Published: August 7th 2007March 16th 2007 "India is, the cradle of the human race, the birthplace of human speech, the mother of history, the grandmother of legend, and the great grand mother of tradition. Our most valuable and most instructive materials in the history of man are treasured up in India only."
Dasaswamedh ghat-- the main ghat
It's the most hectic and crowded of all the ghats
Being that India invented/founded/developed the number & decimal system; Algebra, trigonometry and calculus (yuck); Sanskrit (the mother of all the western languages); chess; and Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, & Sikhism, I would say that Twain was pretty on the ball with his comment. India is really a living history...crazy, frustrating and intense, but it's an amaz~ing place.
"To enjoy India, you must not think," was what my guest house manager said to me when I first arrived into Varanasi, and after three weeks of being here, I can say that those words sum up how one can enjoy India without losing ones mind! He’s already ripped me off three times, but I have to “not think” about it, or I would go nuts! You can’t question things here.. you just have to accept that that’s the way it is, even if it makes no sense at all. India is really like another
planet, and I'm so intrigued and hungry to get a taste of this amazingly intense, spiritual, contradictory and overwhelming country. Despite the modernization and the western standard of living, which plagues all developing countries, it's amazing to see living and preserved history. I'm sure the influx of tourism over the decades did more than its share of damage, but the culture and traditions seem to have survived.
I have to share my first "scam" story. I had read all over the LP guide that in India, touts will lie and say that the guest house you plan on going to is full/ burnt down/ rat infested/ etc, in order to get you to come to another guest house, where they will get a heafty commission. Knowing this, at the Nepal/India border, I had a guy call and make a reservation... and the person on the line said, "Hello?" Me: "Is this Hotel Alka?" Him: "Yes." "Do you have rooms available?" "No." "Ok, thanks." So I believed him, and said, "Ok, let's try Schindhia Guesthouse," and the guy "helping" me said, "I'll book it for you." But it turned out that he booked me at another guesthouse (Sandhya), and I
had no choice but to go b/c I paid a deposit on it already. Also, when I checked out of the guesthouse after 3 nights, I forgot I had paid the deposit, and paid it all! I'm such a fool!!!!! Anyhow, this guesthouse (Rs150~200) was ok, and the bonus was the balcony, rooftop restaurant and view, and its distance from the ghats made it peaceful. [The second place I stayed at in Varanasi, after the Vipassana course, was called Seti Guesthouse (Rs200 for balcony room with Ganga view), which I would recommend for its views of all the action along the ghat… although the fact that it’s next to the river means…bugs!!! And lots of it].
So much has happened since I crossed the border and I don't even know where to start!
India is broken up into states, like the U.S., so the planning for where to visit and such is quite an undertaking, so naturally, I left it to the last minute! But now that I've gotten familiar with the states, there are TOO many places I want to visit, but not enough time. Someone said to me, "When you come to India, you just have
to accept the fact that you can't so it all in one visit." So I've decided to focus on central and northern India, and one getaway towards western India to go to the beaches. That is a must! Varanasi (Benares)
I'm in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which is home to Varanasi, the oldest, most spiritual, and holiest city-- namely because of the holy Ganges (Ganga) River. [Random fun fact: Norah Jones' dad is a famous sitar player from Varanasi and he was the one who inspired George Harrison to experiment with the sitar, which later was incorporated into several Beatles songs. Cool!].
I left Pokhara on a local overnight bus, which I hope I never have to do again. I arrived at Sanuli (border town) around 5 a.m., and I got off the bus to pitch black darkness, and rickshaw drivers simultaneously asking if I need a rickshaw. Scar~y. Thankfully, there was one other traveler, and we shared a rickshaw together. It was such a relief, because to get to the actual border, it was a short distance off-- but in empty, foggy darkness. At the border, we were approached by a man who said the
bus would take 9 hrs but he can take us in his car in 5 hours. So for Rs200/$5 extra from a bus ticket (Rs300/$7.50), we agreed and shared the ride with two other Germans. Well, surprise surprise, the ride took us 5 hrs + 3 hrs= 8 hrs. Ha! That's India for you.
The next day (and most of the days I've been here), I walked along the sacred Ganga. People come here to get cremated, or have their ashes brought here, and then have their ashes immersed into the Ganga. George Harrison did it when he died. There are ghats along the river, and ghats are like stairs that lead into a river. The ghats are all connected, and there are 80+ ghats in all, and each one varies in function and purpose. Like some are for bathing, some are for washing clothes, some are for cremations, and some are for religious rituals...all of this is done along the same river! So get a better understanding of the city and along the Ganga, I'll paint a picture of daily things I've seen here:
::i:: near Shivala ghat, they bathe water buffalos (in this particular area, there
is SO much cow sh!t... along the dirt, stairs and walkway. You have to have your eyes wide open, or your shoes are in for a surprise. Particularly dangerous at night, when the lightening is real weak! Don't get me started on the smell!)
::ii:: a few ghats away there is a laundry washing section. Although they do laundry all along the ghats, this one area is particularly populated with laundry (which is why you are NEVER to get your clothes laundry-serviced here... they will likely wash it in the Ganges, which means your clothes will be worse off than before the washing! Unfortunately, I fell for the "Laundry service anytime! No Ganges wash!" sign posted in my guest house and sent 5 items to get washed... uh, needless to say, the stains were still on there, there were new mysterious stains, it smelled worse, and in the end, I had to rewash them all);
::iii:: a few ghats away they are doing the cremation ceremony (it's such a powerful thing to watch. The bodies are wrapped and then dipped in the Ganges, then the wood is placed and the burning ceremony begins. It's weird watching it, and seeing the
body burn. Also, children are not cremated, but the wrapped bodies are just dumped into the river. During a morning boat ride, I saw one body of a child and I felt so sick and uncomfortable inside being so close and confronted by death)
::iv:: all along the ghats, there are bathers, who dip in the water for a wash (but like the clothes washing, I wonder if they are better off not bathing! No, but for reals, it's for religious reasons where they clean their sins, not so much the body. Most Hindus come to dip in the Ganga at least once in their lives. Also, this bathing ritual makes for an interesting scene, and I now have no qualms about nudity in any sense. I saw it so openly everyday, and so it's lost its shock factor)
::v:: there are religious ceremonies all along the ghat, which makes for a powerful and intense experience. It's so spiritual here and you can feel it everywhere.
::vi:: there are SO MANY dogs, goats, cows roaming all over the ghats, the little alley roads that intertwine behind the ghats and the streets of Varanasi. I've also seen donkeys and monkeys. It's
This is the trash system in Varanasi...
the cows eat it. I even once saw a goat eat a cigarette butt!!!
like a zoo! They are everywhere (and so is their poop)! My nose is immune to these smells now b/c it lingers 24/7 here. The interesting thing about the dogs is that during the day, they are just zonked out. Passed out anywhere, sleeping here and there (even in the middle of the street-- I wonder how they are not getting run over. I guess it's an unwritten law here). But then... at night time, that's when the dogs come alive. Sort of like vampires or something. You hear howling, barking, this, that... it's like the dogs and the Indians have an agreement-- in the day time, you act crazy, and at night time, we act crazy. It's absolutely incredible!
Anyhow, I arrived to Varansi two days before Holi, which is a crazy celebration with drugs (bang lassi- herb induced yogurt shakes), alcohol, and color. Yea, color. Where they splash colored water on you, which permanently stains your clothes, and people have water and powder fights. It's just complete chaos here. Little kids were telling me to stay in for the festival because according to one girl, the men "drink too much and do bad things." Our guest house
actually locked us all in, probably because of the danger factor for foreigners. Anyhow, during the morning festival, while the streets were in total chaos, I was having a nice breakfast on the guesthouses' rooftop restaurant, and met an Israeli named Michael, who's an architect in South Africa. He mentioned that he was going for a 10-day meditation course the next day and suggested I check it out too. It was at Sarnath, a Buddhism-influenced town on the outskirts of Varanasi (Buddha gave his first sermon here after he reached enlightenment at Bodhgaya, 300km from here). On a whim, I agreed to go, and the next day, I was off for Vipassana Meditation
! Vipassana Meditation at Sarnath
Imagine 10 days of no communication. That includes talking, reading, writing, eye contact and touching. It's 10 days dedicated to strip yourself of the conditioning you've received all your life, of what is happiness and what is pain, in order to end suffering and to purify your mind. If you imagine it to be intense and difficult, well, it is, times 10! At times, you feel like you're in a mental institute (no one talks; just sits there or walks around
aimlessly), but then other times, it feels like a prison (strict time schedule; walled compounds; bell ring to inform of the next task). I thought many times during the course, to run out of the meditation hall screaming like a madwoman, but I stuck with it because I knew that in the end, I would not be worse off than I am. I knew there would be some sort of positive change in me... that's why I agreed to go with Michael. Now, after I've lived, suffered and benefitted from it, I am in huge debt to Michael for introducing me to this wonderful technique of living.
Vipassana is a method that eradicates (if properly applied) the three causes of life's unhappiness, which in a nutshell is craving, aversion and ignorance. This technique of self-transformation through self-observation was the same as the one Buddha used to reach enlightenment, and has been taught for over 2,500 years, so there is huge credibility to this method. Also, the whole program is free and only runs on donations (bonus credibility-points).
Well, during the 10-day residental course (actually it's 12 days total), we not only do we have noble silence (silence of
Dhamma meditation hall
where I spent over 100 hours of the 10-day program.
body, speech, and mind), but there are five rules to abide by:
::1:: to abstain from stealing (I can only think this would cross one's mind over food. the dinner here is rice puffs, so you can get pretty hungry at night... and so you start flirting with the idea to pluck a papaya off the papaya trees tempting you)
::2:: to abstain from killing any living creature (sounds easy, right? NO! I killed three times during this course... two mosquitos and a daddy longleg spider. It felt so wrong, yet SO GOOD! I once saw a huge mosquito during dinner, and thought, "Don't kill. It's a living thing, blah blah blah. Just enjoy the rice puffs." Well, a minute later, I had the most horrendous bite on my calf, that lasted a whole week!F@ck, I knew I should have squashed it!)
::3:: to abstain from all sexual activity (um... ok. This is the last thing on your mind. Really; even for the biggest horndogs, I think. There are other things you crave more... like chocolate)
::4:: to abstain from telling lies (Ok, Ok, OKAY! You got me. I said good night to my roommate two times during noble
Anna and the other students
outside the Female Residence Hall. This was after our last meditation, when Noble Silence ended and we were free to communicate
silence! And I wrote something in my notebook so I wouldn't forget later)
::5:: to abstain from all intoxicants (cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, etc.)
I didn't know much about Vipassana prior to arriving. Actually I checked online an hour before I went, and learned the rules, and thought, "Oh my gosh, what am I getting myself into?" When I arrived at the center and saw the rules and schedule, I thought, "Oh CRAP! WHAT WAS I F-in THINKING?!?!?!" 4:00 a.m.---------------------Morning wake-up bell
4:30-6:30 a.m.----------------Meditate in the hall or in your room
6:30-8:00 a.m.----------------Breakfast break
8:00-9:00 a.m.----------------Group meditation in the hall
9:00-11:00 a.m.---------------Meditate in the hall or in your room
11:00-12:00 noon--------------Lunch break
12noon-1:00 p.m.--------------Rest and interviews with the teacher
1:00-2:30 p.m.----------------Meditate in the hall or in your room
2:30-3:30 p.m.----------------Group meditation in the hall
3:30-5:00 p.m.----------------Meditate in the hall or in your own room
5:00-6:00 p.m.----------------Tea break
6:00-7:00 p.m.----------------Group meditation in the hall
7:00-8:15 p.m.----------------Teacher's Discourse in the hall
8:15-9:00 p.m.----------------Group meditation in the hall
9:00-9:30 p.m.----------------Question time in the hall
9:30 p.m.---------------------Retire to your own room--Lights out
Pretty much, we meditate for 10 hours a day, and it's not only mentally and emotionally draining...draining on your
body, sitting in that position for a total of 100 hours!
Since I was hardly aware of the whole process and technique, the first three days were pure torture... all we did was breathe in, and breathe out, while concentrating on the senses of what was happening around the nose. I'm thinking, "This is bull sh!t! What the hell is this?" But then on day 4, we learn the Vipassana technique, and that was when the real stuff began; the changes from the inside. My explanation of it won't do justice; it's something that you have to sit through and experience. Alanis Morissette wrote Thank You
after she finished Vipassana, so if you're curious about how she felt, check the lyrics here
. Anyhow, after the whole course, I am left with three thoughts:
1) Everything in life is impermanent. Anything that comes into being, will leave it as well, whether it is a living (ie. people, pets) or nonliving (ie. money, success) thing. So don't grow attachment to things. Also, because things in life are not permanent, even suffering is impermanent. If something negative happens, it will soon pass. Everything in life will come and go... nothing is
owed to us, so we can't expect those things, or be disappointed when we don't get it.
2) Look at life how it is, for the present moment that it is, not what you want it to be or wish it was... the present time is the only reality of life. So we shouldn't have cravings or desire for things, but just confront and enjoy what we have now.
3) I will do Vipassana again when I return to California!
I will end this blog as Goenka (the teacher of Vipassana meditation) ended his discourse each night: "May you all experience this ultimate truth. May all people come out of their defilements, their misery. May they enjoy real happiness, real peace, real harmony.
MAY ALL BEINGS BE HAPPY" :)
To anyone who is interested, here is a blurb from the website (Also there are locations all over the world, so you can find one possibly near where you live): Out of ignorance, one keeps reacting in a way which is harmful to oneself and to others. But when wisdom arises--the wisdom of observing the reality as it is--one come out of this
habit of reaction. When one ceases to react blindly, then one is capable of real action--action proceeding from a balanced mind, a mind which sees and understands the truth. Such action can only be positive, creative, helpful to oneself and to others.
aloo (potato)... soooo good.
This direct experience of one's own reality, this techniques of self-observation, is what is called 'Vipassana' meditation. In the language of India in the time of the Buddha, passana meant seeing with open eyes, in the ordinary way; but Vipassana is observing things as they really are, not just as they seem to be. Apparent truth has to be penetrated, until one reaches the ultimate truth of the entire mental and physical structure. When one experiences this truth, then one learns to stop reacting blindly, to stop creating defilements--and naturally the old defilements gradually are eradicated. One come out of all the misery and experiences happiness.
There are three steps to the training which is given in a Vipassana meditation course Firstly, one must abstain from any action, physical or vocal, which disturbs the peace and harmony of others. One cannot work to liberate oneself from defilements in the mind while at the same time one
continues to perform deeds of body and speech which only multiply those defilements. Therefore, a code of morality is the essential first step of the practice. One undertakes not to kill, not to steal, not to commit sexual misconduct, not to tell lies, and not to use intoxicants. By abstaining from such action, one allows the mind to quiet down sufficiently so that it can proceed with the task at hand.
The next step is to develop some mastery over this wild mind, by training it to remain fixed on a single object: the breath. One tries to keep one's attention for as long as possible on the respiration. This is not a breathing exercise: one does not regulate the breath. Instead one observes natural respiration as it is, as it comes in, as it goes out. In this way one further calms the mind so that it is no longer overpowered by violent negativities. At the same time, one is concentrating the mind, making it sharp and penetrating, capable of the work of insight.
These first two steps of living a moral life and controlling the mind are very necessary and beneficial in themselves; but they will
lead to self-repression, unless one takes the third step - purifying the mind of defilements by developing insight into one's own nature. This is Vipassana: experiencing one's own reality, by the systematic and dispassionate observation of the ever-changing mind-matter phenomenon manifesting itself as sensation within oneself. This is the culmination of the teaching of the Buddha: self-purification by self-observation.
along the Ganga
There are more photos below