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.