Varanasi, India A Lesson in Karma

Yesterday was one of those days that deserves its own entry.

After spending the afternoon catching up on email and writing that last post on a dingy old computer powered by a car battery, I walked back to the hotel to meet up with Tom for a late lunch. We commiserated on the intense heat outside and our shared revulsion at the town of Veranasi in general. Nevertheless, here we were on the banks of the Ganges River. We had just over a day to kill and this would certainly be our only chance in life to experience what is undeniably a fascinating place, so we decided to check out of our hotel near the train station and make the journey into the heart of the Old City.

The auto-rickshaw driver took us as far as he was allowed to go. The roads become extremely dense near the center, and no powered vehicle larger than a motorbike is permitted inside. We walked the rest of the way to the hotel we’d picked out in advance. While many friendly strangers were eager to tell us about the wonders of other nearby hotels, we kept our heads down and found the place without any serious hassles.

It’s amazing how exhausting it can be in India to do something as simple as hopping in a cab and checking into a different hotel. By the time we’d dropped our bags and flopped down on our beds, Tom and I had each lost about a liter of sweat and a gallon of patience and were ready to call it a day.

We recharged with an episode of West Wing, then decided to forge onward toward the belly of the beast – the river itself.

The Ganges River is one of the holiest sites in the Hindu religion. Bathing in its water is said to wash away all sins, which is why something like 400 gazillion people come here to do it every day. Unfortunately, bathing in the Ganges is counterproductive for all non-spiritual sanitary purposes, as there are thirty sewers emptying directly into it. For water to be suitable for bathing, it must contain fewer than 5000 fecal coliform bacteria per liter. A liter of Ganges water has 15,000,000. The water is literally septic; no dissolved oxygen exists.

To make matters worse, the river is an integral part of burial practices, and an enormous number of people come here to dispose of their dead. The bodies are carried down to the river, doused with its water, then cremated along its banks. I’m a little fuzzy on the details of this next part, but if I understand correctly, there are also five categories of dead people who are simply cast into the river without cremation. These categories are: pregnant mothers, children, holy men, people killed by snake bites, and my personal favorite – victims of small pox. Let’s assume that last one doesn’t happen very often these days. Regardless, it’s apparently not uncommon to see rotting corpses floating
downstream amidst the chunks of raw sewage.

Did I mention people bathe here?

Another interesting aspect to Veranasi is that dying here offers guaranteed Moksha; release from the cycle of birth and death, or in Buddhist terms, Nirvana. For this reason, old people flock to the city en masse to wait out their remaining days until they finally kick the bucket. This seemed like a bizarre practice to Tom and I until we realized that we have something very similar in America. We call it Florida.

So we walked down to the river and stopped at the first of many Ghats. I’m unclear on what exactly a Ghat is, but it seems to basically be a big open space where people congregate, with stairs leading down into the river for bathing. The place was the usual rigmarole of obnoxious touts and unspeakably tragic cripples begging for cash. Despite that, it was also powerfully beautiful.

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There’s no denying it. Somewhere beneath all the knuckleheaded religious nonsense, there’s something deeply affecting about what goes on here. The search for absolution, the act of cleansing away sins, the process of death and all its hidden rituals. It’s heavy stuff.

And then there’s also plenty of monkeys running around. You know, for kids.

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The cows are out in force too, and so is their shit. It’s all over the place. People even collect it and dry it in the sun for use as kindling in funeral pyres, cause it’s a lot cheaper than wood.

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Okay, this next part is a story, and while it may be kind of longish, I encourage you to read the whole thing without skimming. It pays off.

We walked down the river a ways until we reached the main Burning Ghat. This is where the bulk of the cremations are done. No pictures are allowed in the area, but it’s all happening right out in plain view. Several fires are burning, each for a different category of corpse: young, old, male, female, and so on. The bodies are wrapped in cloth, so it’s not quite a backyard barbeque, but they are doing wha t it looks like they’re doing and it’s most definitely for real.

Tom and I were both a little stunned and docile, so we sort of followed whoever was there to point us in any direction. We were led into a building and taken up a staircase to where a balcony overlooked the proceedings. A man was there, and he began telling us about what was going on. This is where I picked up the details about the five categories that don’t get cremated and a few other interesting tidbits, but it was all kind of sketchy and I was too stunned to really absorb it.

The man explained that the building we were in was where the widows live while they’re waiting to die. Their husbands are gone, so they have no use in society, and their children either don’t care about them or are too poor to be able to. We looked around and saw a couple of sad old ladies sitting on the floor nearby. They had that unmistakable look on their faces that I recognized from my one day of working as a temp – they were most definitely waiting to die.

The man went on for a while about karma. He explained that a lot of people here would pester us for money, and it is very bad for their karma to do such a thing in a place like this. He was there simply to teach people about what went on here, which would help his karma and improve his standing in his next life. "Cars, houses, clothes, jewelry, these things you can’t take with you," he explained. "Karma is the only thing that remains."

Then, of course, he hit us up for money. He signaled to one of the old ladies, who dutifully ran over with her hands cupped, waiting for the cash to roll in.

The whole thing was a racket. There’s no doubt about that. And it was a particularly infuriating racket for being so goddam brazen and manipulative. But what are you gonna do, NOT hand a couple bucks to the old lady so she can afford wood for her funeral pyre?

I’m not made of stone, people.

They even had a set price. 110 rupees, or about $2.50 USD, buys her a kilogram of wood. 110 rupees could also get her a 2 bedroom condo with a yard and covered garage in a respectable Delhi suburb.

Okay, it couldn’t buy that, but 110 rupees is a lot of money in India. It’s a lot to give out to a charity case and it’s sure as hell not what it costs to buy a kilogram of wood.

Anyway, Tom gave her 50 and I kept pulling out change until she’d gotten her full 110, which amounted to every last rupee I had on me. When she was satisfied, she walked away and left us with Captain Karma, who then proceeded to ask for his payment. Our other expenditure was irrelevant to him, though he’d undoubtedly be getting a cut of it, he wanted separate compensation for his tireless efforts in reciting the same boring speech he gives to every stunned foreigner that gets brought his way.

Aside from being broke, I felt a little violated and angry toward the guy. It’s a dirty thing to do to people and a rotten business to be in. Tom and I started walking out of there, and he became belligerent as he followed behind us.

He started lecturing me about karma again, and that it was very bad for me to walk away without giving him something.

"What about your karma?" I asked him.

I didn’t get an answer. As I was saying that, I stepped into an enormous pile of cow shit and went sliding face-first into it.

First off, let me explain that this was more than just the shit of one cow. It was a large collection of shit from many cows that had been pushed aside and gathered in what I consider to be a poorly chosen location.

I must admit that while I was walking away from the guy, his warnings about bad karma were worrying me. But I never in a million billion years would’ve dreamed the check could be cashed so quickly.

As I lay there buried in shit, Captain Karma looked down at me with a big smile on his face. Here’s what he said:

"See?"

Falling into the shit was one of those split second moments that last for about ten minutes. I had more than enough time in those ten minutes to ponder the seemingly impossible irony of what was about to happen. Before I hit the shit, I’d already resolved that there were two ways I could handle the situation: I could either freak out completely, or I could just laugh.

I laughed.

I called Tom, who was well ahead of me. He turned and saw what had happened, and I find it interesting that his instinctive, primal reaction at that moment was to pull out his camera and start
taking pictures. I got up and told him that if he was going to do that, he could at least have the decency to use my camera.

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By this time the shit-covered white guy was attracting lots of interest. There was laughter coming from all sorts of little nooks and crannies nearby. And yeah, okay, it was pretty funny. Even without the backstory, big dumb white guy falls in a pile of cow shit. This is not esoteric humor.

I looked down at my major points of impact and realized I was bleeding in several places and the open wounds were caked in festering cow shit. This was a fairly serious situation that had to be dealt with immediately. That’s when the next wave of irony hit me. I needed to clean myself up fast and there was only one way I could do it; I had to wash myself in the stinking, wretched, disease-infested, holy River Ganges.

Lest a moment of this event go unphotographed.

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I got the majority of the shit off me there, then emerged with the concerted intention of making a bee line for the shower in our hotel room.

I was distracted by a cluster of local kids who decided they wanted me to take their picture. These things take priority.

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I got back to the hotel, only to realize that our room had no soap. It also had no towels, toilet paper, or bed sheets, but that was of less urgent concern. After going to great lengths to acquire the strange and unfamiliar substance we foreigners make such a big deal about, I washed like I’ve never washed before.

I appear to be okay. No serious harm done, except for that my kneecap has swollen to a freakish size and I can’t really bend it very well.

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Nothing’s out of place or hurting, though, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to walk okay once the swelling goes down.

Assuming I didn’t wind up getting hepatitis, cholera, lepros y, or some other awful disease, I’m actually really pleased with the day’s events. Most people who come here do the "ooh" and "aah" thing, take some pictures, maybe go on a boat ride, decide it smells, then leave. Not everyone gets to incur the wrath of Hindu Gods, then symbolically cleanse themselves, all in the discreet span of a minute or so.

I feel like I really got the full Ganges experience, you know?

Okay, that’s it for today. I hope you enjoyed my suffering. Come back soon.

21 Responses to Varanasi, India A Lesson in Karma

  1. Brad

    That karma shit story was hilarious…your comic timing is amazing!

    Hope the wound clean up went OK. On the Karmic wheel of life falling in shit and amusing crowds of Indians has probably bought you a bucketload of good karma to offset bad craziness!

    Oh yeah, if any of those monkeys (or any other stray animals) bite or scratch you – go and get rabies shots straight away! Waiting to get back here to sort things out is, with hindsight, probably the dumbest thing I have done in my life – read a web site on rabies and its effects and you’ll see why…I lucked out on this one!

  2. Joe

    Great olfactory account of an interesting situation. I have been to over 60 countries and India is my absolutely least favorite place. Your account in the last few postings of the wretched poverty, incessant begging and unrelenting reek of urine and excrement reminds me why that whole place rubs me the wrong way. Is it true India once tried to introduce a species of flesh eating turtles into the Ganges to help eat some of the corpses? I read that somewhere a few years back. Keep up the good work in chronicling your adventures!

  3. chacko

    Hrm. I should have warned you about the begging. People want to get paid there for the stupidest things. As soon as we got off the plane the last time we were there, someone wanted money for carrying our bags about 5 feet.
    Still…loved the shit story.

  4. Jennifer Rice

    There should be a disclaimer at the top of this page. Do NOT READ WHILE EATING LUNCH! Unfortunately I was eating and it literally made my stomach turn. I may never eat mozzerella cheese again.
    Stay clean. – JEN

  5. Tom Harding

    that was a pretty accurate telling of the shit stroy. i honestly expected matt would glaze over the embarrassing details. i thought it was the funniest thing i’d seen in my entire life. the little man was pointing a finger at matt and threatening all the bad kharma that would befall him if he didn’t give him a tip when matt began to turn around with a rejoinder only to step right into a drainage troth thick in blackish manure. bad kharam, indeed. enough to convert you to hinduism. it was enough for matt to clean himself in the river ganges with all the other hindus. have i mentioned how obsessed matt is with monkeys? if it were up to him he’d have all of asia renamed monkeyland. africa would be west monkeyland and south america would be east monkeyland. all the other monkey-less continents would be just be grouped together as not-monkeyland. over half the pictures he takes are of monkeys. every time he sees one, he goes crazy and starts taking picture after picture, laughing as though monkeys were nature’s comedians. matt’s also the archducke of nomenclature. if you want to get him mad, say myanmar “my-an-mar” instead of “me-an-ma” or “laos” instead of “lao.” you can really see the vein popping in his forehead. myanmar is a breath of fresh air in comparison to india. although i liked kashmir a great deal, delhi, varanasi and calcutta were oppressive urban wastelands with air thicker than cigarette smoke and curdled with the stench of rotting cow manure. daramsala was an entirely unoffensive tourist trap, enjoyable and comfortable by every right — mostly because the tibetans, like the kashmiri — were more easy going, cleaner and nicer to be around than indians. however, it didn’t provide too much worth staying around for in terms of history or artwork. i’m sure the oppressive military dictatorship here in myanmar hasn’t reared its ugly head yet, but so far i’ve been impressed (amazed really) with the cleanliness, beauty and sheer magnificence of the landscape — as well as the lack of armed soldiers, relative to india. we were supposed to change 200 dollars at the airport into government issued funny money for tourists, but matt and i both managed to sweet talk our way out of it, which was a very good thing since we learnt that our mastercards would be no good here since the company pulled out back in ’98. we’re wiring money into the embassy and will have to live cheaply until it comes. i’m glad to see the military beauracracy is rather flexible though. people don’t honk constantly, throw their trash into the streets or hassle you every step of your way anywhere and everywhere to buy things. things are just as cheap, people are just as poor, but it’s so much more relaxing. matt, i’m sure, will post when he gets another chance.

  6. Tom Harding

    i forgot to add one thing: this is for my mother if she ever reads this. matt and i saw two buddhist monks walking together today, one carrying a brand new dvd player in his hands and the other talking on a cell phone. that’s right. buddhist monks in third world countries oppressed by military dictators are ahead of you, mom, on the technology curve. if the light of modernity has touched even the benighted lands of myanmar, i think it’s time to embrace this brave new world as well. tee hee.

  7. Lucy

    Perhaps the monks confiscated the DVD player and cell phone in order to save the souls of their former owners. Perhaps I should visit Myanmar to address the problem.

  8. belle rubin

    I dida search for varanasi and just happended on your site. It made me laugh loud and long. great writing.
    I’m making my first trip to India soon. Do you have any tips for me? thanks in advance, Belle

  9. Rob Norton

    Same as belle: I did a search of veranasi & found your site. I leave for Delhi on Dec 31st. My wife & I will be in Delhi & Hyderabad on business. We have 5 days after Hyderabad that, as of today, we haven’t decided what to do with. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Rob.

  10. Jackie Treehorn

    Those situations suck. I was in Nepal, jammed my thumb and then bathed in a hot spring immediately after that. Bad move. I got a nasty infection that caused blood poisoning…there was a sharp pain running up my left arm. Holy bent…! Anyway, at least they sell amoxycillin in the streets of Pokara. In ten days, it took care of that bugger good.

  11. sam

    first things first , india is not a dictatorship , its the worlds largest democracy , second (and very concise) you need to get a bit of respect in your attitude towards other cultures and countries, looks like your travels and travails are to make fun of other people probably not as fortunate as you , people might have found it funny to read etc , but my sympathies are with you , you have traveled the world and will probably return home as closed in mind and attitude as when you left it… enjoy

  12. Jamie

    Ha! I got hit by that EXACT same guy in the exact same tower, and gave my 110 to that exact same little crouched over lady too, about a month before you were there. Totally fell for it. Until some sadhu came and told us it was a scam. Then he wanted money for telling us it was a scam.

    Yet still Varanasi is my favorite city in India.

  13. cool.k.net

    Dude you seem to going all the wrong places in India and casuing you to make all the wrong impression about it. I know quite a few US people who visited India to right places and got a lasting impression. I pity who drove you into visiting all these places. Its like telling me to visit some sidy suburb in New York where I get robbed and hey I might as well get shot. And I come back (or not if I get shot) saying ‘Lookie guys. New York sucks big time. You can not even walk on the streets’. Religious places like Varanasi, parts of cities like Calcutta are known for the dirty surroundings and are not boasted as Visitor’s palace. I am from India and I will never think of going on vacation to those places. One only goes there for religious purposes. When one goes for religious reasons things like dirt are quite secondary. Heard of those stampedes in Mecca? Still millions of people visit there. Visitors should stick to Visiting places which are maintained with Visitors in mind.

  14. Steve

    Well, the Ganga IS supposed to be pure. Go up the river to Haridwar you can see the purity and the holiness. When this ‘purity’ idea was first brought up, there weren’t 500 million people living beside the poor river. And you know, people are supposed to be impure, unclean sinners. The very fact that the Ganga can quench their thirst (No Ganga, no fertile North India), hints that the Ganga, in whatever form, is NECESSARY.
    About the cowshit. There are several hundred million people in India who get thair hands dirty everyday making the “cheaper than wood” fuel. Technically many of them should die of disease. Ironically, some of them die of starvation.

  15. Latha

    Well! you shouldn’t really think that as the wrath of the Hindu Gods as God is the one creator and all the demi Gods of Hinduism are energies of higher frequency and dimensions who come to help the human beings when we are in need. Karma are the actions that accumulate to a spirit during its life time in the material existence and is automatically taken into the next life time to feel the reaction from the actions of the past(like a ball thrown on to a wall definitely bounces back – law of the Universe, spirit when it is in the material existence cannot break that law). Karma can be overcome by greater devotion to the Creator not to the demi Gods(as demi Gods are called over for fulfilling our desires). And a devotion with no desire. Desires leave space for the next life time if hadn’t been fulfilled in one. The vedas, upanishads, bhagavat gita, bible and kuran etc. all preach the same philosophies only in a propective to invoke ‘spirituality’ in people and not religion.
    To conclude, He knows that you won’t get yourself washed in the holy Ganges but probably because He loved you so much he wanted some of your karma to be cleansed and henceforth played a trick of the cow dung. To reveal another truth about cow dungs, it is an antiseptic for REAL.

    With great reverence to your videos and work,
    Latha

  16. Kelsey

    I know exactly how that is. I lived in India last year on an exchange, and I think I had the same reactions at first to Varanasi. I have the newspaper clipping that reads, “Pollution in Ganga reaches septic level” conveniently printed the day after I bathed in it. It wasn’t as if I didn’t know of its state beforehand. A body floated by as I was bathing, and I really hoped he wasn’t the type with the small pox.
    :) I hope your knee is okay. Every blister and cut I had on me after bathing there got insanely infected. But despite the negatives, the place is spiritually beautiful and I will go back, and hopefully live there one day, not necessarily in Varanasi. I found that is impossible to dislike India, despite its flaws. every city is completely different from the next, even language and script varies. There are many amazing places in India, it’s too bad you didn’t visit too many. your commentary and perspective is hilarious to read. keep traveling!
    namaste. :)

  17. Raksha

    Hi Matt,
    I just saw your video on the dancing around the world, and I loved it. You seem to have a real zest for living, I’ll give you that.
    Also, you have a great talent for writing.

    However, being an Indian I’m quite appalled by your rendition of your trip. I agree with one of the comments made above, you do seem like a pompous, arrogant tourist who has no idea about the significance of certain aspects about India. It’s people like you, that create a bad image of foreigners in the minds of local Indians.

    Please, don’t ruin it for all the other people out there hoping to go to India. It’s a beautiful country and I’m proud to be a part of it.

    Raksha Manjunath, 16, UAE.

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