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-A Traveler’s Hope

I travel to learn about other people in unfamiliar places. I go to listen to their stories and understand.

I was raised Catholic and have since left that religion. I don’t call myself a Christian but rather a Jesusist because I believe in the doctrine of inclusion and I honor all religions. I still post a picture of an angel on my Facebook page every Christmas with the words, “Be not afraid. I bring you tidings of great joy.” In this troubled world, this declaration always brings me comfort.

I also travel to learn about other religions. Through direct experience during my time in India, I got to witness the history and practices of Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, and Buddhism. I was really touched by many lovely philosophies. The meaning of namaste which states that “the goodness in me recognizes the goodness in you”. The belief in the interconnectedness of all people and creatures. The fact that the Sikhs feed hundreds of people each day. The call from Eastern religions for self examination and responsibility to others. And I will never forget the acceptance and kindness the Indian people showed me. I could not spend 17 days with these wonderful people and not be changed forever.

In 2018, I took a journey close to home, a tour called “The Lost Villages of Fort Drum.” I was thrilled to see our local history preserved and acknowledged by the archaeological department on the base. This prompted me to started reading about the Antebellum Era of the early 1800’s when America was new and trying to define itself. There was a shift away from Calvinism that defined a person’s fate as a good or bad person before birth. The movement called The Second Awakening put more emphasis on the importance of doing good deeds. I loved a quote from that time that stated “injustice to one is injustice to all.” This belief motivated people to work for reform, the emancipation of slaves, and the right of women to vote.

This year of travel has given me great hope. I have seen the history and geography of humanity’s heart. The spirit of the human soul wants the best for others, for all of us. There will always be people in this world who will believe in that light and will work to keep it alive.