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 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 years and provides the flames for all burnings. Bodies wrapped in cloth and sometimes flowers are carried in by mourners, lower into 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-Smuggling Gandhi Home

My last post was 11 days ago. It’s strange being back in the US.  I live in a rich country , we have houses with good roofs and plumbing. Trash is picked up and animals do not wander the streets  leaving excrement on the pavement.

I  just celebrated Thanksgiving with family and we ate a lot of  great food. We had the turkey and then indulged in a variety of desserts.  We were warm, cozy and sat on comfy chairs and slept between clean sheets and blankets.

But my country is stressed and angry. It is severely divided.  Life expectancy is dropping as suicides and drug use increase. We are in trouble.

On my tour, we stopped at Raj Ghat, to see the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial.

And then we went on to The Gandhi Remembrance Museum.

It was the first few days of my journey in India and I had jet lag. I tried to put Gandhi in the context of what I knew about him.  I was awed by his greatness.  Reading and observing as much as I could in the museum, I was overwhelmed by the enormity of his life and his message.

I smuggled Gandhi home with me. I have unpacked him into my mind and heart and like any  souvenir from a wonderful trip, I have come to treasure him.  Taking the time to quietly study in my own environment, free from schedules and excursions, I am getting to know him well. And I wonder, can his message, his brand of leadership, be applied to our country in its present state of disarray?

Gandhi saw his life as a journey as he went through a number of stages and identities that finally gave him his valuable purpose.

During his childhood, Gandhi lived in a rural part of india. His family was in one of the lower castes and considered  lower middle class. In his large family he was his mother’s favorite child  and she was able to instill in him Hindu values including  fasting, self control, and ahimsa (nonviolence).

Next came his emulating stage, his desire to become a English gentleman. In 1890 at age 21 , he went to London to study law. He loved the precision of British law and its ability to uphold an empire.

He became a very successful lawyer and quite wealthy and in 1906 became a barrister in Johannesburg , South Africa,  part of the British Empire. It was there that Gandhi relinquished his loyalty to the crown.  He witnessed apartheid, blatant racial discrimination and decided that Britain should not rule his people in India anymore.

He returned to India to promote Satyagraha, his concept of the firm adherence to truth and love in the form of civil nonviolent resistance.

The Amritsar Massacre on April 13, 1919 was a turning point in his life. It was a Hindu holiday and 10,000 men, woman and children were gathered in a walled off square the size of a football field to celebrate.  The British, fearing that a gathering so big would lead to trouble,  had their soldiers mount the walls and start shooting.  400 people were killed and 1500 wounded.

A militant Indian group wanted to retaliate with terrorism against the British but Gandhi stepped in as leader of a different approach, civil nonviolence.

“An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”- Gandhi

Gandhi simplified his whole life, even in the way he dressed, and devoted the rest of his life to nonviolence and helping India gain independence.

In my next blog post, I will write about Gandhi’s  Salt  March and what we might learn from him that could help our country in these troubled times.

copyright 2018 @ The Autonomous Traveler