Magazine article Tikkun

Jerusalem in Benares

Magazine article Tikkun

Jerusalem in Benares

Article excerpt

BENARES, KASHI, "CITY OF LIGHT" SHE IS CALLED. City of Shiva, Kashi Vishwanath. She is Hinduisms most important of all pilgrimage centers, where the faithful immerse themselves in Mata Ganga, the Mother of all Rivers, which the British called "the Ganges." She flows from the very topknot of Lord Shiva's hair as He sits in meditative repose in the Himalayas.

Truly, Benares is G-d's waiting room. From all over India, elderly and infirm stream into the many dharamsalas, or hospices, to await the inevitable. When the time comes, the body is wrapped in a shroud and carried on a rope stretcher to the banks of the Mother River; she is ready to receive her children with love. Bodies are washed, priests are hired, wood is purchased (it is not cheap!), and the samskaras (life cycle rituals) begin. To the chanting of verses from the Vedas, the pyre is lit. It is reckoned that it takes about three hours to render most of the corpse into ash. Whatever is not yet burned is tossed into the River along with the ashes. A special scavenger caste catches the remains, which they strain in large wicker baskets in search of any gold ornaments that the family felt delicate about removing. The pyres burn day and night. It is not possible for one to gaze deeply into those pyres and not be changed by the experience.

A stroll along the ghats-large steps leading from the town to the River-at dawn or sunset is one of life's memorable experiences. The ghats are something like the "riverwalks" found in many American cities today, with the significant difference that the ghats are three thousand and more years old! Amplified chants to Lord Ram or Shiva as Vishwanath (Lord of the Universe) are constant reminders of transcendence. Priests sit on platforms under large umbrellas to help pilgrims through the complex rites special to Benares. Sadhus (Hindu mendicants) are plentiful, sitting in rows, saffron opportunities for charity as pilgrims make their ways down to the ghats. Occasionally a sadhu breaks away from the crowd, erects a small altar to one of the many divine manifestations in Hinduism, lights a candle, and measures his prayers with a rosary of neem seeds. Meanwhile, buffalos, dogs, cows, and goats push their ways through the crowds, making walking an exercise in focusing on the transcendent above and the archetypically mundane on the ground.

Every evening just after sunset, Mata Ganga is worshipped with chants and a fire ceremony known as aarti. Lamps are waved in homage to the deity, accompanied by chanting. As one of my swami friends, Chidanand Saraswati, put it, "What else can we do? G-d is so great, She provides everything for us. G-d is the light. All we can do is offer our little lights to the great Light. We can only express our gratitude."

The question of one G-d versus many gods confounds every Westerner who approaches Hinduism. On the apparent level, Hinduism has many gods who are depicted by murtis, statues or idols. Idolatry, of course, is not only condemned in the Torah's second commandment, it even contradicts the much less doctrinaire seven Noachide commandments that are said to be obligatory for all descendents of Noah, which is to say for everyone (according to Judaism).

Yet when the swami speaks of G-d as the Light, beyond all form and distinctions, the initial understanding is put into question. And the more one delves into the philosophies underlying Hindu practice, the more the initial level is reduced to a comic book version of a profound and serious theology.

There is a religious tradition that gets embodied in traditional persons raised in that tradition's more refined, philosophic threads. A Muslim who knows his tradition, who earnestly strives to live up to the Qur'an's teachings and the exemplary life of its Prophet Muhammad, is an impressive individual. A Confucian gentleman who has improved his character by years of study, who displays elegant courtesy and moral impeccability, tells me more about Confucianism than any number of books and histories. …

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