BY: ALEXANDER DOWNHAM
Western Judeo-Christian values have morphed death into an aspect of life we run from. But in Varanasi, India, death is something to anticipate and embrace.
Varanasi – one of Hinduism’s seven holiest cities – was built between the 11th and 12th century B.C. along the Ganges River in India’s Uttar Pradesh State. The majority of its citizens are Hindu and the city attracts worldwide attendees of mass pilgrimages. While some pilgrims come to remit their sins, some arrive to die.
The sights of the city can be shocking to some. The city’s riverbanks are lined with ceremonial staircases—known as Ghats—that descend into the Ganges’ dark water. The steps are crowded with people, both living and dead, eager to wade in a river that is infamous for its pollution. While bathers swim amongst rotting bodies and raw sewage, groups sing hymns before dumping dead loved ones into the river. On select Ghats lie bodies wrapped in sheets placed between layers of sticks and rubble. As onlookers observe the cremation’s flickering light, ash flies into the air coating the skin and the beards of exposed faces.
This mass burial, though disturbing for some, is a source of spiritual fulfillment for many Hindus. In fact, many believers view Varanasi’s riverbanks as a final destination for salvation and “the holiest funeral destination for Hindus.”
Eighty-seven Ghats are in Varanasi, each having its own unique religious significance. For example, Brahma, the God of Creation, created the Dashashwamedh Ghat for Shiva, the God of Destruction. Hinduism describes the Ganges River as the embodiment of Ganga, a goddess of salvation that facilitates Moksha to those who give themselves to her.
Those who dive into the Ganges have their sins remitted, while those who die in it are released from transmigration – the “cycle of life and death”. Depending on one’s caste and wealth, a citizen can have their bodies cremated on the riverbank or have their ashes scattered. The poor and those with smallpox or leprosy are tied to stones, left to sink to the riverbed.
For Hindus, death in general is not a negative part of life or a religious consequence for original sin; it’s an “important transitional experience” into reincarnation. In fact, those who bathe or have their bodies left in the Ganges River are considered “lucky” for having their sins “washed away” as they reach Nirvana.
As the Hindu scripture from The Bhagavad Gita states, “As a man casts off his worn-out clothes and takes on other new ones, so does the [soul] cast off its worn out bodies and enter new ones.”
In North America, where Hindus are less than two-per-cent of the population, our grim view of death can cause prejudice towards their acceptance of mortality. To the Hindus and pilgrims of Varanasi, the body was always meant to be disposed.