Live, Pray, Die - Gauthereau Group

If you are Hindu (and more than 900 million in India are), the holiest city in the world is Varanasi, considered to be the place where the physical world and the spiritual world meet. Also, if you are Hindu, there is one thing you want: to die and be cremated in Varanasi, and have your remains deposited in the Ganges. Hindus have come here to die for thousands of years, and it’s said that the cremation fires have never stopped! So as I arrived in Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world, I felt a profound sense of excitement and wonder. People gathering on the Ganges at the main Ghat

Varanasi is such an extraordinary city at so many levels: not only because it’s one of the oldest cities in the world, but also because it concentrates every superlative you can use for India in one place! More cows in the street than people (another reason for me to love the city), more Pilgrims, more hidden temples, more stories... So here is PART I of a 2 PARTS blog posts on Varanasi.

Today I want to share with you one first story, the one that jumped out at me when I arrived, the sacred part of Varanasi: A place where over 7 million pilgrims come annually to pray to divinities, celebrate the spiritual, purify their body and mind in the Ganges, and also die.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hindu religion has a few fascinating aspects for Westerners. First it has no “founder” (no Jesus Christ, Mohammed or Buddha), no official church (like the Vatican for Catholics) and a belief that God is in everything and everywhere. With that belief comes over 33 million divinities! There is no better place to understand what a true polytheist religion is!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The main three divinities (the Indian “trinity”) are Brahma (he created the world and was born from the original sacred waters; he is depicted riding a swan), Vishnu (he is the protector of the Universe, riding a white eagle), and Shiva (who can destroy all that is not “reality” and he rides a bull). To make it more complicated, each divinity (remember there are over 33 million) can be represented by various symbols. For example, Brahma’s symbols include the scepter, the Mala Beads, the Veda Book and the lotus flower.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

But there are many other really cool divinities, one of my favorite being Lord Ganesh (who is represented as a human body with an elephant head), who is the “Remover of Obstacles.” There are so many divinities that it is hard to remember all of them, and especially their relationships (Sarasvati is the wife of Brahma, Laksmi the wife of Vishnu and Parvati the wife of Shiva and mother of Ganesh). But a fun and convenient way to learn all of them is to buy the comics books sold everywhere in India!

Encens Bowls ready to be used by the Brahmans

Every evening at 7 p.m. in Varanasi, all year long, for thousands of years, pilgrims and locals gather on the bank of the Ganges River (called “Ganga” in Hinduism), to pray during a beautiful one-hour ceremony where young Brahmans execute a very codified and harmonious ritual, to offer the Light to the Ganges. Brahmans are one of the 4 castes of Indians and are said to have been born from the mouth of Brahma.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It’s a truly magical moment that I enjoyed each evening I was in Varanasi. If you click here is a full photo album.

And this a short video of the ceremony on the Ganges, powerful!

There are two important principles to know in the Hindu religion. The first one is that the whole universe is relying on one “Order” (the Truth), which keeps the universe whole and together. So if the monsoon is late or if there is a big catastrophe, Hindus believe it is because somewhere the perfect order (dharma) was disturbed (which they often attribute to the fact our modern world has forgotten and damaged the traditional orders).

One of many Brahmans who can place a third eye on your forehead

The second one, which finds significance in Varanasi, and with the Ganges, is that our soul is immortal, our body is just a transient “container” for our soul, and that all our faults and good actions are stored in that soul. This is the familiar notion of Karma in the west. So Hindus comes to Varanasi to wash themselves in the Ganges as a way to purify themselves.

Morning ablutions & prayers in the Ganges

The other reason to come to Varanasi is to die there, as it is believed that when you die in Varanasi, you end the “endless” reincarnations of your soul and reach the Moksha. It is common to see very old people sitting next to the Ganges, waiting for their death. I spoke with one of them. Once dead, people are cremated. When you come close to the burning Ghat (pier), you can see endless piles of wood (of different quality based on the price you pay), waiting to be used. Everyone is cremated to be purified aside from kids under 10 years old (they are still pure), pregnant women (they bear a pure soul), Brahmans (as they are pure already), people bitten by cobras (it is said to purify you), and lepers (as it is believed to spread the disease).

The Burning Ghat at the back with the wood for cremations

So when you walk in the very small street of Varanasi, your senses are overloaded by the mixing smells of cow manure, incense, and wood burning, and by the sight of all those cows, Brahmans, praying pilgrims and temples. India is definitely shaking you to the core by touching all your senses in a profound way.

The Burning Ghat at the back with the wood for cremations

I will share with you in a few days the other side of Varanasi: its temples, cows, monkeys, happy residents and some magical synchronicities that happen there…

Thank you for reading and don’t forget to travel with your Heart,

Guillaume

PS: You liked this story? Share it on Facebook & Twitter.

PS2: Did you see the full photo album HERE?.