Spending time in Varanasi, a visit to Sisters of Charity, and the Krishnamurti Retreat Center

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January 30th 2008
Published: December 28th 2007
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12/28/07: Prior to leaving on this trip I wrote: Following my visit to Jaipur, I will fly back to Delhi to catch another flight to Varanasi. I am not sure what my adventure will entail while I am there, but it is a destination I have wanted to visit for some time. In addition to staying by one of the main Ghats, I will also be spending some time at the Krishnamurti Retreat Center. Varanasi is known as one of the top pilgrimage sites for Hindus, and is considered especially auspicious to die here (also to get married). The Holy River Mother Ganga (the Ganges) flows through here, encouraging rituals of all sorts (bathing, cremations, offerings, etc.). There is a pollution problem here for a variety of reasons, and the river is considered to be septic. But some organizations are doing their best to impact some change regarding this (the Sankat Mochan Foundation is one of these). While in Varanasi, I plan on trying to research an incident that happened this past November 2007. An elephant that has been kept by a private owner reportedly went crazy from its' captive existence and injured several people. Since beginning my research on elephant riding, the stories on the negative effects of animals living in captivity have been abundant, and are happening worldwide (including in the United States). If nothing else, being in Varanasi will be a chance for me to catch up on some reflective writing I am sure.

(More to come)...

Journal Entries: Saturday, 19 January 2008:
It feel homesick for the elephants in Jaipur and it has been very difficult for me to not want to spend more time with them, along with the staff of Help In Suffering. I have spent most of my day thinking about them, especially the two "sisters" I was able to spend so much quality time with. But, it was time for me to move on. I just arrived in Varanasi (The City of Shiva) and what an entrance. I think I know part of the reason for the bad chest cold I have—it may be dust induced asthma along with getting chilled. First impressions driving through town in the small congested streets was I don’t think I will be here for as long as I was thinking. In fact, what was I thinking?!! Well, I will give it a chance. After the Ganpati transport mini van could go no further on the congested streets, it was time to huff it with my backpack and lap top in tow for several blocks (dogging all sorts of things in the road—you can guess—there are quite a few dogs and cows here). All the while also dodging cars, rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles, the occasional cow and goat—it was a bit challenging and made me realize how difficult it will be to get out of here.

I am now nestled deep within the hub of activity. I don’t know if I will have the energy to do this three more times being that I am not feeling well (to/from the Krishnamurti Retreat Center which is on the other side of Varanasi from here) and then back to the airport. So, we will have to see how I feel by tomorrow so I can let everyone know. I may have seen enough of India this trip, and ready to try to return to Thailand early or do some other destination in India besides Varanasi. But, these are my first impressions. It hasn’t grown on me yet, as I thought it would. However, saying that, I have an awesome view out my double windows and a very simple (but great room). I couldn't ask for more. The great thing about being here is the action can come to me, and I am just a short distance from entering the main ghats though one of the narrow alley ways. Tomorrow, I will slowly get my bearings so I can start venturing it out. Now to compare the narrow alleys near the Smyle Inn in Delhi to this is now funny. Here there are narrow alleys, just room for two to pass (unless you do it India style, then the more the merrier!). I have a business card for Ganpati which will help me if I get lost, which will be a given. I am already lost. Well, I shall put in my ear plugs and take a little rest, as I let myself begin to settle in. So, Shiva here I am after all these years of trying to make it here. Om Shivaya Om.

Well, things are settling in a bit for me as I watched a night ceremony by one of the near ghats. I add some photos of my first night, with more to come over the next few days. I will see how I feel over the next few days and make plans accordingly.

Sunday, 20 January 2008: Okay, I will be staying the whole time in Varanasi as planned—Come what be. I dreamed that the Ganpati Guest House staff arranged for an elephant to transport me to the doctor for a check-up last night.... so I took it as a sign. I am still ill, so went to see a Varanasi doctor who has diagnosed me with a bad case of bronchitis, not pneumonia. It was an experience being charged 100 rupees (around $2.55 for an exam and consultation). His office was simple, in a dark alley, of course, and in a tiny office with a hard bench for the exam bed, other patients sitting waiting their turn, and no privacy. So much for JACHO here! He also prescribed 4 medications, including one antibiotic. He did not like the Cipro I brought with me, but the pharmacy (or “Medicine Shop”) was closed today, so I started my Cipro anyhow. I will see how I feel in three days to determine if I need to do anything differently. I am also drinking hot ginger/lemon/honey water whenever I get a chance to order some. All and all, on the health front, that is dealt with as much as I can.

So as for Varanasi—it is growing on me, and the once congested alleys don’t seem so intense anymore. I thought for sure I would get lost trying to get back from the clinic, but I somehow got my bearings pretty well. The people are very friendly. There are touts and beggars but I was expecting far worse, so this is pretty mild so far. I went out walking to explore the nearby ghats, and found myself at one of the burning ghats where five cremations were going on at the same time.

I was quite mesmerized by the experience of it all, and spent several hours of my day sitting, watching, or walking around this area. I will go to the other burning ghat tomorrow, which is the largest. The one I was at today welcomes anyone, the other strictly Hindus. I was eventually approached by a nice young man that I felt trusting of, even though generally I am pretty careful who I engage in lengthy conversations with. He explained a lot about the burning ritual, such as who is in attendance, who gets cremated, or put in the Ganges as a whole body (babies, pregnant women, Sadhus, those under age 12 years, and those with leprosy and small pox). For those who are poor and cannot afford wood, there is an electric crematorium as well. Although, there are many kind people who donate money for wood so that those who cannot afford a wood-cremation can still have one. That was nice to hear.

Surprising for me, I accepted an invitation to have an astrology and numerology reading. The young man I met is a student of the guru who did mine. He was an interesting man, including working as a banker for 23 years, and getting his college degree in Boston. For the past three years, he suddenly started writing books on astrology and doing readings here. It was an interesting experience, and I was glad I did it. Hey, I’m in Varanasi… stranger things can happen! I am not sure how to describe why I am now staying here, but it suddenly feels right. I am supposed to be here. I may join up with the young man I met today to visit the Shiva Temple, as that is something we share is common. Of all the Hindu Gods… Shiva is our favorite (but I also have a soft spot for the elephant-headed Genesha, of course!).

21 January 2008, Monday: Wow, another great day in Varanasi (even with my continued illness). I met up with Dilep (the young Indian man from yesterday), after spending time gazing at the burning ghat I visited yesterday. It was quite relaxing. I learned that at this ghat, 50-70 cremations go on every day! That explains the frequency of seeing so many funeral processions here. We went to the Monkey Temple, which also contains the Shiva Temple (lots of Shivalingas and statues of different deities). I had heard sometimes it is difficult for Westerners to visit here, but with Dilep who visits the temple frequently, nobody seemed to mind that I was also there.

Afterwards, Dilep asked me if I wanted to see the Sisters of Charity for the Destitute and Dying. Yes!!!!! I have wanted to go there for so long! Soon, I was greeted by one of the glowing nuns, who so kindly gave me a tour of the women’s section. All I can say is I was absolutely overcome with a feeling of such strong love. So many of the women greeted me with beautiful soul-gazing eyes, and sweet smiles. When I left, I felt surrounded by a loving aura. I would have to say this place is magical, and certainly a place of grace. Mother Theresa would certainly be proud of the work that has been carried on so compassionately. It made me think, “I could die here!” (No worries, not yet though—I intend to get over this cold!).

Afterwards, I spend some more time at the first burning ghat, then decided to check out the traditional “Hindu-Only” one. It certainly had a different energy, and I am sure they must be doing even more cremations daily then the first one. I saw at least 15 in progress during my visit. One thing that was also interesting is the way the body is burned is different at each of the ghats. At the first ghat, the body is nestled deep within the wood so you do not see much or any of it. However, at the second ghat the body is placed near the top with a small layer of wood to cover it. Here, after the cremation, the left over bones are visibly thrown into the river, and the hot embers of the previous fire go to help start the next. I had the thought come, “Now that’s intense” as I could see the legs, feet, and head of the body being cremated. It certainly makes one consider what is really going on with our bodies and souls. The body burns, but the soul remains, taking another form or entering Nirvana (or Heaven). All is impermanent—our young age, our appearance, our physical health, our dreams, worries, and ambitions, and then finally (if we live that long) even our old age that we may curse at times, and our old wrinkly bodies we must let go… Here it is so natural, so visible, nothing hidden… it makes one think of what is really important in life: It is really how have you lived? How have you loved? So simple: In the end—It is all that matters.

This evening, I logged onto the Krishnamurti Retreat Center website looking for a sign: being that I am still ill, should I alter my plans or should I carry on with my original reservation? I read the following quotes and knew it is where I need to be going next:

" That Reality is not to be bought, to be sold, to be repeated; it cannot be caught in books. It has to be found from moment to moment, in the smile, in the tear, under the dead leaf, in the vagrant thoughts, in the fullness of love."

"When the brain ceases to nourish itself through experience,memory and thought, when it dies to experiencing, then its activity is not self-centered. It then has its nourishment from elsewhere. It is this nourishment that makes the mind religious."

"...Stop being a member of some society. Stop being a Brahmin, a Hindu, a Christian, a Muslim. Stop your worship, rituals, take a complete retreat from all those and see what happens. In a retreat, do not plunge into something else, do not take some book and be absorbed in new knowledge and new acquisitions. Have a complete break with the past and see what happens... You will see vast expanses of love, understanding and freedom. When your heart is open, then reality can come. Then the whisperings of your own prejudices, your own noises, are not heard. That is why it is good to take a retreat, to go away and to stop the routine—not only the routine of outward existence but the routine which the mind establishes for its own safety and convenience."

"Try it, sirs, those who have the opportunity. Then perhaps you will know what is beyond recognition, what truth is which is not measured. Then you will find that God is not a thing to be experienced, to be recognized; but that God is something which comes to you without your invitation..."

--J. Krishnamurti

22 January 2008, Tuesday: Another great day in Varanasi. I do start my retreat tomorrow, but I will also be happy to return to the action of the main ghats. You just can’t go long without meeting someone new or seeing something unusual. Today, I spent time at the old burning ghat (my favorite one) and met up with Dilep for a short visit. I explored most of the other ghats today, or as many I could see today, but today was more of a settling and relaxing time for me. I would often stop and sit for long periods, as I would just lose myself in the action and scenes going on around me. After awhile, it all becomes the same. I am part of the scenery as much as anything else, and the dance of interacting is like being on a crowded dance floor—You never know who you will run into and if your paths will intertwine for a bit. Eye contact, smiles, frowns, sharing some humor beyond languages, and the kindness of strangers will always be remembered. For example, this evening, it got much later than I intended to be out, and had not brought my nightlight with me. My night vision is pretty poor, and there are lots of steps to maneuver here. Soon, I had two young girls (I had bought some bindi’s from them earlier) holding my hands walking me back to Ganpati. It was very sweet. I had lunch with a nice young man I met over at the Assi Ghat today, who explained the reason for so many boats tied up. There is a boater’s strike going on right now, which is why the boats aren’t going anywhere! I guess I was a bit slow to notice, but the scenes have been so peaceful with the boats in the water. But, it will save me the trouble of trying to arrange for a boat ride, because the strike is to protest the government now demanding 50 rupees per boat ride from the owners. This means half their normal profits per ride. The strike is expected for another week, but hopefully it will resolve before then as the boaters make no money during this time. Also, it would nice to take an early morning boat ride before I leave. However, it is good that they are striking, as financially a boat tax would be quite punitive, considering the poverty that is evident here. There have been lots of gatherings going on, with big speakers blasting chants and speeches, so it is nice to finally understand what is going on. I can now say, Varanasi has very much grown on me. Tomorrow morning, I will meet up with the young girls from this evening to walk to the main ghat. Afterwards, I want to spend some more time at the burning ghat before returning to Ganpati to retrieve my belongings, catch a rickshaw, and get settled into the retreat center. I am quite certain I will be off line for my four nights at the retreat, but will be returning to Ganpati mostly likely five days from now. So… signing off from Varanasi for now!

[So, what happened on 23 January?: For those who are interested on how it went with the two "good samaritan" girls who met me the morning prior to my departure to the retreat center... well, I was soon mysteriously charmed by my own love of elephants, and ended up at one of their many "uncle's" astrology shops. Before I knew it, I was much poorer and left a bit dazed. For some reason, this astrologer used the time and place of my birth based on me being born in India. So, I suddenly had a different moon sign, and several characteristics to now try to reconcile, as to whether there was any truth in what I was being told, if it fit at all; versus (again, something that comes up a lot for me) trusting my own authority. So I entered the retreat, with some emotional fuel, a challenge my mind loves to chew on. It was interesting, I was supposed to return to get the rest of the reading and pay more money, of course; but I never returned... and I have no regrets. I felt as though I paid for a little life lesson, to not be wooed just because someone in a position of perceived authority is saying something. While it is fine to listen and see what fits, it is most important to rely on our own intuition to guide us... But, it was another unique and random Indian Experience, indeed!]

25 January, 2008, Friday: It has been an interesting few days at the Krishnamurti Retreat Center (also known as the Rajghat Study Center) here in Varanasi. The people have been wonderful, and the other guests gems. I attended a formal discussion group last evening, several informal ones, have watched a Krishnamurti video, and today went on two great walks with a new friend, Lynn from America. Lynn has lived in India for 26 years, leaving her life as a social worker many years ago. We shared two long walks and many talks over the past few days, including one part way to Sarnath. It was interesting hearing her experiences with following many gurus during her time in India, and how the teachings of J. Krishnamurti has touched her heart of knowing. Many discussions here are about finding the guru within or trusting one’s own authority, ending the path of spiritual seeking outside from oneself, as well as the nature of reality, mind, spiritual experiences, and delusion. However, it is not all serious here, this is a place of light-heartedness and good humor, where spiritual seeking is viewed in a quite natural, healthy, and balanced manner.

I checked out a few short books by J. Krishnamurti: This Light in Oneself, and The Flight of the Eagle. Both are quick reads and a good introduction into the philosophy of the teachings. I especially was drawn to a passage in The Flight of the Eagle, “…We want to hold on to the things we know. And with all that we want to take a journey. Have you ever climbed a mountain? The more you are burdened the more difficult it is. Even to go up these little hills is quite difficult if you carry a burden. And if you climb a mountain you have to
Shiva in the NightShiva in the NightShiva in the Night

Where in the world this statue is now, I have not been able to find during my walks during the day. It was by accident that I even captured it in this picture, because I never saw it that night either.
be much freer. I really don’t know what the difficulty is. We want to carry with us everything we know—the insults, the resistances, the stupidities, the delights, the exaltations, everything we have had. When you say, ‘I’m going to take a journey carrying all that’, you are taking a journey somewhere else, not into that which you are carrying. Therefore your journey is in imagination, in unreality. But take a journey into the things which you are carrying, the known—not into the unknown—into what you already know: your pleasures, your delights, your despairs, your sorrows. Take a journey into that, that is all you have. You say, ‘I want to take a journey with all that into the unknown and add the unknown to it, add other delights, other pleasures.’ Or it may be so dangerous that you say, ‘I don’t want to.’ J. Krishamurti, 1969

The peaceful flower-filled grounds here, and the pristine views of the holy river Ganges is amazing here, in fact I have decided to spend my remaining time here at the retreat center. I will be canceling my remaining two nights at Ganpati Guest House, and the high energy of the ghats for more peace and solitude here. Yes, it would be nice to spend more time at the burning ghats, and to take a boat ride (the strike is now over), but being here is worth giving up those few additional pleasures. I will search out an internet café in the next town a few times before I leave, and enjoy this time of relaxation here. I am feeling gradually better, but still have the respiratory illness, so this is another reason for my decision. Being able to breathe fresh air is something I want to hold onto as long as I can. I have been invited to join in on a walk from Varanasi to Sarnath—it is the route that the Buddha is said to have walked, so we will be walking in the footsteps of the Buddha! Sarnath, for those unaware, is where the Buddha reportedly gave his first teaching following him becoming enlightened in Bodhygaya under the Bodhi Tree. I am quite excited about doing the walk to Sarnath, as this is something I had thought about doing but wasn’t sure if I would be able, or if it would be too far from here by foot. So this will be my final entry from Varanasi (however I will plan on adding in some more photos of the Krishnamurti Retreat Center and Sarnath when I am able). I will leave on Wednesday, the 29th to Delhi, then fly out to Thailand early the next morning where the final segment of this journey will begin. Ommmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm. Namaste’

29th January 2008: Tuesday. My time here in Varanasi has been very good and memorable. I will especially remember the wondrous walk from the Krishnamurti Retreat Center to Sarnath. It was as though we continued to walk deeper into the unknown, as the fog surrounded us from all sides. As one would look back, it was though the darkness and mysteriousness of the unknown had swallowed us into it. The new friends I have met at the retreat center will also be especially remembered (Lynn, Michael, Kevin, and Mukesh to name a few). I will also forever remember the boat ride of last evening. The later it got, the water became surreal with a lucid milkiness. As a few lone boats would appear, they would come out of the darkness of creation, to then fade back into the unknown. Yet, I knew our boat appeared and disappeared in the same way. The beauty and magic of the light reflecting on the water can only be imagined, as the setting sun disappeared leaving a glow on the horizon. After this, what light there was came from the city lights, the candles that would burn in little flower cups set upon the water, or from the burning ghats that exploded with sparks and flames. The “spiritual” or real life talks were wonderful and thought-provoking, as I was left to consider what I create versus allow to unfold in myself through a process of negation. Difficult to express in words, but there has been a deepening insight into the mysterious movement of creation. I leave this retreat, feeling as though I touched upon a deeper understanding into the flow of life, and how the life of planning and maneuvering within the mind’s limited knowing perpetuates the movement away from the divine disclosure of divine, or unknown. Yet, it has also been a time of seeing into the passage of what is known—the multiplicity of experiences, feelings, and emotions that make us human—as to journey into the unknown is only possible when fully experiencing what is first
Snake CharmerSnake CharmerSnake Charmer

No, I never gave this guy any money but could see him working from my balcony. Poor snake. I will hope he gets free someday soon.
known (our egoic limitations, our fears, our needs, our wants, our hopes, our resistances). It is through this seeing, that a marvelous cleansing and purification can happen—Then there is a taste of freedom of “what truly is” without our thoughts quickly coming in to interpret, plan a new way of achieving what we believe we now need, or trying to own or hold onto what is being revealed. I believe the seeds of this retreat will continue to grow within me, so I have no more words to express that which I have been given. I can only say I have been given the gift of freedom—to begin fresh and anew, without needing to complete past goals or things I “should”. The direction of my life will be revealed through the process of creation, death, and life—the same teachers that were abundant in the daily sights here in Varanasi. In these, I feel more fully alive and attune to the mysterious calling that brought me here in the first place. Ommmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

So, I leave Varanasi and will begin another journey now in Thailand. It is a crossing over time, and I am only along for the ride. Namaste’ and goodbye from India.

One additional comment: I asked around to see if anyone was aware of the elephant that reportedly went '"crazy" in Varanasi in November 2007. I never met anyone who could speak to this, although many agreed that the elephants that are kept for temple and wedding processions are not exercised or cared for very well.

Also please visit my website @ www.animaldreamers.org

Additional photos below
Photos: 62, Displayed: 40


Temple near Sisters of CharityTemple near Sisters of Charity
Temple near Sisters of Charity

No photos allowed of the front of the building, as to honor those who live there. Visiting the Sisters of Charity will remain as one of my top experiences during my time in Varanasi.
Cricket in VaranasiCricket in Varanasi
Cricket in Varanasi

Work hard, play hard.

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