This is a different kind of a post. It’s about something I think about every single day. Forty or so years ago I traveled to India. I was in my teens. The experience was so profound, I am still processing it all these many decades later.
I was having a bit of a difficult time finishing the post I had planned for today, when I stumbled on this picture from that trip long ago.
For me this is a significant picture…it brings back sights, sounds, smells, tactile memories, tastes.
When I was 15 I traveled to India with my father and a group of college religion majors. I read the same books they did for preparation. I talked to others who had recently been to India. I understand now there was probably a little concern about my reaction to India and precautions were being taken. I had to have several vaccinations, one or two of which made me very sick. I had a friend at the time from Poland and she would come over with herbs and teas her mother had put together to help my body’s response to the vaccines. I remember they tasted horrible.
So, now I was all prepared. Informed and vaccinated.
We landed in Calcutta, or Kolkata, on the eastern side of India. Today the web site Lonely Planet describes Kolkata as “India’s second-biggest city is a daily festival of human existence, simultaneously noble and squalid, cultured and desperate. By its old spelling, Calcutta conjures up images of human suffering to most Westerners. But locally, Kolkata is regarded as India’s intellectual and cultural capital. While poverty is certainly in your face, the dapper Bengali gentry continues to frequent grand old gentlemen’s clubs, back horses at the Calcutta Racetrack and tee off at some of India’s finest golf courses.”
When the airplane door opened the smell of dung fires from the slums slowly wafted through the plane, I looked at my father and said, “I am not getting off the plane.” Welcome to India.
Obviously, I did get off the plane, and the experience of India changed my life in a subtle way that remains beautiful and hauntingly influential, every single day.
Why was it transformative? What did it activate in me? Now, as an adult, with much more life experience behind me, and many decade of processing, this is what I have come up with.
India literally threw Life and Death at me. Things a 15 year old from the middle of New York state doesn’t really think much about. So much in our life depends on what seems to be “chance” (you can call it Divine Will, God’s plan, the cycle of re-birth)….the time in history when we are born, the place we are born, the social status we are born into, the state of political thought and maturity of our birth country and world, the religious and social culture and climate of our birth country and world, etc. It does matter. While individual choice and determination can allow a person to climb up and out of a particular situation, it is also possible for a person to be sucked in and pulled down. Some life circumstances are beyond a person’s control.
I have realized over the years that my experiences in India shed light on many things I couldn’t have understood at the time. These include the ideas of privilege, poverty, suffering, starvation, caste/class, prejudice, fear, tolerance, death, faith and the sacred. Although I intellectually and emotionally could not possibly have processed these concepts 40 years ago, they are what I experienced and witnessed. The processing continues every day.
India changed me. Even at 15, without being able to put into words the meaning of the sensory, intellectual and emotional experiences, I soaked them up like a dry sponge and they changed the blueprint of my being. I was porous. As my being absorbed these experiences, it swelled from the collision with India. Memories were made that were filled with thoughts and ideas, visions and sounds, smells and sensations, realities and rawness that could never be wrung out of me. India melted into me.
The picture above is in Varanasi, on the Ganges River. Varanasi is about 460 miles north and west of Kolkata. What you cannot see in the photograph are the funeral pyres. Some just being constructed, some already in flames. What you can’t see are the bodies being borne to the pyres. What you cannot see are the Sadhus, the ascetic, holy men of India. What you can’t see are the colors…like an artist’s palette on steroids. What you can’t see are the tears. Tears of relief and hope, faith and peace, calm and healing. What you can’t hear is the cadence of the chanting and praying. You could feel it pulse in your heart. What you can’t smell are the burning pyres and flesh. You can’t smell the pungent, brightly colored flowers, or the scent of humanity. When you licked your lips along the Ganges there was a taste, something indescribable that caught you a little off guard. Your skin was dusted in fine, powder-like flakes of life and death that mingled with your sweat.
Dead or alive, these people made it to the shore of the Ganges River. Making the pilgrimage to the Ganges is a life goal for most Hindus. It is a sacred place. The water transforms and heals. The Hindus believe that if a “deceased’s ashes are laid in the Ganges at Varanasi, their soul will be transported to heaven and escape the cycle of rebirth. In a culture that believes in reincarnation, this concept called moksha is profound. The holier the place, the better the chances you achieve moksha and avoid returning to Earth as a cow or a cricket in your next life.” (http://proof.nationalgeographic.com/2014/08/07/the-pyres-of-varanasi-breaking-the-cycle-of-death-and-rebirth/)
Each person in this picture is swept up in a holiness and passion that is hard to imagine and stunning to witness. There is no doubt in any one of these hearts that they are experiencing the sacred. Rich or poor, Brahmin or untouchable, being on the shores of the Ganges River, dead or alive, is what mattered.
Today, I see what I saw in those faces on the steps of the Ganges River, in the face of every person I greet. I see that they have beauty and worth. I see that they are bound by some things that are unchangeable. I see that they have hopes and fears. I see that they have dreams, convictions and determination. I see that they love and are loved. I see that they suffer and hurt. I see they have joy and happiness in their lives. I see their humanity and their mortality. And I understand I share all of these things with them.
“Who sees all beings in his own self,
and his own self in all beings, loses all fear.”
When I look at this picture I see something that is beautiful and powerful, raw and indisputable. I am very grateful to have had the “privilege” of colliding with India and being forever changed by her.