In Varanasi, death pervades the city — and its sacred river Ganges

Saying prayers for the Ganges in hopes of saving it

Michael Fitzgerald By Michael Fitzgerald

Varanasi, one of the seven most sacred cities of Hinduism, by legend founded by Shiva, and one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth, is a city where death and life seem to pervade the very air. North American tourists love it for its traditional instruments and silks, its temples and festivals.

Are funeral pyres like this one, burning on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasi in 2009, a sin against the Ganges? (Reuters/Adnan Abidi)

This past week, devotees prayed for the “recovery” of Lord Jagannath, a representation of the major Hindu god Vishnu. Two weeks ago was the Ganga Dussehra, the festival for the Ganges River, which runs through Varanasi.

Cremation vacation

National Post reporter Dennis Bosh took a junket to Varanasi, and found himself bettered by it. In this piece, “Finding the spiritual in Varanasi”, he wrote of his initial distaste at seeing a human body cremated.

The fire was a single point of brightness in the breaking dawn. I was riveted, concerned, fascinated. Who was that in there?

Despite his discomfort at watching one of the city’s myriad public cremations, Bosh calls Varanasi a city where “A calm spirituality runs through the old streets…” He says that sentiment could sound odd, given “the mayhem of pedestrian and rickshaw traffic that seems to teeter perpetually on the point of total collapse.”

But there are 250,000 temples and shrines, large and small, throughout the city, and countless pilgrims come. They come for festivals, they come for the Ganges, they come perhaps most of all because devout Hindus believe that to be cremated in Varanasi will release them from the cycle of rebirth.

Perhaps it is true. Bosh ends his story with an image of children preparing for a kite-flying festival that deftly evokes spirits floating into the sky.

Can the Ganges be reborn?

One thing North Americans seem to miss when they go to Varanasi is that Indians are praying for the Ganges. There are daily prayer rituals held at the river, for the river. That’s because India’s “Mother” river is becoming a toxic dump.

As Calcutta’s Telegraph notes, “The river gets especially polluted in Varanasi because of the presence of pilgrims and the dead, with several cremation grounds on the riverbank.”

Recently, a scientist-cum-swami, G.D. Agrawal, who also goes by the name Swami Sanand, was arrested for his efforts to investigate pollution of the river.  He has started a fast to call attention to its plight.

The Times of India noted that “all the politicians of ruling and opposition parties, saints and seers, social activists, scientists and individuals speak about uninterrupted and clean flow of the Ganga, but the river is getting thinner and more polluted with each passing day.”

The reason why is a mystery, and not a holy one. But perhaps the river can be reborn, if the people of India are willing to do more than just pray on it.