A dead cow is floating down the river Ganga. She is a black and white Holstein Friesian cow, like the one I own in Bangalore. She floats sideways, legs spreadeagled. Half of her face is visible, even though it is dark—7pm on a Friday. I wish I could say that she looks peaceful, but her teeth are bared.
Some 100 boats filled with Indian and foreign tourists are converging on Dashashwamedh Ghat for the evening Ganga aarthi, the spectacle that is the culmination of daily religious life in Kashi. The cow floats amid the boats, forcing embarrassed guides into stuttering, apologetic explanations in Spanish, French, Russian, Hebrew and English.
“Sometimes, when people have a pet cow that died and they cannot afford to bury or cremate her, they simply throw her into the Ganga,” says our guide, J.P. Mishra, of Magic India Tours. He stares at our horrified faces and shrugs. “Ganga is the mother. She accepts everything.”
Would the Ganga have been better served, had we imagined her to be our child rather than mother? What if our ancients imagined the Ganga to be a daughter, or better yet, given the Indian preference for male heirs, a son? Would we have taken better care of Ganga, our child, than we do of Mother Ganga?
These are moot questions; whispers into the mists of time that reach back to 1500 BC when the Vedas were “revealed” (not written or composed but revealed, but more on that later) to Hindu rishis. The first Veda, the Rig Veda, mentions the Ganga but a few times. The most famous reference to the Ganga in the Rig Veda comes from thenadistuti sukta, or the “hymn in praise of the rivers”. Even that mentions the Ganga somewhere in the middle, along with nineteen other rivers—including the Saraswati, Yamuna, Purushni, Asikni and Gomti.
The hymn is predominantly in praise of the river Sindhu, or Indus, described as the mightiest of all rivers, into which other roaring rivers run “like mothers to their calves”, not calves to their mothers as I first mistakenly thought. The Sindhu—who flows flashing and white, with ample volume; whose roar can be heard to the heavens; who bellows like a bull; and who is beautiful like a steed. Ganga is just part of a list in these early days of Hinduism.
An aside: Unlike other ancient literature like the Egyptian Book of the Dead (recorded on papyrus) or the Sumerian tale, the Epic of Gilgamesh, often called the first story in the world (recorded on carved tablets), the Vedas were not written down until much later. They were not even believed to be composed by humans. They were heard—a better translation is seen—by Hindu sages, who were therefore called seers.
For this reason, the Vedas are apauraseya or authorless—revealed texts that were grasped by Hindu seers as fully formed philosophies or insights about the world. The Vedas are preserved as shruti or listened literature in exactly the same form—unchanged words, exactly the same meter and intonation—for millennia.
It is only later when stories and myths were compiled into the Puranas that the Ganga gains importance. Her creation myth, depicted in the Bhagavata Purana is spectacular and goes thus: To teach a lesson to an arrogant king called Mahabali, Lord Vishnu lifts one of his feet heavenward in the Trivikrama pose, and pierces the sky with his toenail. Like piercing an egg, this causes the milk of human creation—the Ganga—to flow downwards from the upper reaches of the cosmos into the mere heavens where Brahma the creator resides, the Brahma loka, as it is called—Brahma’s world. In some tellings, the Ganga is imagined as the Milky Way. The gods enjoy her fertile waters and she enjoys her stay and status in heaven.
Several millennia later, on earth, a dutiful son is in a quandary. He has just discovered that 60,000 of his ancestors are wallowing in the netherworld because of a sage’s curse. They cannot even attempt reaching heaven. The dutiful son performs a lot of austerities, which pleases Brahma, the creator. Brahma tells him that the only way his ancestors can have a shot at heaven is if the purifying waters of the Ganga touch them. The son begs Brahma for help. Brahma orders the Ganga to fall to earth. She isn’t particularly thrilled to leave the heavens, but has no choice but to agree. Brahma, after all, is the creator, her father.
The problem is that the power of her fall will smash the earth to smithereens, wash it away in a great cascade of water. So the son prays again, this time to Shiva, begging him to cushion the Ganga’s fall by absorbing her into his long matted locks. As is seen in a wonderful painting by Raja Ravi Varma, there stands Shiva, with the kind of six-pack abs that would put Shah Rukh to shame. His long matted locks flow out like Sonam Kapoor’s—and isn’t it pathetic that the only metaphors I can come up with are from Bollywood?
Moving on, a leopard skin is wrapped around his waist, a snake around his neck. Shiva gazes upwards as the Ganga falls. He wraps her in his hair, trapping her impetuous arrogance, and allowing only a small trickle to fall on earth. Man subdues woman in the feminist telling of it; except that Hindu myths are gender agnostic. There are enough Durgas and Kalis who will ruthlessly kill the bad guy and swallow his blood if they need to, like Kali did with the demon Rakthabeeja.
So the Ganga hits the earth. With folded hands, the son—his name is Bhagiratha—leads her to the netherworld where she purifies the souls of all 60,000 of his ancestors, allowing them to make their journey upwards to the heavens. No wonder all Hindus want to have a dip in this holy water—touched by Vishnu’s feet, Shiva’s hair, and Brahma’s command, she is the liquid goddess linked to the divine trinity in Hindu mythology.
As creation myths go, the story of the Ganga is hard to beat or duplicate. Is there a way to massage this myth to serve the Ganga in her present state? Indians view her as Ma Ganga. Mothers are taken for granted. Viewing her as a cherished daughter—or son—might have served her better through the ages. The instinct to take care of a child is primordial.
Photo: Shoba Narayan
Might we have taken care of Ganga the child, better than we do Ganga the mother? Too late. Rationality cannot alter lore. Myths are carved in stone, and certainly one that is so braided into the Indian psyche cannot be morphed so easily, even if it might potentially help the river.
A dead cow is floating down the Ganga. This irritates me on many levels. Cleaning the Ganga is a Herculean task—or should I choose from Indian myths instead of Greek and say, Bhagirathan task? And why not choose a woman’s name? Cleaning the Ganga is a Malala Yousafzai-ian task.
This dead cow with her wide-open eyes symbolizes everything that is impossible about this venture. Why couldn’t this cow have been given to a slaughterhouse? Did the poor farmer whose cow it was live in a state that banned the killing of the cow? Why couldn’t the poor farmer have cremated the cow instead? Or did he love the animal so much that he wanted it to attain salvation through the holy waters of this river?
Or was it simple economics? He didn’t have the money to deal with her death. Tossing her into the Ganga was an easy option. Was it faith or desperation that led to him throwing the dead animal into the waters, polluting her further?
At the Dashashwamedh (Ten Horse Sacrifice) Ghat, the Ganga aarthiis about to begin. The boats are fitted against each other like a jigsaw puzzle, to form an arc that faces the bank. In the next boat, two young women—American by the sound of their accent—sit cross-legged on the wooden boat, chatting with their guide. Ahead of us, on the steps of the ghat, a huge crowd of people has gathered. In the buildings behind them are billboards with photographs. Actor Sunny Deol posing, as if in a Calvin Klein ad, selling Cozi underwear to religious tourists who want to elevate their minds.
Those of us on the boats are a captive audience, or as it turns out to be, customers. Within a few minutes, an energetic group of children balance their way across the boat, carrying bamboo baskets filled with ice water, candles to float on the Ganga, matchboxes, incense and photographs of gods.
One young boy who looks about seven years old entreats the two American women beside me to buy his wares in broken English.
“This candy (he means candle) very nice,” he says, holding up a leaf cup inside which nestles a small tea candle amidst a bed of yellow marigolds.
It is a beautiful arrangement, Balinese in its simplicity, handmade and tenuous—a floating candle, carrying wishes and hopes into the Ganga.
“You buy? Good price,” the boy says.
The two American women shake their heads even though he is charging them the same price that he charges everyone—Rs10. Hardened by beggars and touts who swarm around them, warned by guides about bargaining for anything sold to foreigners in India, they fail to recognize a good deal. I feel sorry for the kid and buy six candles even though I don’t intend to float them on the already overburdened Ganga.
A male voice begins singing over the loudspeaker. Seven priests, all male, take their positions at different points on the broad ghat. They depict the Saptha-Rishis, or seven primordial sages. They follow the protocol of a puja, beginning with flowers, then incense, then a lamp with a single wick, and then a beautiful multilayered lamp with a tiered pyramid of wicks, all shining in the darkness.
In synchronized movements, the seven priests lift the shining pyramid of flickering lamps, face the river, and circle their hands round and round. A group of men paying homage to a female goddess. All religions are male-dominated. Hinduism is no different. I have never seen a female priest in any Hindu temple. I resent the fact that Ganga aarthi does not even have a token woman as participant—a female singer at least?
“Here have a peda,” says our guide, opening a box. “It is from the Hanuman temple.”
In Kashi, sacred food is everywhere. The peda is delicious and we chew it contentedly while watching the priests do their synchronized movements—like chewing popcorn at a movie. The aarthi lasts about half an hour. At the end, I search for the cow, wishing I had photographed it.
“Ghai? Woh chala gaya,” says the boatman casually. It has gone.
“At least it is better than those corpses we used to see floating in the Ganga,” says our guide soothingly.
We take the motor boat upstream to Assi Ghat where my hotel is. Along the way, we see a dead buffalo right by the bank of Harishchandra Ghat, which, along with Manikarnika Ghat, are the two crematoriums on the Ganga. Somehow, this isn’t as horrifying, perhaps because it is on the banks of a crematorium. A remnant corpse, even if it happens to be an animal, left behind, perhaps by a poor farmer, who couldn’t pay for its funeral.
Photo: Shoba Narayan
A few yards upstream, a couple is immersing themselves into the river. Like most devotees, the man is topless, with a cloth wrapped around his midriff. The woman is fully clothed in a maroon sari and mustard yellow blouse. She wades into the water and dunks her head in. The man does this three times. Can’t they see the dead buffalo to their left?
“So many people take a bath every day in the Ganga. They don’t fall sick. It is the power of belief,” says our guide in explanation.
Photo: Shoba Narayan
Ah, belief. The great divide between the rational and the spiritual. The problem with religion is that it is predicated on tenets that are hard to measure, understand, explain or duplicate. Like reiki healing, noticing auras, or anything to do with intuition, religious belief has to be experienced. That is the problem.
The path to belief can be zig-zagging and precarious, full of questions and second-guessing, like mine is. Sometimes, it happens gradually over a course of a lifetime through a guru—although that too is a circular, chicken-and-egg situation. They say that a guru will come when you are ready to accept the lessons she has to offer; but how can you evolve to the stage when you are ready for mysticism, faith and spirituality without a guru?
Faith can also happen in an instant, like a lightning stroke, through divine grace, although that is rare and requires miracles. “Look at me through the corner of your eye; your kadai-kann,” goes the lyrics of a Tamil song. Just a glance from the goddess—not even a full one—but one from the corner of her eye—can elevate a moron into a mystic, as the goddess of learning, Saraswati, is supposed to have done to the poet Kalidasa by drawing on his tongue.
As nebulous as faith is, numerous studies point to its benefits. Faith is in vogue—on the cover of publications worldwide. It confers self-control and peace of mind, fosters relationships, increases happiness and nurtures community. Faith is the ultimate feel-good pill on this rocky road that we call life—it heals and empowers. I get all that. I would like to embrace my faith. I would like to be a better Hindu.
Religion, however poses a perplexing paradox. Only if I have faith will I experience the benefits of faith. But how to embrace faith without some sort of proof—not scientific proof necessarily but even some sort of inner awakening, some sign from the cosmos? “Anything?” as George Costanza said in Seinfeld.
How do I get on the religious bandwagon? Where do I jump in?
The first of a four-part series.