The flames from more than a dozen public cremations crackle and lick from the terrace above. Below the sides of the pagoda at the ghats, steps leading to the River Ganga below, are a dozen more. It’s evening, and I can see the bright red and orange from the flames as they envelope the corpses. Families stand near the flames watching their loved ones become bone and then ash. A boy, barely a teenager, lifts a skull from a corpse, pours ghee and sends it back to the furnace to split open. Others like him build more pyres to receive the limp bodies freshly dipped in the Ganga. Cows and goats wander around seemingly oblivious. Figures go in and out from the small structure, Lord Shiva’s temple, adjacent to me. Landward, three hospices where the old and sick come to wait death loom eerily over the scene. Being burned here grants liberation from life and death, and the fire has been burning for at least 3,000 years. Time makes a seal on all things; ash stains, dented iron, broken steps, hollow buildings. Decay is everywhere, but this place is defined by activity.
I sit here in the small pagoda in the middle of the pyres of Marnakarnika ghat ("the burning ghat") on this night of the Durga Puja festival. Cremations occur 24/7, but tonight every pyre is ablaze. I guess I can best explain what I’m seeing as having the hallucinatory quality of a dream but with cinematic clarity. Yet by far the biggest contrast and the most delightfully shocking observation is the man sitting across from me.
Among the smoke this sadhu, holy man, is beaming as he speaks. He is vivid and alive; his whole being is in love. That smile alone clears all doubts that this is a blessed place. Jayshree and I can’t believe the words, half in Hindi and half in near perfect English, infinitely flowing slowly out of this man. He speaks of God in you and me, the God that is the universe, of the duty of the living, and of finding purpose. He speaks of asking ourselves, “Who am I?” and answering with the opportunities of life and death and boundless energy. The sadhu uses anecdotes from his own life as a wanderer in search of himself. Here at Manikarnika—may I dare to invoke the similarities to hell— he is full of life. His attention to those around him, his appreciation of existence, is something I can only take as example. He is happiness like I have never seen it.
Smoke and ash from the pyres are blown in our direction like nuclear fallout. It lands on my sticky skin primed by 90 degree temperatures, humidity, and the additional raging heat of cremation fires. I speak through the balled up shirt covering my face, but the sadhu appears completely unaffected. He smiles on, chatting merrily. His words are genuine. To be honest, much of it is common sense. But, rarely do people talk common sense these days. To find it here among death is pure irony.
I’d be lying if I said part of what drew me to Varanasi was not dark tourism. I frequented the burning ghats everyday hoping to see an Agori monk. The Agori are known to eat human flesh and feces to put into practice the philosophy that everything is holy and should be treated as such. I wasn’t sure what I would do if I saw one or what could come of it. I met Jayshree and Gourav, who admitted that seeing the cannibalistic monks was why he was here in Varanasi. We found a temple dedicated to a late Agori baba. Seeing no monks, we found a disciple. We asked where we could find some of the living Agori. His response was poetic. Simply put the disciple said he didn’t know. Many are off meditating alone for years at a time. When they are out, it’s because the Agori are on a mission to do good, and when you are on a mission, you don’t explain, you just go and do. In some ways, my attempts to meet an Agori were failures, but it was clear that there is so much more to the Agori than internet clickbait. It’s even more clear that what I’ve discovered for myself is at least up to par with what an Agori monk could possibly bestow upon me.
I’ve been churning thoughts in my head, bound to the brain and the way it constantly needs to process signals. I met Riahab when I was out people watching at the Ganga. He was heading to an ashram to do some meditation and invited me along. I was hesitant, but he promised there would be free food in a few hours. The ashram was the family shrine and meditation center of Shri Lahiri Mahasaya, a well known guru and teacher of the Kriya yoga path of meditation. I tried to meditate and failed multiple times in the hour. I’ve never meditated before, nor did I come to India to meditate! Maybe that was naive, because the theory of meditation as described by the late guru and now explained by Riahab was the first time the world I’ve been privy to in India had words. I found, a few nights later, the same concepts being repeated by the sadhu at Manikarnika Ghat.
Varanasi is fanatical about death; the publicity and spectacle of it here on the Ganga, a river that is essentially an open sewer. But this place is also equally fanatical about life. It’s unmistakable. It has drawn millions of living to its waters through the centuries to wash away a lifetime of sin. This is a reflecting place, a contemplative place, and a meditative place. It’s to consider that all that exists, clean or unclean and tainted or pure, are perceptions. Interestingly enough, people here seem to believe that God is simply an idol, a placeholder, for an idea; just a way for people to focus on something less abstract than all the forms in all the universe.
Of course, this is how my last days in India unfold. Anything other than how it’s described precisely here along the river has been ineffectual. Walking through the streets or looking out the windows of buses and trains, it’s impossible not to consider existence. I return to Manikarnika Ghat one last time on the morning of my last day in Varanasi hoping to see the sadhu again. He is nowhere to be found. I wait in the pagoda where an aging man in white rags now sits resting. He and his family have tended to the cremations for countless generations making them a sect of “untouchable.” Familiar with tourists, he speaks enough English. I ask where I can find the sadhu who was sitting here last night.
He matter-of-factly replies with something along the lines of “Anywhere. He is off wandering.”