When your loved ones start getting infected and you lose them suddenly the gravity of the situation starts to hit you hard. Before that, it is just a number and another notification or a forward on your phone. This picture of a man in a PPE suit watching the pyres took me back to the burning ghat of Varanasi.
Going to Varanasi is a life-altering event. Varanasi, also called Banaras, or Kashi, is a city in southeastern Uttar Pradesh state, in northern India. It is located on the left bank of the Ganga River and is one of the seven sacred cities of Hinduism. Thousands of people go there on a pilgrimage visiting the popular temples and holy sites, some travelling to taking a dip in the river Ganges to wash our sins away and for many, it is to bid adieu to their loved ones forever. Whatever might be the reason but it does feel like diving deep into a way of life we all grow up being part of. It is a confluence of life where the sounds of Veena, tabla, and flute play in the background as the secrets of life unravel each day.
Floating on the peaceful Ganges in between Varuna and Assi ghats is a drama unfolding, unlike anything you would have seen in your life. So many people so many rituals, both activity and inactivity, celebration and grief, belief and disbelief. And in between all of this is this life dangling on this very thin rope of hope. You can be angry looking at the not so clean river, the noisy birds or be overwhelmed with joy looking at the sunrise over the blessed people of this city. but one emotion you encounter on this boat ride that stands above it all is the fear of death.
As I sat with other travellers on the boat dangling between heaven and hell, staring at the Manikarnika Ghat, it seemed life had come to a standstill. One comes face to face with their worst fear and the only choice is to surrender. One of the Guru says that nothing in life is permanent or as it seems, everything is just a viewpoint. Many come to Varanasi for their last rites because this place is blessed by the gods and guarantees everyone Moksha or Salvation. It is one of the rare places in India where once the last rites are done for a person the family members do not come back to collect the ashes as per the Hindu customs. The circle of life is complete and the soul has left the body for heavens, it is no more a part of the vicious circle of life and death. The scales of life have been balanced.
For a Hindu, the ultimate heaven is escaping the circle of life and death and the burning ghat of Varanasi is such a place. So when I look at the 40 pyres burning on the Manikarnika Ghat, I don’t know what to feel, is it a celebration of a life well-lived and that he is blessed to have his last rites in Varanasi, or remorse over losing loved ones. The Dom raja takes over the remains and makes sure the soul merges into the cosmos
If everyone including me has to die then what is the point of everything? Well, every time we finish that boat ride I get off with a realisation that I am whole, complete and perfect in that moment, and the only thing left to do is to immerse myself fully in this very moment and surrender. I don’t control anything beyond that.
Like everyone, I have lost closed ones in the past and continue to lose in this pandemic. And the only question to really answer is that do when we lose someone? Or the question is what can we do? In the Mahabharata, when the Pandava brothers were in exile, all except Yudhisthira were poisoned. Yudhisthira restored life to his brothers by answering a question about “the greatest mystery in life.”
When asked, Yudhisthira said, “The greatest mystery in life is that day after day, countless creatures die; we see that everyone eventually dies, yet we ignore this, and live as if we are immortal. This is the greatest mystery of life!”