Varanasi Part 4: sunset
I know... it has taken me forever to finish getting just a few pieces of my experience in Varanasi down in writing. The sharing of Varanasi cannot be rushed. It deserves and requires a lot of time to process, reflect, and absorb the magic, the beauty, the wisdom... But now I bring you the final chapter of my encounter with the eclectic and Holiest city, Varanasi.
As I mentioned in Part 1, Varanasi is home to the busiest and most sacred cremation Ghats in India where corpses are bathed in the Ganges river one last time before their funeral pyre is ignited with the eternal flame, which has continuously burned for thousands of years. It is believed by many Hindus that to die in Varanasi on the Ganges and be cremated in the holy city with the eternal flame is the gateway to liberation or moksha - breaking the cycle of reincarnation. For this reason, the Ghats along Mother Ganga are very sacred and a very busy business center where over 115 bodies per day are cremated around the clock.
Dandapani asked us to visit the cremation grounds during our stay in the city. To reflect on the transient nature of the body and the finite physical existence we all share. He asked us to sit quietly at the Burning Ghats, contemplate our mortality, and ask ourselves if we have the courage to live the life we wish to live.
When I arrived at the Burning Ghats in the middle of the afternoon, I found a somewhat quieter area to sit down behind a few men that were spectators of the cremation. The thick, smoky air seared into my nose as pieces of ash descended onto my head, shoulders, and lap. I felt suffocated by the smoke-shrouded air and uncomfortable as I felt the eyes of bystanders noticing my arrival. There was a lot going on around me: cows with beaded necklaces laying in the sun, bodies draped in white cloth carried down the Ghat, flames devouring the newly lit pyres, and men and young boys standing all around watching the process. There were no women. Not a single one in sight. A man later told me that women are discouraged from the Ghat because of their sensitivity and might become upset if they were present.
I adjusted my scarf over my face to filter some air and also hide myself from I'm not sure what... emotion? Being seen? But I quickly settled into my quiet space on the steps and felt my anxiety subside. It was a pair of children playing on the step in front me - giggling, looking at me and eventually asking me lots of questions that made me lighten up. They eventually tired of me and moved on. I focused my gaze back onto the burning bodies and smiled at the radical contrast of vibrant, young life mingling in the presence of death.
Then the other stark contrast hit me: the difference between Eastern and Western experiences of death. There wasn't a single person crying, acting hysterical or arguing with reality that "this never should have happened!" No one offered condolences. No one wallowed in the morbidity of death or the loss of a loved one. There was no anguish, sorrow or misery. Reality was present - people embraced death as an expression of Life. That all things must return to the Earth one day - that this is not the end, it is only one stepping stone on the great path of life.
Thanks to the teachings of Dandapani in the past, I entirely reconstructed my perception of death (and I am forever grateful or I would have suffered much more when both of my Grandmothers passed away within 4 weeks of each other). I discovered that death is never the End, nor does it need to be a lamenting ordeal. It isn’t that one experience is a happy beginning and the other is a sad ending – It is more like a sunrise and sunset: There is both Light and Darkness present, and there is a progressive spectrum of light turning toward darkness and darkness back into light.
The power of witnessing the Ghats for me was another layer of understanding. I do not accept death but embrace the sobering reality that one day, I too will be dead. Everyone will eventually die. We will be no different from the hundreds of bodies delivered to the Ghats for cremation. So why argue with reality? Why hold back in life? Why wait to live fully and with greatness? There is nothing to lose, nothing to risk - life is not short but it is finite. Even with all of the differences among people, cultures and beliefs, one thing is certain - and that is the reality that we will all experience the sunset of this lifetime.