People and more people. Every night they surge to the banks of the Ganges River in Veranasi, India, the holiest place on earth for followers of the Hindu religion.
The streets are too narrow for buses, so we walk. Motorcycles beep and pass on the right. Rickshaws pass on the left. Beggars, old women with outstretched hands, people with terrible burns, holy men—they all come. A little boy named Babu, offering to sell us postcards and not about to take “no” for an answer, keeps pace with our group.
Cows, sacred and ubiquitous in India, make themselves comfortable on the steps of a stage lit by lights resembling icicles we hang on our houses at Christmas. We press through the crowd.
And suddenly the waters roll before us.
At the river’s edge, we balance ourselves in small wooden boats and push out to watch the service from our undulating vantage point. A young woman lights candles and hands them to us. One by one, we set the candles in the river. As I lean over the side of the boat, I say a prayer for a gentle spirit.
About 300 yards downriver, a fire burns bright—a funeral pyre. Cremation is one of the central practices of Hinduism. With the burning of the body and retiring of the ashes to the Ganges, life revolves to the four core elements of existence: fire, water, air and ether. Ether represents our consciousness and leaves the body headed to the next life during the cremation. Three hundred cremations happen every day on the banks of the Ganges.
Soon loud bells, placed high up near the lights, ring out from the stage in front of us. Seven priests step up onto the dais and began to chant and swing metal pots spewing incense. After about ten minutes, they change out the incense for very large containers lit with flaming embers. They swing these up and down, around and over their heads. It was clear why all of the priests are young men; I don’t think I could physically do what they are doing. At one point, a priest blows a conch shell the way the ram’s horn is blown in a Jewish service on a high holy day.
This service happens every day of the year at sundown. The cycle of life and death repeats. Babu sells postcards along with all the others who take their places in the drama. The cows lounge and swish their tails. The bodies of the dead are burned, and people dip themselves into the river to be close to God.
It’s surreal, yet I felt at ease. Although I don’t really understand the details of the religious ceremony, it makes sense. The throngs of people who come to the river are searching for God. In the midst of it all, I realize again that I can best find my way to God through the way I have been shown. Jesus is my way. And I must find how my life connects to God. My life in Memphis is where God is to be found for me.
Babu walks with us again after everything is over. We get to the taxis and someone in our group gives Babu 1,000 rupees, far more than he was asking for his cards. She tells him to spend it on his education. He is smart. Who knows what his future holds?
For that day, Babu helped us get through the maze, to experience what almost one billion people consider to be the holiest place on earth.