didn't want any of what those holy men were selling.

Speaking of holy men.  I've been reading this book by a Sufi named Osho.  Who knows, this guy might be famous.  I might write "Osho" and half of you out there go, "Oh, yeah, of course, Osho."  But I didn't know Osho from anybody, but I bought this book on a whim about a month ago and started reading it on the plane rides to Varanasi.  Ok.  It wasn't a complete whim.  Ever since I read Ellen Burstyn's autobiography where she talks about being a Sufi and why she's a Sufi, I've kind of wondered if, maybe, I'm actually a Sufi, too.

Anywhoo.  This Sufi master, Osho, talks really eloquently about why it's bad form to pray just to pray.  That a soul should only pray when it is moved to pray.  And wherever that prayer happens is ok.  Any place where someone prays sincerely becomes, instantly, a sacred and holy spot, a temple, a shrine. Osho also talks about how trying to be like the Buddha or Jesus or Mohammad or any Guru you could name out there, is also very bad form.  Because to be truly divine, we must all be wholly and completely ourselves.  If we just try to copy Buddha or Jesus we only succeed in becoming, at best, a good imitation of somebody or something we are not.  There was only one Jesus and only one Buddha.

So, as these Varanasi holy men tried to sell me a moment of serious devotional prayer, I told them I wasn't buying.  I had neither the inclination to pray or the the desire to be them.

This resolve wavered a bit as I approached what I call the Big Circus Ghat, where every night they do an extremely elaborate Puja, or prayer service that strikes me as a bit of a cheat put on for the tourists, as well as, the grief stricken Indians who will pay anything to find peace.  The Ghat is wide and deep and can hold a lot of holy men, each on their individual little platforms, under their individual large mushroom shaped umbrellas.  Pretty soon I had said, Nigh-che eh so many times that I was sick of hearing myself say no and when a certain priest called out, something in me was drawn in.

I went over and, in the blink of an eye, found myself sitting barefoot, in the criss-cross apple sauce pose, a red dot on my forehead, flowers sprinkled with holy Ganges water and a coconut wrapped in flowered cloth all sitting in my cupped hands.  And, I was chanting.  In Sanskrit.  The priest would chant, I would copy.  Sometimes I'd squinch up my face to indicate I hadn't caught what he'd said, and he would repeat.  Sometimes I would simply butcher the Sanskrit sounds that I was trying to parrot and then silently wonder to what strange deformed deity I might have just promised my first born.

When Sanskrit Priest was done with me, another guy suddenly appeared beside me.  The English Speaking Guy.  He explained that he would say a prayer for all of my family each and every day for the next month to rid my family of bad karma forever. Then I had to chant some more.  But this time in English.  Cuz English Speaking Guy was leading me.    Then English Speaking Guy made me bend forward and he put his hand on the top of my head and he chanted some stuff I wasn't supposed to copy, having to do with peace and happiness for my family and a good marriage for me.  That good marriage part was his idea, but, hey, who was I to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Then I had to get up and walk down to the water with yet another guy, Water Blessing Guy.  Suddenly I found myself weaving towards the Ganges through a bevy of devout Pilgrims.  Suddenly I was no longer backstage, but on stage.  I was a real Pilgrim.

I stepped on the first step into the river.  There was only enough water on this level to feel like I was dipping the souls of my feet in a shallow puddle left after Shiva finished mopping the floor; I wasn't taking the plunge any further.  Water Blessing Guy leaned over and took a handful of the sacred liquid and sprinkled it on my head, saying something benifacting.

Everything was happening so quickly.  I didn't know what to make of it.  I remember climbing down to the edge of the river and thinking, "How did I get here?"  I also had a very clear moment when I was stepping in the water where I thought, "This water feels great.  Special.  Blessed."  I was glad that I was there, getting sprinkled, relieved, even, that I hadn't missed my chance; all the filth and the potential disease that I had previously imagined might muddy the experience of the divine Ganges, disappeared and all I could sense was joy.  I was filled with the awareness of millions of drops of faith that infused the water with some kind of special power to filter out all the gross particles and to leave only the blessings.

Then Water Blessing Guy walked me back up to the platform and English Speaking Guy did some kind of final little magic.  Then, I had to write down my address in a book along with all the names of my immediate family members.

Then I had to write down how much my donation was going to be to the Temple where generations of bad Rowe/MacCracken karma was going to be wiped clean.  I wrote down 100 rupees and then was told that that was too little.  To prove his point, English Speaking Guy showed me in the book where Indian's, who we all know have no money, had given 2000, 3000 rupees for the spiritual safeguarding of their entire ancestral line.

I added another zero and called it a day.  Not because I don't think my ancestral line is worth the cash, but I'm also thinking my ancestral lines only go back a fraction of the way that most Indian family lines go back, and my people only made a handful of souls compared to all those generations of Indians, so my donation seemed to be appropriate to the task at hand.

I wasn't surprised that the blessing came with a price.  Nor was I particularly disillusioned by the hard sell after a slightly transcendental experience.  I was rather shocked, however, that I'd just been suckered out of my whole day's budget.  But I got over that in a few minutes.

Can you really put a price on the spiritual salvation of your entire ancestral line?  Probably not.

The night before I had been to a puja down at a small Ghat close to my hotel. I'd noticed the small puja while I was watching this Puja, The Big Circus Puja, on my first night in Varanasi:


This daily ritual is very elaborate.  Using several different holy implements, conch shell, bells, incense, fire, more fire, then a little more fire, sandalwood oil, fire, feathers, fire, water, fire, the priests do a series of synchronized rituals honoring all of the elements, but mostly fire, addressing the six directional points (North, South, East, West, the Heavens, and the Earth).

Here, maybe this might help you get a better picture:


But at the little puja, instead of 9 priests lined up on 9 individual rose petal covered stages, there were only 5 priests, situated on one platform, arranged like dots on dice.  I was one of about 20 people watching this intimate affair, because the other two thousand pilgrims were all at the puja big top.



The guy who keeps the show running at this little puja, Munnar, invited me to sit close, presumably because I was the only white person who bothered to stop and because I was alone.

I almost said no to that invitation, too.  I'd been sitting far up on the steps where I felt I could have some space to really connect with the ritual, to feel it, to take it into my being, to invite in my own prayer, if the occasion warranted.  But Munnar came up and told me to sit down next to him and his family near the little machine that clangs the drums that keeps the priests in step with each other...the drum metronome.    Because it was so loud, and there were so few people, and because Munnar and his niece had to jump up frequently to light the next line of candles or to place incense, I had quite a lot of time to sit by myself, with the drums resonating in my chest and the bells and smoke of the ritual surrounding every nook and cranny of my being.

"This is the real thing," I thought to myself.  "Visceral.  Palpable."

At some point a small boy of 4-ish or 5-ish, appeared at my side.  He was talking to me, but I couldn't hear him over the drums and the bells.  So, we adapted and started talking to each other in head bobs and blinks and with points to the moon.  If he pointed to the moon, I pointed to the moon.  If he put his hand out in a sort of high five gesture, I put my hand out in a high five gesture.  If I winked, he smiled, then cocked his head to one side and gave me a lopsided look that showed off his missing front teeth and then I would laugh out loud, joyfully.  I thought the kid was angling for a little hand out.  I wasn't going there.  But he never asked for anything.  And just as suddenly as he'd appeared, he looked at me, got up, said, "bye bye," and left.

As the Puja went on for quite some time and eventually Munnar and Punam ran out of tasks, I let Punam distract me from my intention of calling in a moment of personal prayer by letting her decorate my hand with henna.  This is not something Punam does to make money.  She is not skilled.  I will be walking around for the next month with a strange heart with an arrow through it, glaring from the palm of my right hand.  But I like my tattoo so much more than those professional jobs that so many tourists get that cover their calves and arms and feet and hands.

Munnar and Punam didn't want money for either their hospitality or the unique, one of a kind, tattoo.  I tried to give them something, but they refused.  Though they did extract a promise that I would return the next night, and I knew, eventually, that I would be asked to go to some store to look at something....and indeed I was asked just that, when I went back.

I started to have a feeling that first night, though, which I think was still in effect the next morning when I got suckered into paying the 1000 rupees to the priest at the fancy pants ghat.  A feeling born of finding myself at the river Ganges among so many people who yearn for purification and blessing from the river, and others who just want to make a buck, and then, others who just want to reach out and connect with something or someone in the course of their simple, ordinary lives.  It was a feeling born of discovering that sometimes a person could want or need all three at once.  I mean, just because someone wants to make a buck, doesn't mean they don't also want to genuinely connect.

At one point, in the dark night, mesmerized by the candles flying in the priests' hands, the river black and bottomless and vast behind them, I caught sight of a strand of cobweb floating on an air current.  It danced silently by me, past Munnar and his niece, and hung in the air for a few minutes at the knees of two holy men who were chatting on a step nearby.

Trying to figure out what matters, what to pray for, who to pray to, even trying to ascertain what is real, is like trying to catch that little cobweb floating on an air current in the dark.  Sitting there I knew I didn't even want to try to catch the cobweb, it was magic enough to notice it.  I just took a deep breath, and followed the wispy thread till it settled down on the ground between the two holy men.  Even though I was sitting only a few feet away.  I have no ideas if those guys saw the web, maybe yes, maybe no.

But I did, and maybe that's all that matters.



4 comments:

auntiemao said...

Cobwebs are spent spiders webs. If they haven't been captured by birds for use in nests, humans can put them to equally good use. Spider silk is protein and Vitamin K rich, is able to stretch up to 1.4 times its relaxed length, and has the tensile strength of high grade steel. Sometimes used in the past as "crosshairs" in optical instruments, webs, due to their antiseptic properties, are used to cover wounds and have the ability to "mesh" with skin.
Strength and healing landed near your feet and you had eyes to notice....xo...

Tina Rowley said...

"Sitting there I knew I didn't even want to try to catch the cobweb, it was magic enough to notice it."

This is so perfect.

I love you. Thank you for taking me to India.

Agastya said...

Osho - aka Osho Rajneesh, aka Bhagwan Rajneesh was in the news a lot in the 70s and early 80s for his fleet of Rolls Royces. He setup an ashram in Oregon, and was embroiled in all sorts of legal problems. Ultimately he was arrested on a number of criminal charges and deported in a plea bargain. He re-branded himself to Osho before he died in 1990. BTW - this is the first time I've heard anyone refer to him as a Sufi.

On a different note - while you're in Varanasi, make a trip out to Sarnath - it's only about 17KM away, and will be a good opportunity for you to connect with Buddhism as well. Also, the Shiva temple in the BHU campus was really the only place I was able to find peace in Varanasi.

Kirstin said...

It was nearly 1am when I was heading to bed and decided to turn on my computer to check your blog. I had to read M.Speaking 1 and 2! Because it was so late and my eyes were heavy, I almost didn't watch the second video you posted.
My mother mentioned tonight that she has to be up early tomorrow for Church. It is Palm Sunday. I thought to myself for a minute about how I'm not going but would like some sort of spiritual connection. The thought passed and I was just glad to not be getting up early to pile in with the masses.
I'm so glad I decided to watch the second video you posted. First, I LOVE that song. Second, the footage is beautiful. Third, it seemed meant to be paired with your beautiful writing. Thank you for all you're sharing with "US", your dutiful followers. xoxo