What is it about dying in Varanasi (or Banaras or Kashi – the other names this eternal city is known as)?
Death is an event in life that though sums up everything for a life, leaves a lifetime of thoughts and afterthoughts for others who are associated with the departed. It leaves a void that remains there, throughout. The pain, that is unbearable initially, becomes a way of life with time.
That is what happens with death in every normal human life – even for people of this eternal city – one of the oldest living places – a living mix of spirituality, religion and a living weaved around that.
But for people from this eternal city who care to go beyond their routine to know what Varanasi stands for, what Kashi means and why it pulls everyone from across the globe who look for ‘questions into life and death’, death brings more meanings about it than they already know.
For me, it has always been a captivating mystery. Apart from my roots in Varanasi, the city’s mysticism weaved around death is another major reason that pulls me to this city.
It is said a life threatening horrible experience changes fundamentally your outlook towards it. That also holds true for a life-defining liberating experience – an experience that you have while sitting at the steps of its round the clock burning ghats – of life’s realities and illusions – of life’s purpose and a retrospective into that – something that has been a regular event in my life while I was growing up – and now whenever I go there. While sitting there, it is an observational learning that you spontaneously internalize.
For many, death is a way of life in Varanasi. It supports many families. The business of death sustains lives here. And it has continued for generations.
For many, it is the spiritual realisation that shows them the way ahead – clearing the clouds of ambiguities and dichotomies.
Death is something that makes one free of all bonds, a point where materialism goes into oblivion, even for a moment. It evokes spiritual vibes naturally then.
Varanasi has seen generations built around this tradition. The city has been flowing the way history has been written but has been able to sustain the course of spiritual discourse that pertains to the questions of life, ways of living and ethos of existentialism.
For all Banarasis and many outside the city, dying here, in this city of Lord Shiva, is the ultimate nirvana, a freedom from the cycle of rebirth, the Moksha, the core of Hinduism/Vedanta philosophy.
For Banarasi folks like me and visitors/tourists/pilgrims, the Lord Shiva, Ganga and death association (The Holy Trinity of Hinduism) with the city and its addresses, especially the Varanasi ghats, including its two eternal cremation ghats, Manikarnika and Harishchandra, are a must visit. Many visitors of the city, in fact, make it a point to spend quality time at these two places while the ordinary Banarasi has countless strolls of them in his lifetime.
For thinking folks, it leaves an indelible impression.
And that imprints an equally indelible reality of death – the only certain event of life.
Sitting at these two ghats makes you feel ‘not low’ but poignant about life’s uncertainty and its only defined fate – death. One can see through layers of illusions. The introspection and retrospection here, in those moments, are most objective that one can have.
And it all happens wrapped in the fundamental tenet of living – what lies beyond and what goes with you. One doesn’t need to be a sage to ponder over these aspects. The atmosphere there begins the thought process in you.
Visiting Varanasi looking for questions of life or spending time at its round the clock working crematoria doesn’t change the way you live but its changes fundamentally the way you think – that how to sift reality from the countless illusions your soul is trapped into.
That is what the city has taught me so far.