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Photo: Shoba Narayan
Photo: Shoba Narayan

In search of moksha at Kashi

In the sacred city, it is said that Shiva breathes the sacred Taraka mantra into a dying person's ears

Annapurna is a beautiful goddess. In paintings and photos, she is beautifully proportioned, lean for a Hindu goddess, with four hands and three eyes: one in the middle of the forehead and two in the usual place.

That day the goddess is wearing a green silk sari and is covered with jewels and garlands. Not a single spot is free of human ministrations. This is alamkara—the Hindu notion of ornamentation—to decorate the goddess till not a speck of space is left.

Indians aren’t much for the “less is more" aesthetic written about by Robert Browning in his poem Andrea del Sarto and adopted by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the architect, in his design philosophy. India has a more-is-more aesthetic that bombards the senses with fragrant flowers, sandalwood paste, jasmine incense, silks, ringing bells, fresh fruits, vermilion powder, grey sacred ash, betel leaves, nuts and sacred food offerings.

Hinduism is at once about self-denial and sensual pleasure. As Martin Noval, a philosophy professor, says on his website, Trips into India, “Indian consciousness favors doses of sensory bombardment followed by doses of sensory deprivation."

Hindu rituals are full of sensual pleasures ranging from the rangoli-drawings on the floor to the flavourful food that is offered to the gods. We have the lights, music, action, incense, flowers, bells and chanting. After the action comes the withdrawal: fasting on Ekadasi; staying awake all night on Shivaratri; sitting in meditation; not speaking; withdrawing the senses. A “maelstrom of noise, movement, color", as Noval says, followed by silence, calm and withdrawal.

Kashi epitomizes both ends of the Hindu spectrum. You come here to enjoy the pleasures of this world, ranging from music, art, food and love. You also come here to renounce the world and be an ascetic subsisting on alms collected in a begging bowl—like Shiva did.

“India’s genius, in comparison with most other cultures, is that it preserves and values that archaic element that continues to live in mythical time, the time before mundane time. Its citizens are continually acting in a sacred drama," says Noval.

Mircea Eliade, a Romanian religious historian, calls these hierophanies—or manifestation of the sacred. Eliade divides experience into the sacred and the profane. Myths, he says, are where the world of the gods breaks through the clouds and mixes with the world of humans. In Hinduism, we have avatars, whereby the gods literally walk among us and teach us lessons, show us how to live.

Most modern societies have moved beyond myths into the worlds of science and rationality. Their creation myths, the way their ancestors made sense of the world, have been relegated to museums, theater, storytelling and history textbooks. Today’s Rome with its Prada and Bottega Veneta stores is a far cry from the time when Roman gods walked the earth. The same goes for other ancient cultures such as Greece or Egypt. In Cairo today, you don’t see Egyptian gods like Ra and Anubis on temples on street corners.

India is an exception to this trend. Here, gods routinely intrude on daily life. On my street is a small Ganesha placed where the streets join. There’s also a Mother Mary figurine, actually two, and a whole host of temples. A large chunk of our population carries on conversations with their gods—at temples, rivers, at home and through rituals.

When we buy a new car we place lemons in front of the four wheels and do a little puja. When a lift was installed at my parent’s apartment building, a priest came and did a ritual for this yantra or device that may well have been done 2,000 years ago. We build images of gods like Durga and Ganesha during Durga and Ganesha puja, sing and dance with them, and immerse them into water during festivals. We communicate with our gods regularly. Our daily routine and reality includes a healthy mix of myth and legend.

To paraphrase what Jawaharlal Nehru, our first prime minister, said about the Ganga, we Indians have not cut ourselves off completely from the past. Consciously or unconsciously, our lives reflect the fact that we are links in an unbroken chain that goes back “to the dawn of history in the immemorial past of India". The sacred and the profane are meshed together in India and nowhere more so than in Kashi.

Hindus come to Kashi to die. It is as simple as that. One of its names is Mahasmashanam, or the great cremation ground, where Shiva roams at night, surrounded by ghouls, ghosts and other dregs of paranormal society.

The devout go to extraordinary lengths to bring the dead bodies of their parents, siblings, or relatives here—by bullock cart or horse carriage; slung over and tied to the top of a bicycle; by car, truck or plane.

They want to cremate their loved ones in the two famous burial ghats: Harishchandra and Manikarnika. The former is older and named after a king who never uttered a lie. The latter is where the earring of Shakti the goddess fell—or perhaps it was Shiva’s earring. It all depends on who is telling the story.

Manikarnika Ghat has a fire that has never been extinguished since the first century, say the locals, pointing to a fire that is burning under an alcove, protected from the elements. The Hindu belief is that fire and water are bridges between the spiritual and protean worlds. They are both purifiers and symbols of fertility.

“Kashya maranam muktihih," goes the Sanskrit phrase. Dying in Kashi offers mukti: absolution, deliverance, freedom, liberation, escape from the endless cycle of birth and rebirth.

Frankly, I am not sure why my people think of birth and rebirth as torture, unless you are born as a stray dog or a cockroach perhaps, although cockroaches are the only creatures that will survive apocalypse so maybe there is some virtue to being a cockroach. But the desire to prevent rebirth, so all-pervasive amongst Hindus, doesn’t really resonate with me, perhaps because I am having quite a decent life in this birth. I wouldn’t mind coming back again.

The concept of a good death though is something I can wrap my head around. The Hindu world view considers dying as important as living. The way you die is important. Anayasa maranam, they say. A good death. Just as people in the West plot where and how they are to be buried, Hindus plot and fantasize about how they will die.

Dying on Ekadasi and being cremated on Dwadasi, the next day, is one way to achieve a good death. Sipping the water of the Ganga or chanting the lord’s name as you die is another. Dying in Kashi is the third—for a very mystical reason.

In Kashi, it is said that Shiva breathes the sacred Taraka mantra into a dying person’s ears. The Bengali saint, Ramakrishna, it is said, went into a trance while boating along the Manikarnika ghat because he got a vision of Shiva moving around the cremation pyres, breathing this sacred mantra into the souls that had passed away, sending them on their way to heaven.

There is some debate about what this taraka or “crossing over" mantra is. Some say that it is “Rama Rama". The Tarasara Upanishad says that it is “Om Namo Narayanaaya," but this Upanishad is biased towards the Vaishnavite tradition. Others say that it is simply the “Om" mantra.

In a sense, the actual mantra itself seems irrelevant. The important thing is to have Shiva himself, as guru, whispering something into your ears. If the Hindu god of destruction comes to your deathbed and whispers the secret code to immortality, I would say that it is a pretty good guarantee of safe passage—sort of like diplomatic immunity. No matter what sins you have committed, this singular act of received wisdom from Shiva can change your destiny; which is probably why Hindus, to this day, make plans to spend their golden years in Kashi.

There are hospices like Kashi Labh Mukti Bhavan where people at death’s door can come and stay for a maximum of 15 days. If they don’t die after 15 days, they have to move out and make way for the next person on the waiting list. Such people are called mumukshus or people who yearn to die and, through it, find liberation.

When my beautiful grand-aunt was widowed, she shaved her head and discarded every feminine adornment. No more jewellery, silk saris or even a bindi. No more chewing the betel leaves that she loved. No more sitting in the front row at family weddings. Widows were consigned to the back.

She wore a simple beige sari without a blouse and spent her days plotting how to get to Kashi in order to die. That was her life goal from age 56 to age 86, when she eventually died—not in Kashi, because her family couldn’t figure out how to send and maintain a frail 80-year-old woman in Kashi endlessly. My cousin had a business to run and children to send to school. My aunt died in Chennai. In partial fulfilment of her wishes, her son took her ashes to sprinkle into the river Ganga.

One morning, I asked the boatman to take me close to Manikarnika ghat. Women are not allowed inside a Hindu cremation ground. They grieve too much, so much so that the departed soul does not want to leave, is the reason given.

“With women, there is always the risk that they will jump into the funeral pyre," said a man from the Dom community that controls the burial ghats.

I stare at him and think, “Really? In this day?"

Not being allowed into the ghat, I have to stand on the boat and peer at it. From my vantage point, I can see a parade of corpses—some 250 per day costing on an average of Rs7,000 per cremation. The corpse is wrapped in colourful cloths, carried down and dipped into the Ganga, before being placed on a pile of wood with sandalwood shavings.

The eldest son lights the fire. It is a solemn ceremony. Not much is said from what I can see. On average, it takes about three hours for human body to burn. Someone from the Dom community helps out by prodding stubborn body parts that don’t burn, usually the fatty middle section. At the end, a handful of ashes is put in a terracotta pot and handed to the family to throw into the Ganga. The soul is released. The family has to walk out without looking back. Hinduism is a forward-looking religion.

What is your attitude towards death and dying? For people of a certain age—who are sandwiched between ageing parents and children—this is an engrossing topic. Just before I came to Kashi, I had a discussion with my parents and in-laws, all octogenarians, about living wills. There was this idea in the US, I told them, about writing a living will, or “advance directives", through which a person could specify how they wanted to die.

“Do not put me on a ventilator no matter what," could be one directive.

“Do not resuscitate (DNR)," could be another.

I have dozens of uncles and aunts in their 80s. Most of the elderly Indians with whom I have spoken to about living wills look utterly confused. Medical directives—DNR, DNI—are not part of their world view. They want to achieve a good death, without suffering, without troubling others. They want their souls to achieve liberation, moksha.

As I sit in the morning cold near the Manikarnika Ghat, watching the final rites of strangers, I wonder if modern discussions have taken the sacredness and profundity out of death. Using medical jargon—he died of cardiac arrest—and writing living wills may be necessary, but somehow trivializes death. It removes the soul from dying. For Hindus, dying is not merely a physical act; it is entirely about the soul.

My mother, who was present during both her parents’ deaths told me that her father’s “soul went out through his eyes", and her mother’s soul “went out through her tongue." How did she know? “I could see it," she replied.

Dying is as natural as being born; or should be. Watching the funerals that are going on in Manikarnika Ghat is weirdly calming, as if the stillness and inevitability of this most final of passages has permeated the air. Death is profound. Reducing it to “his vitals are okay; his numbers are good; he passed urine and tolerated a feed" is a grotesque medical modern prolongation of what Hindus consider a sacred act.

As Caitlin Doughty, a funeral director who was profiled in the 30 November 2015 issue of The New Yorker, says, “Death is not an emergency. Death is the opposite of an emergency. Look at the person who died—all that stress and pain is gone from them. And now that stress and pain can be gone from you."

I watch a family walk down the steps, holding aloft a terracotta pot. A man clad in a dhoti, presumably the son, lifted the pot and poured the ashes into the river. It was oddly touching, even for me, sitting far away. Death was not something to feel queasy about. Living and dying were simply two points in a circle, intertwined and accepted in this city as part of the great, nebulous, unfathomable whole that said, “We are one." Aham Brahma Asmi.

Nehru wanted his ashes sprinkled into the Ganga, too. In his last will and testament, he said, “My desire to have a handful of my ashes thrown in the Ganga at Allahabad has no religious significance, so far as I am concerned. I have no religious sentiment in the matter."

I don’t mean no disrespect, but that seems pretty disingenuous to me. Is it possible to separate the Ganga from the Hindu religion? If that is so, Nehru could have wished for his ashes to be thrown into any of India’s sacred rivers—the Yamuna, Narmada, Godavari or the Kaveri. But he picked the Ganga. Why?

To me, the Ganga is all about religion, about Hinduism, about its role in the final rite of passage, about its power to transport—not just from one place to the next but from one dimension to the next—about its place as a catalyst of spirituality and expiator of sins. That is what gives this river its potency.

In his will, Nehru used what I consider a weak word to explain his connection. He said that he was “attached" to the Ganga and Yamuna since childhood and loved its many moods, which is why he wanted his ashes there too.

I didn’t grow up in North India, and have no physical connection to the Ganga or the Yamuna. The Ganga, for me, is the stuff of stories, history, tradition and Amar Chitra Katha comic books. I am not attached to this river the way I am attached to my home town, Chennai.

Yet, here I am, standing at the Ganga’s edge before sunrise on my second day, trying to will myself to jump in. Part of the reason is the power of hearsay, of myth—I grew up listening to the Ganga’s greatness. Part of it is the possibilities that the Ganga offers—of expiating sin, really. All things being equal, I’d like to improve my odds at accessing heaven by shedding some sin. Jumping into the Ganga, particularly at Kashi, seems to be a good way to do that.

Hinduism, in that sense is a practical religion. It offers dictums and methods, choices and loopholes by which you can reduce suffering, improve health, wealth and happiness, and have a good death. There are certain locations that offer a kind of bridge between this life to the next. These tirthas or holy places offer a kind of centripetal force—you do good things in these locations and they come back to you 10-fold.

Prayag, Kashi and Gaya are three such places. They each have specific actions associated with them to help increase good karma. “Prayaga munde; Kashi dhoondhe; Gaya pinde," is the explanation. For Prayag a tonsure, or shaving of one’s head; Kashi through a search for self; and Gaya by offering pinde, or rice balls specked with sesame seeds, to ancestors.

My parents did all three some 20 years ago when I was in the US. They took a train to Prayag, or Allahabad, when my father offered “veni-dhaanam"—a portion of his hair—as offering to the river in lieu of completely shaving his head—the prescribed tonsure.

They took the boat to the confluence of the three holy rivers: Ganga, Yamuna and Saraswati—which is supposed to flow unseen by human eyes in the bottom. My father jumped off the boat and immersed himself in the river three times, repeating the mantras after a priest they had hired to propitiate seven generations of dead ancestors on both his maternal and paternal sides.

Then, they came to Kashi, where they stayed at a small guest house in Hanuman Ghat, where Tamilians converge. Each ghat attracts people from a different state. My parents met a Kashi-based Tamil priest called Chellam Iyengar, who took them into the Ganga to perform similar rituals. Finally, they went to Gaya to offer pinde as food for their ancestors.

I stand one morning, not at Hanuman Ghat, but at Panchaganga Ghat watching Brahmin priests conduct similar rituals for couples who have come to Kashi. Behind me is the massive Alamgir mosque, built by Aurangazeb after he razed the existing Vishnu temple—the Bindu Madhava temple—to the ground.

It was on the steps of the Panchaganga Ghat that a poor Muslim weaver named Kabir got his mantra initiation. Apparently, Ramananda, Kabir’s guru, did not want to take a poor Muslim as his student. Kabir lay down on the steps in the predawn darkness when he knew that his guru would walk down to take a bath in the Ganga. The guru tripped over this particular seeker and uttered the words “Rama, Rama". This became the mantra that Kabir used for all his songs.

The Panchaganga Ghat is linked with another 16th century poet, named Jagannatha Panditha Rayalu, considered by many to be the last of the great Sanskrit poets. Originally from Andhra Pradesh, Jagannatha moved to Kashi, fell in love with a Muslim woman—some say that she was a Mughal princess.

When the families refused to accept the lovers, Jagannatha sat on the steps of the Ganga and sang a paean called Ganga Lahiri: 52 verses in praise of the river Ganga. With every verse, the river rose by one step, till it finally reached the top where Jagannatha sat, and enveloped the poet and his Muslim lover into her cool embrace.

It is a great story. Perhaps Jagannatha composed the poem during the monsoon season when the river’s flood waters would have risen anyhow. No matter. The Ganga Lahiri is still sung in Kashi today.

This is the third in a four-part series from Kashi. Read the first one here, and the second one here.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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