Taylor: We see what we want to see

The inspiration may indeed come from a divine source. But almost immediately it succumbs to human jurisdictions…

Someone told me this story. A Sunday school teacher pointed to a Christmas tree and said: “Do you know why all the needles on that tree point upwards? They’re pointing towards God.”

Except that they weren’t. It was a pine tree and most of the needles hung down.

That teacher preferred to see what she believed, rather than believe her own eyes.

It would be easy to make fun of that teacher’s blindness, except that millions of people do the same, every year, at Varanasi in India. English colonialists, who had notoriously tin ears for both Indian language and Indian culture, called it Benares, a corruption of the Indian name, just as Ganges is considered a corruption of Ganga-ji – the Indian name of the river followed by a term of respect.

Varanasi is the holiest city in India. For devout Hindus, to die there is to bypass the endless cycle of re-incarnation and go directly to heaven. One bank of the river is lined with brightly painted housing blocks, five and six stories high, where the elderly can look out over the sacred river until they expire.

And then, if their relatives are wealthy enough, they will be cremated on a pile of sandalwood on what are known as the burning ghats. Their ashes will be scattered in the river—after members of the Dong community, who traditionally look after cremating the Hindu dead, have panned through the ashes for any gold or silver they can salvage.

And if the dead cannot afford cremation, their bodies will simply be thrown in the river.

Daughter Sharon and I rode a rowboat on the Ganga one sunrise. Drifting silently down the river, watching the smoke of yesterday’s funeral pyres eddy into the sky, is a magical experience.

Although I would not have let my fingers trail in that water.

Yet thousands every day bathe in it. Some only wade in waist deep and then splash Ganga water over themselves. Others immerse themselves totally. They scoop up handfuls of water to drink. They fill bottles with river water, so the family back home can share the blessings of Ganga’s germs, parasites and carcinogens. The Indian Council of Medical Research says that the river is so full of killer pollutants—heavy metals and lethal chemicals—that those living along its banks are more prone to cancer than anywhere else in the country.

They believe this water to be pure, even when the bloated body of a cow or a sadhu floats by.

It is pure, they would say, because it was given by the gods.

Author Stephen Alter trekked the pilgrimage routes to Ganga’s four sacred sources—Yamnotri, Gangotri, Kedernath and Badrinath. Without exception, he wrote, the water may emerge pure from under a glacier, but humans immediately sully its purity with shops, shrines, rooming houses and latrines.

There’s a parable there, I think. About all religions, not just Hinduism. The inspiration may indeed come from a divine source. But almost immediately it succumbs to human jurisdictions—institutionalized, codified, dogmatized.

Even so, countless devotees will see only the source and insist that what they believe must therefore be pure and perfect.

Just like the Ganga at Varanasi.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

The Okanagan Screen Arts Society is set to take over Vernon’s historic Towne Cinema on 30th Avenue June 1 as fundraising for building upgrades is a third of the way to its goal. (Photo contributed)
Historic Vernon cinema rolling into society’s hands

Okanagan Screen Arts Society will take over and run with volunteers the Towne Cinema starting June 1

(File photo)
UBCO introduces another reading break in November

The break only affects the Okanagan campus

A man wearing a mask against coronavirus walks past an NHS advertisement about COVID-19 in London, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
92 new COVID-19 cases, no new deaths: Interior Health

The region is reporting 92 cases after the weekend

Vernon’s Noric House long-term care facility’s COVID-10 outbreak has been declared over by Interior Health. (Jennifer Smith - Morning Star)
COVID outbreak at Vernon’s Noric House declared over

10 deaths were linked to the outbreak at long-term care facility

All Regional District of Central Okanagan residents receiving curbside garbage/recycling collection will also benefit from yard waste pick up every two weeks as of March 1, 2021. The program runs until the end of December. (Black Press file photo)
Central Okanagan residents to benefit from yard waste pickup

Will happen every two weeks until end of December

Langley resident Carrie MacKay shared a video showing how stairs are a challenge after spending weeks in hospital battling COVID-19 (Special to Langley Advance Times)
VIDEO: Stairs a challenge for B.C. woman who chronicled COVID-19 battle

‘I can now walk for six (to) 10 minutes a day’

Pastafarian Gary Smith, pictured here dressed as a pirate, wanted to wear his tricorn (also pictured here) in his driver’s licence photo, arguing that the display was a religious observance. Photo: Facebook
B.C. Pastafarian loses Supreme Court fight to wear pirate hat in driver’s licence photo

Gary Smith of Grand Forks, put his case to the Supreme Court in Rossland in early February

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s coronavirus situation, May 8, 2020. (B.C. government photo)
B.C.’s weekend COVID-19 cases: 532 Saturday, 508 Sunday, 438 Monday

Fraser Health still has most, eight more coronavirus deaths

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good
Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

City council passed resolution in support of an expansion of the licence area at Salmon Arm’s Marionette Winery for the inclusion of a lounge area. (Marionette Winery/Facebook)
Salmon Arm council supports lounge addition at Shuswap winery

Marionette Winery expanding licence area to host small gatherings

An injured skier was helivaced from Apex Mountain Resort to Kelowna General Hospital Monday, March, 2021. (Linda Geggie / Facebook)
Injured skier helivaced from Apex Mountain Resort

The skier was taken to Kelowna General Hospital

B.C. Attorney General David Eby speaks in the legislature, Dec. 7, 2020. Eby was given responsibility for housing after the October 2020 provincial election. (Hansard TV)
B.C. extends COVID-19 rent freeze again, to the end of 2021

‘Renoviction’ rules tightened, rent capped to inflation in 2022

Face mask hangs from a rear-view mirror. (Black Press image)
B.C. CDC unveils guide on how to carpool during the pandemic

Wearing masks, keeping windows open key to slowing the spread of COVID-19

Most Read