Excerpt from India and Nepal: Journal of a Spiritual Pilgrimage
Ralph Slotten and Jon Thiem in Varanasi (24 December 1995—14 January 1996)
12/28/95 Thursday, Varanasi
Ralph and Jon at a temple in Nepal
Pea soup fog. The Ganga is socked in . . . .
The morning we devote to exploring the ghats along the Ganga, first by foot and then by boat. Near where we are staying, here on the Assi ghat, is a fascinating shrine platform built around a tree that somebody says is a pipal, though it looks more like a poplar to me. It is an outdoor shrine with at least twelve different statuettes, usually 8-12 inches in height. There are 2 Shiva lingams with their yonis, 2 Ganesh statues, and 2 Durgas, among others, as well as an enclosed statue of the monkey god Hanuman that is about a meter high. Both Durga statues show her in her warrior aspect on a lion and one is bright orange. We are quite close to the Ganges here. It is an active shrine and the overall atmosphere is numinous. R. thinks that what we are seeing strongly resembles polytheistic worship in ancient Greece and in the ancient Mediterranean world in general. The statuettes and lingams are covered with puja flowers. At one point a black and white goat springs up onto the circular shrine platform and begins eating the puja flowers and leaves. A sacred breakfast feast. None of the numerous standers-by seems to mind the goat's breakfasting on offerings to the gods, nor does anyone seem especially amused, as Ralph and I are. A priest comes and pours water over each statue and lingam and chants. Then a woman comes also with a water offering. These simple sacrifices are done with a quiet dignity that is very affecting. Again, the feeling of being at a shrine in ancient Rome.
We descend the steps of the ghat to the muddy river bank. By now the fog is burning off. Quite a few people are bathing, some with soap, but most just to be in touch with the sacred waters of the Goddess Ganga, whose stream flows out of the Himalayas, but originates in the heavens. Contact with her waters is purifying, and if you are in her waters when you die your spirit will go upstream and, returning to the heavens, find release. The religious seriousness of the bathers I find very strange and at the same time noble.
Mona the Ganges Boatman
Back at the boat area we hire a boat from Mr. Shiam—his younger brother will be our "boatman." He is known as Mona, a childhood nickname, but his real name is Goraknath, after the famous Tantric magician saint, according to Ralph. There is indeed something magical about Mona, who is 21 years old, but who seems both older and younger than his years. He sings us love songs from the Hindi movies. I ask him what he thinks about love. He says that it is troublesome. Then he says that it doesn't really exist, that it is maya. And finally he says that the only true love is the love of God. When I ask him if he will marry for love, he says "no." Such is the philosophy of love professed by Mona the Ganges boatman, singer of love songs, and passionate devotee of Hindi romance movies.
Mona's gentle rowing rhythm seems to keep time with the sweet monotony of his singing. All at once R. breaks into song, which is occasionally his wont. He sings "The water is wide" in a lovely resonant tenor voice. I then strike up with "Full Fathom Five" from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Mona seems both astonished and pleased at all this warbling. We each compliment the others on their fine singing, and an aura of happiness and well-being envelops our navicella.
Mona speaks some English and we begin having a kind of conversation. He gives little commentaries on each of the ghats as we pass them. First is the Tulsi Das ghat, where the 16th-century poet who first translated the Ramayana into Hindi lived. It is next to our ghat, the Assi ghat, the southernmost ghat. We glide by a leper hospital established by Mother Teresa. We pass the house of the renowned woman saint Anandamayi. [On our return we will see a couple of young Caucasian men washing their dhotis on her ghat--R. calls them hippies, these devotees of Anandamayi.] We pass two cremation ghats, one a building where the bodies are burnt with electricity, according to Mona. The other ghat has stacks of criss-crossed wood; on one of these rests a corpse. On the return trip two of these stacks are burning and our boat passes through some of the smoke of the glowing pyres. Agni, god of fire is fierce and hungry. A dead Brahmin lies on a bed which is half in the water of the Ganga. "Mourners" stand around the bed. Then come the washing ghats where men and women pound wet clothes against little stone tables projecting out into the river. Then some ghats where cow patties are dried. One costs a rupee and supplies enough heat to cook a meal for a family of ten, according to Mona. Then a clothes drying ghat decked with hundreds of saris that together look like an enormous colored scarf.
We dock at the Dasasvamedha ghat—the main ghat whose name means "place of the ten horses fire sacrifice." According to R. it is the mythical place where the world was created. I try to imagine the world being created on this eternal ghat. Here we do puja to Mother Ganga with little baskets of flowers, each with a lighted candle at the center, which we set afloat on the holy waters of the goddess. Nearby are little meditating platforms, each with an umbrella and beneath each umbrella a wise man. An old-looking temple with a lingam in the center. Faces are carved into the stone of the lingam. I have to drive away the sellers of postcards and statuettes, who refuse to leave us alone.
We discuss Mona who is guarding the boat. He would like to continue with his education but is unable to do so because of the cost. This is something we often hear from the young men we meet--we meet or see hardly any women. In Mona's case I find it especially sad because he seems to have real intellectual inclinations, and maybe gifts. I half jokingly suggest to R. that he sponsor Mona's education--I suggest that it would be a fine instance of Christian charity, if not duty. R. says it would destroy his happiness and innocence. I say, just as you destroyed my innocence and happiness? Then I say that it may not be his destiny to be happy, but that it could be his destiny to be educated, and that R. could be the means. Though I'm saying all of this only half-seriously, R. takes it to heart, and I see him, jovial man that he is, suddenly become sad. This is indeed a sign of R.'s essential goodness and compassion, that he should react so. Yet in the end he does not sponsor Mona.
Seeing the river at Varanasi is the most numinous experience I have on the whole journey. At ghat after ghat—and each Maharaja and each state of India has its own ghat--we see ritual bathers calmly going into the water. There is a kind of peace and dignity in these ritual bathings that is hard to describe. A wondrous simplicity—no flamboyant rites, no expensive accoutrements. Just the river and the body. The river of life and death, the body in all of its nakedness. Unforgettable to me are the patience, the solemnity, the lack of excitement or rushing or tension. There is no spirit of fun or pleasure here, or if there is pleasure it is a very quiet spiritual kind. Such a scene is unimaginable in America--indeed, I often have the feeling that what I am seeing in India is the very antithesis and negation of American life and values. Imagine thousands of men of all ages--and here you see more older men than in other Indian places--bathing in the goddess, meditating on the edge of her stream or offering her puja, a flower or prayer. These acts have a humbleness, an elemental quality that give me pause. Here is activity that radiates meaning, but has nothing to do with fun, relaxing distraction, or productivity. It all makes me wonder what it means when we talk about the unity of the human race, about our common humanity. The memory of the ghats brings home to me more forcefully than anything else the great range and diversity of the human presence.
Mona is a member of the mala or boatman caste, as is his whole family. He tells us he will marry a boatsman's daughter, that it will be an arranged marriage, and that his parents will look all over India for a suitable girl. He says this with a good deal of pride. It's clear that it will be a real honor for some mala girl to marry a Ganges boatman, singer of the sacred river that bears his boat and gives him his livelihood.
Mona is 21. He wants to have two children. I tell him that my oldest son is almost 19, and that his name is Nathaniel, which means "gift of God," a name that Mona clearly approves of. Then he makes a strange request: that I give Nat the name of Krishna as well. I tell him that I will ask Nat what he thinks of the idea. I do feel close to Krishna, and it is not an unsuitable name. Krishna is after all the flute player, the trickster, the lover of gopis.
I can't help reflecting on the destinies of these two young men, Mona and Nat, who live half way around the world from each other in such different circumstances. The boatman and the student, the singer of love songs and the bass fiddle player.
Our boatman goes once a week to a Hindi love film, usually with a male friend, never with a girl.
After our return to the States, Ralph sent me a poem about Mona called "Ganges Boatman":
His name was Mona,
And he sang
A Hindi love-song--
Sturm und Drang--
The music soothed
On Gangan air
With longings sacred
A la mer.
Full fathom five
Our father lies.
The water wide.
An epoch dies.
His name was Mona--
His dragon boat.
I am sitting on the balcony above the little trident-capped Shiva temple after which our guest house is named. Down by the river women are working in a field of yellow flowers. An old holy man with a full beard, probably a Shivite, walks by carrying a brass pot. Another man squats to piss by the wayside. Indian men usually squat to make water and they never seem to mind if anyone is looking. In fact, it would be very difficult for them to find a place where they couldn't be seen.
From the balcony you can observe the life on the rooftops of the houses nearby, the children playing, the women cooking over open fires, people sitting in a circle chanting. Everywhere you look there are people, usually young men and boys. You here the cries of people all of the time, the wailing of babies, the blast of a sacred conch, a morning raga, the bark of the ubiquitous dog, rickshaw horns. A herd of cows grazes on grass and garbage on the bank south of us. The sacred cows of India seldom moo.
In the guest house, the manager Mr. Dileep, a slight, friendly man of the Vaisha caste who seems to have some intellectual depth, sleeps on a dining room table in the common room at night. He goes to "bed" around midnight and usually gets up around 4:00 AM.
I am watching two boys, around thirteen I'd guess, walk by-- each has an arm slung around the other's shoulder. You also see grown men in this mode, or sometimes holding hands. Men seem to be much more demonstrative and emotionally intimate with each other than they are with women.
Despite all of the dirt and poverty, the feeling of unfinishedness of the place, there is a certain beauty, a certain peacefulness in the lives of these people, or so it seems to me.
The Ganga is the river of life and the river of death. Floating about fifty meters in front of the Dasasvamedha ghat a group of river dolphins begin to break the surface all around our boat. What a delightful surprise: it is as if they have come to greet us. Not long after, on our return upstream, the little bloated corpse of a baby floats by our starboard bow. Then the carcass of a cow. In India you bathe in the holy river with the bodies of the dead. Just the river and the body . . . .
This afternoon we go to the Durga Temple, popularly known as the Monkey Temple. Durga is a fierce warrior goddess who kills the buffalo demon. Kali, typically portrayed with a necklace of skulls and a tongue dripping blood, is one of her more terrifying manifestations. I am eager to see the temple of a popular goddess who is so bound up with death and destruction. It's always an adventure walking through these narrow, crowded streets and avoiding getting run over. You've got to be alert, yet you are continually distracted by the fascinating life of the street, the stalls full of buckets of different kinds of grain, the butcher with fly-covered fresh meat, the brass pot seller, the cloth vendor with his silks and saris, the beggars and cripples and aged Shivites with their tridents, the dog fights, the cows, the pissers, the spitters, the chewers of paan. What a tumult of life.
On our way, we're about ready to go into a crowded little side street when we have to stop for four men carrying a woman's corpse wrapped in gold cloth, resting on a rude bier cut from tree saplings. They walk by right in front of me. It is a shock to be so close to a dead person. They are obviously taking the deceased down to one of the burning ghats on the Ganga. Just the river and the body. This is a culture that is intimate with death. As Ralph says, the sacred river is also the locus of rot and decay. The decomposing bodies continually remind you of the evanescence of your flesh. The river is a moving, unending memento mori. At the same time she is the source of regeneration and rebirth and she gives the spirit release from the stinking world of putrefying matter. Varanasi is the theater of the world in metamorphosis.
I know the Ganges broad and slow,
bending beneath my heart.
Mona the boatman steers our skiff
through smoke of burning saints,
a baby somersaulting
in our wake--
river dolphins crack
the watery mirror, arc
into another world
on leafy coracles
children set afloat
for goddess rapture
candle water light
here I am
for you I waver, weave
the stream of names
here I make my arc
a sweep of tailfin
folds time into water
the mirror of my skin
making river where you live