India-Cremation on The Ganges, A Celebration of Fire

We traveled The Ganges at night in a wooden boat. The sun was setting and the white sky was diminishing into blackness. As usual, I can no expectations, I was just content happy to drift on the water and be able to take it all in.

Direct experience is wonderful but to a modern American it could be a bit uncomfortable. Back home it seems we have to be continuously stimulated and have our senses shocked. Watch a fast paced car commercial and count how many times they change the image or count how many 30 second ads there are during a TV program break. Is the length of our attention span decreasing?

To drift down a river in a foreign country like India, to be stranger in a very unfamiliar context , to be in a reality with no escape or off button is overwhelming. As a captive in a present moment, I tried to get my money’s worth, “I will not pass this way again”. I was on the famous Ganges River, Gandhi was here, people come to be absolved of their sins. It is sacred. I take in as much as I can with all my senses. Will it be enough?

We are told to look to our right, I see piles of wood, flames. and a lot of activity. This is the most sacred place of cremation in the India. If a person’s body is reduced to ashes here they are guaranteed eternal light after death.

The rituals practiced on this site never stop, they go on 24/7. A source fire has been maintained for hundreds of year and provides the flames for all burnings. Bodies wrapped in cloth and sometimes flowers are carried in by mourners, lower in to the The Ganges for purification, and then placed on the burning wood pyres. Later the deceased person’s ashes are returned to the Ganges.

Our journey in the darkness continues and we are told we are going to a ritual that is repeated every night by Hindu priests, The Celebration of Fire.

So much to take in, strange rituals, an unfamiliar religion. I shouldn’t judge. I have my own needs. Like all human beings since the beginning of time I, too, deal with the fear of the unknown. You would think with all our advancements we would have everything figured out and under control by now but it seems that the things that kept us up at night just keep multiplying. Everyone deals with this in their own way; materialism, power, drugs, alcohol, anything that offers escape.

I felt totally out of place in this dark Indian night until I was handed a diya, a floating votive candle surrounded by a ring of flowers. Our guide lit it and instructed me to put in the water to remember a loved one who has died. Tears came to my eyes. I placed the symbol in The Ganges and remembered my mom. More than anyone she is responsible for my trip to India. She prepared me in so many ways, giving me the skills and the strength to set out to unknown places.

Religion, let us live and let live. I will continue to learn and respect the beliefs of all people and hope others will do the same for me. My faith is how I deal with the puzzles of life. It’s so nice to know there are others who do the same.

India-WHY?

I have a strange way of picking my travel destinations. I do it by whim, waiting to be inspired by some sign or a feeling of intuitive direction. If you are a regular follower of my blog, you might remember that I chose to go to Barcelona, Spain because I saw the city on an episode of  “The Bachelorette.”   I’m a little ashamed about this bit of impulsiveness but Barcelona turned out to be one of my favorite trips as I learned about the famed architect, Antoni Gaudi, and discovered The Age of Modernism.

I picked India for my 2018 trip in the same unconventional way. While walking through St. Augustine, Florida on a trip during March,  I came upon a sudden explosion of eastern culture, a colorful float and joyous smiling people singing and dancing in lovely vibrate clothing.

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Looking for some sort of explanation, I approached a card table set up with Hindu books and various other items. I was welcomed warmly as I quietly looked at the titles. I  immediately felt included in all that was happening.  I mentioned that some day I would like to go to India and was given a set of Hindu prayer beads.  I asked how much they cost, was told they were a gift, and was invited to join the group for lunch after a parade through St. Augustine.  I was convinced, my next trip would be India.

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I signed up for a 17 day tour called “Mystical India”.  Before I went, the tour company sent me packets of historical information which overwhelmed me and I stopped reading them because I wanted go on this adventure with an open mind. But I can’t help but wonder if I  took this attitude because I was a “teacher” or  because I’m an arrogant American. In my career in education,  I was taught to promote “enduring understandings” that would stick in young minds forever.  For example, World War I  was reduced to the fact that King Ferdinand was shot and the entirety of economics was explained by the simple concepts of supply and demand. As I soon learned, these quick shots of education were far from adequate.

My  pre trip enduring understandings of India were neatly wrapped up in three concepts: Gandhi,  cows, and “Slumdog Millionaire”.  My gracious tour guide, Rashid, dealt with me patiently as I misunderstood the great Mughal Empire as something to do with the Mongols and thought Britain took over India after WW I instead of long before in 1857.  Rashid , if you are reading this, I hope you have forgiven me.  

However, I did take along with me something of value that kept poking around in my memory. A few years ago I listened to a”Great Courses” set of lectures called “Power over People-A History of Political Thought”. The very interesting talks by Professor Dennis Dalton from Barnard University ended with a segment about Thoreau and Civil Disobedience which promoted me to take a trip to Walden Pond.  But I remembered something else. The professor had started his survey of political history with a lesson about Hinduism. Why had he chosen India to start a course about political thought? Though my direct experiences in India and some focused discovery since I returned home, I  found out why.  It is quite a lesson that has great value for all of us especially in today’s world.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”― Marcel Proust

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A note to my readers: I will  be taking you on my journey through India  for the next few weeks. Please click on the “follow” button on my blog so you don’t miss a day. Thanks!