It is impossible not to feel the sense of reverence and deep, deep faith that people carry when they visit Benaras. It was palpable from the very first time we ventured out on day 1. While faith may be a singular word to describe what I saw, I saw it in many shapes and forms.
It was overwhelming to see how the city attracts all kinds of people, in an array of sizes and colours, from across the world, expressing their reverence in a host of different ways. Whether it was the solitary white man doing his early morning yoga, or the group of Naga babas offering their hawan at sundown hidden in a haze of what was clearly a chillum of hash, or just the blind way in which hoards of people thought nothing of throwing themselves into a veritably, visibly filthy river, or the literal gazillion people-strong crowd that was ballooning over the hour-long evening Ganga-aarti, clapping in unison with the bells and bellowing conches.
It was quite a rousing experience. To witness all of this in the matter-of-fact landscape of a religious place that somehow is the leveller that we expect it to be was humbling.
I witnessed the celebration of birth, or marriage taking place alongside the mourning of death. I saw white people filled with a genuine curiosity and reverence for soaking up the exotic edge they make of our culture, alongside boat-loads of Chinese tourists who didn’t bat an eyelid before collectively pointing all their cameras at the massive funeral pyres along Manikarnika ghat. There was a fancy cruise-liner like fancy boat that floated by the scores of humble hand-rowed small boats and the both co-exist in peace. There was as much a sense of spectacular outpouring of faith that gave me goosebumps as there was a little bit of the inevitable gross display of commercialism that preys off of religion. There was immense offering of gratitude, love and joy in the backdrop of such a filthy city.
The paradoxes were confusing, but also awe-inspiring, because they were just so reminiscent of how the nebulous idea of faith and whatever we make of it is beyond anything we can touch or tame.
I feel really grateful for the opportunity to witness something so far out from the limited purview of my world and beliefs I hold. Faith and belief are very different things for me, as a strictly non-religious believer. It can get very comfortable and dangerously limiting to have a unidimensional view like mine, in the absence of exposure to other opinions and realities. My time in Benaras really shook the ground beneath the foundation of my current thoughts about faith, especially in the context of a country that’s growingly religiously fundamental. I’m glad for the wake-up call to re-assess where I stand. I’m grateful for the opportunity to view what faith looks like for people in worlds so different from my own. To witness what it must be like to surrender faith and suspend belief to this extent, to give in blindly to something beyond oneself.
Looking at Benaras through the lens of faith really brought home the immense polarity and duality in our world. This rock that floats in the expanse of nothingness is a simultaneously harsh and gentle place. It is equal parts enraging and inspiring. It holds its fair share of maddening, infuriating truths, as it does moments of tenderness and beauty. All of that sat front and centre, quickly in just a few days. Seeing up close and personal, the deeply emotional cycle of birth, life, celebration and degradation, and eventually death, held up against a vividly unemotional canvas, I felt a resonance and a renewed definition of being in agreement with life and all that comes with it.
The last thing I expected this trip away to do was send me down an inconclusive, meandering path, thinking. This was a trio unlike many others we have taken, for various reasons but I think VC described it the best yesterday: this was a trip that demanded some soul searching out of us.
It was so refreshing. So unexpected. And for that, it will be unforgettable.