The Philosophy of the Vedas


When my affinity for India inevitably comes up in numerous conversations, one of the most common quips heard from fellow arrogant, insensitive Americans is, “Don’t order a burger!” It’s routinely followed by chuckles and yuck-yuck in the crowd to stroke the ego of the guy wanting to pretend he’s the first to blurt out such wit. But then the laughter dies down and as everyone shakes their heads at how a culture could shun such fine cuisine, the question arises: Why? Why do they hold cows to be holy?

Hinduism is little examined or understood on much more than a shallow level in the West. The depths generally extend only to the comfort of saying a few “Namastes” and Oms” in yoga classes full of soccer moms and frustrated middle aged women who have little more to do with their time than blog daily about coffee. It all ties in with the misconception that all Hindus are strict vegetarians and go to great lengths to avoid stepping on a bug for fear that it may have been his mother in another life. Most people  would be quite taken aback to learn that in the Vedas, to which Hindu traditions are strongly linked, animal sacrifice was a frequent occurrence but even more surprising, human sacrifices were not unheard of. So where did the contrast come into play? Where did the culture change from one of ritual bloody offerings to one that is associated with a strong version to killing animals?

There are numerous mentions of live sacrifices in ancient Hinduism.  The most valuable one was of course the human sacrifice, the purusha-medha. Whoever commissioned this and paid the Brahmin priests to perform it was said to be as divine as the Prajapati, a name for the Creator. The most common offering was the goat. The following excerpt from the Brahmanas as translated by Klaus Klostermaier explains:  “When the devas had killed a man for their sacrifice, that part of him which was fit to be made an offering went out and entered a horse. Thence the horse became an animal fit to be sacrificed. From the horse it went into the ox, from there into the goat. In the goat it remained for the longest time, therefore the goat is best fitted for sacrifice.”

How this sequence came to be is not explained further but one may assume that it was a bit convenient for the goat to be the sacrifice of choice for they were less expensive and plentiful. Oxen, with their mass would have been a logically impressive choice to think that the larger the animal, the greater the offering, but the value they had in agriculture probably played a part in avoiding killing them. Horse sacrifices were done but they weren’t so common either, for they were held in the highest regard. The ashva-medha could be done for rites of fertility and fortune but the most significant times it was performed were to crown a new king; either one who had just conquered a new region to add to his bounty or upon the death of one and the assumption of power by his son. There are writings of huge events full of offerings that employed hundreds of priests for ceremonies that would have lasted days into months; the sheer volume of animals offered is staggering.  The ashva-medha ceremony was so elaborate and esteemed that as Klostermaier writes, “the Bhagavata Purana can declare that the extermination of the whole of humankind could be atoned for by one…”

In contrast, alongside the texts that detail these sacrifices there are also scripts in which we find an aversion to violence against animals. Chapter 257 of the Vicakhnu Gita, Mahabharata tells of King Vichakhnu having come up on the remains of a bull that had been butchered and in an epiphany was suddenly horrified by the thought as he only then noticed the cries of the other cattle in the quarters.

He said, “May there be good fortune for cows in all parts of the world….Such violence is praised only by men who do not adhere to the proper rules. They are fools, unbelievers, and doubting souls who always remain concealed. The virtuous Manu has asserted that all ritual acts must be free of violence…”

What is trying to be conveyed here is that too many men take the simplistic approach toward trying to please the gods and gain the earthly blessings they desire. This is a verse of admonishment to press them on into more intellectual pursuits, find the deeper meanings of the sacred scriptures and realize that the bloodletting offerings alone are not bestowing the greatest gifts of life that they could have. Basically, they are living as the backward and uninformed, untaught. Manu has moved forward in his thinking and he is saying that, “it is due to desire and attachment that men afflict animals in the space around the altar.” He’s trying to bring the people out of a Dark Ages mentality and that illustrate that there are things you can do to achieve your goals even without all the killing and ritual. He’s encouraging man to look to develop higher intellect, consider the wisdom of the Vedas and find atman, the highest self and rise above the misconception that all blessings are bestowed only through the purging of an animal. This behavior was reflective of pagan civilizations that have come and gone beforehand that believed if they needed redemption, cleansing, forgiveness, and blessings, it could only be gained by someone or something enduring horrific torture. If they would make their spiritual practices more genuine and more on jnana (knowledge), as opposed to such violent forms of yajna, maybe they would come closer to their enlightenment.

This could very well be one of the verses that influenced later Hindu movements and the emphasis on ahimsa, or the concept of committing no violence against any living thing. Buddha was the first prominent party to vehemently embrace and preach nonviolence. He preached his first sermon at Sarnath, just north of Varanasi, one of the holiest cities in Hinduism. We know that he renounced his life as a privileged prince and sought solitude, peace and tranquility. Knowing what we do about the civilization one has to wonder what it was that triggered this distaste for the life he was born into. Given that there were none of the car, motorcycle or bus horns blaring and the population nowhere nearly as maddening as it is in present day, what was it that was so chaotic he needed to escape? It may have been all the suffering he was witnessing. The noise and calamity of suffering. The bleating of sheep, cries of goats, moans of cattle living in horrid conditions as beasts of burden and then at the end, led to their butchering and as a royal prince, he would have been privy to these as common occurrences. Maybe underneath it all, the basic motivator of the Buddha was that he held empathy for all living creatures and just couldn’t stand the cries from anymore lengthy rituals. He loved being in the forest where he could just sit and the deer would come up to him, fearless of the docile human. His teachings were poetic, soft and sometimes nearly in playful riddles and codes. He relished in the quiet that an environment of nonviolence afforded him and it must have been a welcome concept to the masses judging by the impact his life had on the community and ages to come.

Jainism was then founded and followed suit with the embracement of non violence, and this in turn had a profound influence on a man named Mahatma Gandhi, undoubtedly the largest modern day proponent of ahimsa.  He redefined the term to include “peaceful resistance” when it came the political unrest and instability seen during the time of Partition when the British were successful in breaking apart Greater India and forming the country of Pakistan. This created a mass exile of many Hindus and Muslims from the only homes they had known for decades. When violence broke out over the issue, he went on a hunger strike to bring it to an end instead of inciting military reaction. When a radical Hindu shot and killed him, blaming him for being too passive on the issue of Partition, the words on Gandhi’s lips weren’t those of anger, revenge or even fear. “Ram, Ram.” A perfect illustration of how he took ahimsa to heart. Chanting the name of his God on his lips as he died so that Ram would whisper the secret to life into his ears on his dying breath. He took to heart and lived the verse in the Mahabharata, “Not harming other beings is certainly recognized as superior to all other forms of dharma.”

So there can be seen quite an evolution and progressive intelligence throughout the Vedas Samhitas and Upanishads that reveal the changes or updates we see from antiquity to present day. The ancient peoples lived by a similar thread that ancient Pagans lived under, meaning, the lore and the divine guidance provided for one lifestyle that we now feel is harsh and barbaric. It was all survival of the fittest. People had their castes, their societal chores, kings and warriors were revered and celebrated with massive offerings and festivals. And then a new wave of human feeling appeared and no longer was it unquestioningly accepted to hear the tortured cries and bellows of the animals whose blood and trauma was meant to bring about goodwill and blessings to those who ordered the knives to their throats.

To the Western world it may be difficult to discern any kind of progress from one age to the next with all the violence within India and strife between Hindus and Muslims, between India and Pakistan. For that matter we see a lot of horrific acts committed Hindu against Hindu. But that’s no different from any society. It’s human nature. Those of other faiths may criticize present day Hindus saying, “If you don’t know your Vedas, how can you say you are living by them with a respect?” But is it really any different from the People of the Book who feel a passionate connection to certain verses in the New Testament but tend to dismiss the Old Testament? It’s all the same collection of scriptures they claim to have faith in and while they may go through their days with kindness in their hearts, donations to those in need, and keeping their tempers in check, are they also thinking all the time about the story of Noah and the ark? Jonah and the whale? The episodes with Moses and the burning bush and the baby in the basket?

Not likely. So it’s the same with the Hindu culture and the Vedas. The Vedas are the spine of Hindu tradition and should be respected as such even though many Hindus don’t carry their lessons in the forefront of their minds every day. But visit any Hindu home and you’ll feel the serenity and be the benefactor of their dedication to ahimsa. While not all Hindus are strict vegetarians, the conscientious guest or host will err on the side of caution and not bring any animal based cuisine. If a guest in a Hindu home commits a faux pas, it will probably not be brought to anyone’s attention because to a Hindu, the guest is God. Everyone has the Divine in them and is deserving of service and respect. A simple by–product of ahimsa respect. As one Hindu commits to nonviolence, many he has relationships with follow suit so they do not offend him, their friend who is also divine. The world could learn a lot from Hindus.

A Varanasi shopkeeper respectfully provides a morning chapatti to a cow at his storefront.

Understanding the Hindu Identity


The term “Hindu” is rooted in the Sanskrit texts that refer to the Indus River, as Sindhu. Language barriers that came into play when invading parties presented in the Indian subcontinent lent an evolution to the words and specifically the Arabic language assigned the label al Hind to the “ people of the Indus River area”. The term further evolved into the name Hindustan for the area they deemed the concerned country. Some sources also claim that the British officers in the East India Company assumed that the native people were mispronouncing the name of their own local river by omitting the “H” therefore saying Indoo when what they really meant was Hindoo.

The concept of Hinduism is broadly defined using characteristics of geographical location, ceremonial rituals, spiritual beliefs, and overall cultural traditions. It was originally applied to those born into the region of the Indus River Valley and expanded to what became known as Hindustan which is present day India.  However, as foreign intruders and those seeking commercial relations began to document the culture for the rest of the world, an intricate network of traits were found to be woven together to create the dynamic that defines what is now known to be one of the oldest surviving cultures on the planet.

Scholars have long taught that the basic criteria for one to be defined as Hindu is that he is born into the culture and accepts the divinity of the ancient Sanskrit Vedas. Other concepts are an adherence to caste rule, the authority of the Brahmin priests, a practice of puja (worship and offerings to deities and other rituals), and belief in the Atman (the eternal self) and reincarnation although this is not a doctrine owned by Hindus alone. A later premise is that of ahimsa, or non-violence which led to the widespread practice of vegetarianism amongst Hindus.  However, it is entirely possible to meet Hindus who do not live in accordance with every one of these. As the traditions have been dated to 3000 B.C. it is inevitable to have evolved in some areas.

For example, although acceptance of the Vedas is one of the most basic tenets, the Vedic texts have proven to be of such expansive volume that even the most illumined holy men are accepted to not have thorough knowledge of them all and this must come as a welcome surprise to the overwhelmed new student.  Most every day Hindus share a respect for the Vedas even if they do not have a personal study or understanding of them.

Another aspect of Hinduism that is open to interpretation is the acceptance of Brahmin authority. This is the caste that was of the educators, priests, and other intellectuals who were looked to for guidance and decision making. Once respected as the only channels through which the sacred texts were passed, they were also the only ones able to perform rituals and sacrifices for the people. They alone were entrusted to pronounce the mantras and chants to the precision required to render the ceremony effective. Over time, their services became increasingly specialized that the cost of arranging these services and the procurement of the materials for sacrifices seems to have had an off putting effect on the faithful. Many Hindus don’t participate in this type of worship and instead ascribe to a more personal manner of worship such as darshan which is “seeing” and being seen by the images of the deities in temple and murti puja, adornments and offerings of flowers and sweets made to the altars of deities. This is known as bhakti, acts of devotion. Still others may not identify with a specific deity and instead follow the road of jnana, or knowledge-seeking, pursuing wisdom through meditation, study and renouncement.

Most of these practices could be performed by anyone. So, can someone not born in India adopt a Hindu lifestyle and literally “convert” into a Hindu? Most born Hindus would probably say no but not to be self righteous or exclusive, for Hindus by nature are very inviting and tolerant. It’s more a matter of semantics. While not possible within these definitions to actually convert into a Hindu, it can be said that a person could easily accept the philosophy and practices of the Hindu traditions. Thinking of it in this way may border on defining it as an ethnicity or race and some Hindus would accept that. Even if not born in the region or descended from those who were, one with respect to Hinduism can say, “I am Hindu,” but what he has done is embraced the Hindu philosophy.

For someone who wishes to claim Hinduism but was born outside of it, probably the strongest obstacle he will face is his initial identity which is based on caste.  But if you’re not born a Hindu, you have no way to identify yourself for you have no caste—it can’t just be chosen. Caste is the identity one is born into. Ironically, going farther back in antiquity we see that caste was more of a choice. People found their talents and strengths and often chose a walk of life or profession that they were suited for. It seems cultural regression to know that as time went on, it became less of a choice and quality of life eroded (at least for the lower castes) into a manner that one has no way of rising above what they were born into. Inter-caste marriage is at best discouraged, at worst punishable by death.

The caste system is divided into four primary classes or varnas, the first three of which are considered “twice born” for they adhere to traditions that allow them to undergo certain sacraments and enjoy a more privileged life. There are further divisions of the 4 castes, subcastes called jatis. The Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors and kings), and Vaishyas (merchants and agriculture) are these. Shudras (manual laborers) are the fourth caste and are often mistakenly looped into the lowest jati of all the subcastes, the Dalits or “Untouchables”.

The Brahmins are the priests, teachers, and legal authorities. Those born into this caste would start hearing the sacred texts at early ages and for centuries they were passed down primarily through oral tradition. The most dedicated of the students were able to recite Vedic scripts not only as they were dictated to them but also backwards and sometimes even by omitting every other word. This is what led to the sacraments becoming so specific that it was believed that if one note was chanted off-key or one syllable of a mantra mispronounced during a ceremony, that flaw would render the entire ritual null.

The demand was created for priests of perfection and the costs of affording a Brahmin ceremony became out of reach for the typical Hindu. For a faith that holds end of life renunciation of material wealth in such high regard, it seems that expensive demands from priests for blessings and to restore karma is contradictory.

Nandan Upadhyay of Varanasi described a situation that required consulting with a Brahmin priest. When asked if he kept any pets in his home such as dogs or cats, he explained that one will rarely find a Hindu home with a cat as a pet for they believe that if a cat dies while in their care—regardless of the death having been caused by mistreatment, illness, or accident—an expensive offering of a golden image of a cat must be made to a Brahmin priest. It does not have to be large or even of solid gold; it could be an image etched onto a piece of wood or drawn on paper and then painted in gold leaf, but it did have to be of real gold.  He recalled a day of riding his bicycle through the narrow streets of Benares when a cat darted in front of him. He didn’t have time to brake and avoid it and the back tire hit the cat but as he looked back, he saw it get up and move on although visibly injured. Nandan said he dreaded having to tell his mother because of the expensive offering they would have to come up with if the cat died but if it did, they were to honor their obligations so they started preparations for the offering. He went back to the neighborhood and found the cat’s owner. In the end, the cat had recovered so the need for the offering never materialized and he actually still goes to visit it from time to time.

The Kshatriyas, or the warrior caste, are those destined to serve in the military, become police officers, politicians and local activists. In antiquity they are the leaders of the defense against invading armies. Their history is rich with stories of fierce battles as they fought tirelessly to fend off neighboring kingdoms trying to overtake their region and of devastating defeats as the Mughal rulers pressed on and occupied what was the wealthiest civilization on earth at the time.

The Vaishyas, or merchants, may not be as glorified as the Brahmins or Kshatriyas but they are the pillars of the community. These are the merchants, business owners, the agricultural professionals who run the farms that grow the grain and rice and tend the cattle. Society depends upon them for structure and survival. A culture may be chaotic without religious discipline and military but it could continue. But in a region like India, it is imperative that there be a portion of the population whose purpose is to see that food is farmed and marketed for this is what employs the most and propels the economy.

To a Westerner, the most intriguing aspect of the caste system is that of the lowest caste, the Shudras, for often their treatment is terribly inhumane. They are the laborers who perform the chores and hold not only the lowliest jobs in society, but the poorly paid and most dangerous, especially for the Dalits. They are barred from obtaining educations and in the most orthodox cases forbidden to even hear uttering of any of the sacred texts. It was considered so taboo for the divine words of the Vedas to fall on the ears of a Dalit that if it was suspected it had even occurred by accident or in passing, the usual punishment was to pour molten lead into his ears. A Dalit’s shadow was inauspicious and he could be beaten severely if his passed over an individual of a higher caste. His footprints were considered cursed and many would tuck whisked brooms or palm fronds into the backs of their belts to sweep their footprints from behind them as they walked. The Shudras were the ones with the duty of emptying the night soil from homes, digging latrines, cleaning, and serving. It’s considered inauspicious to touch a corpse but someone has to perform the duties of preparing them for cremation and burial. The Dalits retrieve the body from the home, anoint with oils, wrap in the shrouds, adorn with flowers and place on the pyre. When the cremation is complete, they sweep up the remains and, if in Varanasi, surrender them to the holy Ganges.

To the rest of the world the caste system seems terribly antiquated and a clear violation of human rights but most of India will still defend it and state its value in socio-economics. It’s a widespread misconception that it was officially outlawed a few decades ago although some updating has been attempted. Mahatma Gandhi worked feverishly to improve the conditions for the lower castes, even refusing to refer to them as outcastes, but instead as “Children of God”. The concept of “Untouchable” was abolished and any discriminatory treatment of anyone of that caste is actually illegal, but most will say that progress is slow to be made to truly see tangible changes in how they are treated in society.

For Grandpa on Pearl Harbor Day…reposted for Memorial Day


December 7, 2011

Update: Grandpa passed July 13. 2012.


Grandpa is a Railsplitter, a division in the Army originating with Abraham Lincoln that also boasts Malcom Forbes and Henry Kissinger. He is 85 and still lives in Nixa. Recently we’ve seen the importance of recording his stories that he loves to tell even though we’ve heard the same ones repeatedly. He grew up in the hills of Hurley, Missouri and his thick Ozarks accent is just too musical to not try to translate. It’s a rough read but once you get the sound it’s the only way to hear these stories. Age and dementia make him jump from thought to thought with missing segues so as you read, you’re not missing anything –the conversation really is this fragmented. I wanted to transcribe as authentically as possible and maybe one day I’ll polish it up but for Pearl Harbor Day here are some small bits of his experiences in his own words.

Oh, them storms and snow and weather and so on was somethin’ else to bug with. Uh, we had more rain in England than it did in Germany. I don’t recall too much rainin’ in Germany, not like we had in England. Oh, we had snow in Germany and France. That winter snow, we had more of that stuff to put up with than rain. Had clothes to put on, course them, you’d hole up in that snow quicker than anything. Course then you’d cover up in that white stuff, that snow, an’ o’course that covered up any o’ that color. I’s more int’rsted in food than anything. We’d get us in a house if they was any houses available. An’ if we was still out in the fields out there, they’d be, well, they’d occupied that country, the Germans had, and they’d made dug outs, big as that room there, and I carried in pine needles in the floor. Course, you din’t dare start a fire with them pine needles in the floor. Hoooo!

No, them, them dug outs, they uh, they was one of them places to git into. Course somebody had to stand guard at the entrance. That time I was checking that prisoner in, I knew where the dug out was, and got there about from here to that tree, and I stopped him and I hollered out, “Guard at the dug out! Mitchell with a pris’ner approaching! Allowed to come in!  And it’s, Proceed! Come on!”  So, we went on. The Platoon Sgt there delegated somebody to take him on back to Battalion headquarters. Supposed to give him some information on locations. I don’t know. I wadn’t in on that part. They had interrogators to uh, to uh, get it from em, but they might talk back down the line when somebody give ‘em some food or somethin’.

This was a…this guy wandered into our lines. I couldn’t figger out why. Well, yeah I could too. He wound up bein’ some kind of a officer. I don’t know whether he was platoon leader or that size but anyway he was an officer in a German army and he was seekin’ information and locations, and walked into our line. Hooo! Shouldn’t a’oughrta done dat! But anyway, he did. I don’ know if he give ‘em any valuable information or not. S’posed to have been. S’posed to have later on, I understood, he s’posed to.

We had dug outs, we had houses we stayed in. Lot of ‘em was 2 and 3 story houses. If you wanted to, say you stayed below the top floor, you stayed in the 2nd, artillery comin’ in. They, they throwed shells in on us.

Yeah, I killed that rooster that time. We had chicken n’ dumplins.”

I needed clarification to set this scene.

         “Grandpa,where’d you find that rooster?”

“In that chicken coop behind the house we was in. Him and about a half dozen old hens was in that chicken coop. I went out and he squawked like…tore his head off and throwed him out that snow bank and let him flop and bleed and die. I went up there and told that other feller that I…was ready for you to work on ‘im. He said okay. He fixed him, they put him in a big pot, cooked him up, got some o’ them GI biscuits, made dumplins. Hoooo. (smacked lips)

No, a, a warm place to stay was uh, and food, was the two things we looked for. We had a…most of us had a K ration or at least one. They was 3 of ‘em. Breakfast, dinner and supper. K rations. They come in a box about that long, about that deep, about that wide. Scrambled eggs and…I forget what else…. With some o’ them…they was dried biscuits. It was a bread thing, kind a like crackers. Part o’ the time they’d be a powdered envelope ‘bout so big of some kinda drink. Sometimes it was Nescafe coffee.

I carried a little field pack on my back. It wadn’, it wadn’t, nothin’, it just stuck up a little bit if I decided I wanted to stay undercover… it was a field pack. Stuck up ‘bout a little bit higher than my normal body. Anyway, I usually tried to have some kind of one o’ them boxes of food in there. Yeah.

BAR—Browning Automatic Rifle, it’s called. It’s shaped like a rifle but it had bipods out on the end of the barrel, heavier than a rifle and it had a magazine of 18 or 20 shells in each magazine. And I think they was 8 o’ them I could carry in that, in that uh thing at my waist.

At this point in the recording, Grandpa was distracted by some video on TV of extreme weather and a bridge being washed out by floodwaters. It reminded him of the portable floating footbridges that were often built ahead of his platoon to enable them to cross rivers with little interruption to their progress.


“There, looky there, there’s one of them bridges. We had some of them. Some that tried to keep them intact …so we’d cross ‘em.”

And back to his train of thought…

No, I tried to carry at least one of them meals in my field pack for when I might want something to eat.

Floods in the basements… I slept in a potato bin in my sleepin’ bag one night. Yeah. Me an’…me an’ taters slept there together. Hooooo. Anyway, it was, it was a warm and safe place and that was the 2 things, 2 things.

Them trucks and tanks would slide off on them sides of the places, get stucks, the, the, uh, wrecker sized stuff would have to come pull ‘em out, get ‘em goin’. The noise made it, they made a noise and gave the Germans an idea of where they’s located and they’d throw artillery shells in around ‘em.

No, they had what they called a tank retriever. It was a, it was a trailer and it had a wench set up so they could pull one outta the ditch with a wench. And they had hooks on ‘em—cleavis’s, I guess they’d call ‘em—of some kind that they could tie onto ‘em with a cable. Yeah. Anyhow, back on the road and get ‘em goin’.

No, them tanks. They throw that 75mm shell and machine guns was hooked up inside ‘em and they was 2 and 3 inches of armor, of metal. Yeah.

Another pause…Grandpa lost in thought (or tired). It gave me the chance to prod him back to another story that he tells a lot but I didn’t have the bits and pieces that led into it and set it up.


“How did you find that house you stayed in?” I knew he had stayed with families in Belgium but never was clear on how they came to be houseguests in the war torn countryside.

“We uh, well they had advanced party in lot of them things. And the advanced party would go in and, I don’t know, they had some kind of way to negotiate with or talk to the people that give our troops certain rooms.  I don’t know. I wasn’t in on anything like that. I don’t know what exactly the operation but anyway that… them towns just like down here. We’ll just say downtown Nixa. That old uh, hardware building you know, it’s got a lot o’upstairs to it. It’d, it’d, course, that was the first floor. That was the dangerous floor to be in. Now, that’s an example of findin’ them places. Lot of them homes, like this one, be 2 stories, that way we could get upstairs in this thing but it’s still dangerous for the artillery shells to hit the roof and the pieces come through. But it they’s a basement in this thing that’s the place to git. Whooo, yeah.

Oh, I walked out one morning, Daphne, they was snow on the ground, it was one o’ them blue cold days. Walked out the basement of that house, they was a ‘lectric line pole like this one out here on the corner right there. Walked out up them steps, sun was shinin’, we was blinkin’ and a’blarin’ with all the snow on the ground. Saw a shadda, we could see shaddahs, looked up, and the civilians had caught a infil—a German soldier had infiltrated in sometime durin’ the night and they’d caught him and hung him to that pole! There he’s hangin’ there! Blue cold. Somebody said, “Well, should we cut him down?”

“No, let the sonofabitch hang there, Goddammit, he didn’t have any business over here.”

“Well, that was the kind the attitude we had you know.

Anyway, one day we was sittin’ out there out in front of this cow shed….

To be continued…

Daryl Mitchell       September 25, 1925- July 13, 2012

Grief on the Ganges


I came to Varanasi, India, the city held as holiest by Hindus to immerse myself in the issue of death and for an intimate view of how grief is manifested in such different personalities. I wanted to observe the parallels as well as stark contradictions within a variegated culture and then try to clarify my own beliefs by viewing life and death through this filter. Originally, I had planned to focus on life from the perspective of a Hindu woman; how a young girl is raised until her marriage is arranged, her expectations and worries surrounding leaving her family, and the trials that transpire if, God forbid, her worst fear is realized: widowhood. But events transpired over the course of the months spent in preparation and research and by the time the actual journey was upon me, that cold outline that existed of interviews with women of diverse demographics in Indian society had sunk so deep into a quagmire of other issues that it was nearly impalpable.

Shreds of painful memories pierced the story I thought I was yearning for, leaving it a deflated dream that wasn’t meant to be seen to its end, at least not for now. As if a mirror, the size of a life itself, were to come unhinged and shatter into millions of splintered pieces on the floor, every silver shard is a reminiscence that slices the skin and makes the spirit of the heart bleed and weep.

Summer Interrupted

 The hall bell rang indicating the beginning of Drivers Ed class, the two week course all sophomores take the summer before we were to get our licenses. A few kids were still straggling in nonchalantly, unable to reconcile entering the school building in the middle of summer vacation. The basketball coach teaching the class appeared equally unconcerned with the tardiness and continued to read the newspaper glancing up now and then to gauge a lull in the activity when he may bother to get our attention.

“Have you all heard about the girl from Nixa who’s missing?” he asked a room full of fifteen year olds. It was 1985 and there were no iPhones, Blackberries or any other means of instant information overload that is commonplace today. Cable TV had just been introduced to the area the year before and the new 24 hour news networks held no appeal to us when measured against MTV and multiple movie channels. We had been out of school for over a month, well into the practice of sleeping in until we absolutely had to wake up and get going to school for this brief interruption of our vacation. Of course none of us had bothered to watch the local news that morning.

We were all growing up in a town of only 2,000 people which approximated no more than 80 kids in each class. Almost everyone knew one another or had a connection to each other’s families through school or church. The class stirred and we all looked around as if repeating the question without actually saying anything. There was an immediate unease; it was just a given that no matter who the girl was, many of us would know her. Coach Gray hadn’t had to say much. His sober expression communicated that he was struggling with how much information to share with the class.

“Jackie Johns. Her car was found on the side of the road this morning and she was last seen right after she got off from waitressing at the sale barn café last night.”

Everyone knew Jackie. She was 5 years older than our group in class that day and although she had graduated a couple of years prior, everyone knew the beautiful, gregarious Jackie for she was involved in just about every school activity available. She was a cheerleader, Prom Queen and Homecoming Queen. She played basketball, softball and volleyball and drove a black Camaro with a license plate that read, “JACKI 1”. As was the style of the mid 1980’s, her face was always made up prominently with glamorous eye shadows, heavy mascara and glistening lipstick and always carried a bottle of aerosol hair spray in her purse that kept her highlighted layers in a gravity defying lift. She was a living doll but her most galvanizing traits were her constant genuine smile and cheerful eyes.

The room was quiet and I searched my memory for every vision I could conjure up of Jackie and her smile. Cheering at the boys’ varsity games. Diving to catch a ground ball for her softball team. No matter how many times she had to don or take the mitt off, her nail polish was never less than impeccable. The last time I had seen her she was riding in a friend’s convertible in her cheerleading uniform, squealing as they peeled out of the Dairy Queen drive-through, turning past our house on Main Street.  She waved and yelled at my mother on our front porch, “Hi, Myra!” and I heard her laughter until the muffler and the distance drowned her out.

Having no more information than what Coach had just told us, it was as if the silence was enshrouding some vague prayers and hopes as our conscious thoughts tried to absorb what was happening to this lovely girl who had just turned 20 a couple of weeks earlier.

“There, uh,” the coach started and had to clear his throat. “There was blood in the car. It doesn’t look good.”

And hearts sank.

A Birthday

My childhood best friend had gone into labor a couple of days before her due date and delivered a healthy baby boy on Monday morning. Just before the weekend we had joked about the possibility of her having him one day early so that he and I could share a birthday and it had actually happened. I found this out while on my way home from dinner with friends when I just had a thought, “She had a doctor’s appointment today and I never heard from her. She was so uncomfortable the past couple of weeks, maybe I’ll just call the hospital so see if he may have chosen to induce her today.”

Tracey and I had been inseparable as children and it carried on throughout high school and beyond but a few years into college, I picked up on a lark and moved 700 miles away for a change of scenery. I hadn’t intended to drop out of her life but I grew poorer and poorer at keeping in touch due to personal issues of my own that I let chase me away from home and the distractions that a new life offered. Every now and then I would call her up out of the blue and we’d catch up on each other’s lives and she would fill me in on the latest hometown and classmate news. When we were in our mid-twenties she got married and I was thrilled when she asked me to be a bridesmaid in her wedding; I felt a validation that our bond was still strong even with the miles between us and lapses of correspondence.

A few years later I found out that the marriage had recently ended and I called my dear friend. This spirited, vibrant woman I once knew was not there. She sounded nothing like the girl I grew up with, camping out and playing Truth or Dare in a tent on an empty lot next to her house and following boys around at the mall. Her wry wit that offered up side-splitting one-liners that rendered us all breathless was trampled by the heartbreak of having to accept that she couldn’t fix this man or her marriage. Then there was that all too common self-blame that is experienced by most of the women who find themselves in love with an abusive drunk. No matter how many times I told her, “Tracey, you are not responsible for his bad choices,” her soft replies of, “Yes, I know…but…” it was painful to know that I hadn’t been there where I could have seen what was going on and to encourage and help her heal sooner.

The baby was born to Tracey and her new husband a few years later, a healthy baby boy they named after her and her husband’s fathers. Time and a deep conviction in her faith had healed her heart allowing her to marry again and the love for God that they shared swaddled her in bliss. She was happier than she could have ever imagined.

When the receptionist answered I gave her Tracey’s name and explained that I was looking for a patient who was due anytime but that I wasn’t even sure she was admitted yet, I was just checking. Then that eerie question came.

“Are you family?” the woman on the other end of the line asked and there was a note of uncertainty in her tone.

I felt the seconds stop ticking. My mind didn’t immediately go to an assumption of awful but farther back in there, behind that mind’s eye, something was telling me to brace for something that wasn’t quite right.

“Well…” suddenly my eyes were blurred and the words came out in staccato, very succinctly one at a time as I tried to gather my thoughts between each one. “We were best friends from childhood.” As if that would carry any weight to someone obligated to adhere to patient confidentiality. A moment or two of silence, a click on the line and the next voice answered.

“Intensive Care waiting room.”


It had now been nearly 5 years since Tracey’s death from complications following childbirth and while time had mercifully granted enough emotional buoyancy for me to manage my life without daily crying jags, she was still ever present. Every day I saw her smile, her flawless, silky olive complexion surrounding her pretty blue eyes and heard her laugh. She had the kind of laugh that was light and airy yet robust at the same time, a giggle that was contagious to anyone within earshot. Visions of her from every angle came to me throughout the days and this puzzled me for awhile. At first I thought it was odd that I was seeing her in so often and so clearly when it had been years since we were really immersed in each other’s lives. I finally decided that when you lose someone you were once so close to, spent so much time with and knew so familiarly, the mind holds fast to every moment spent together in the living years and with no regard for the memories we prefer, it chooses the ones to regurgitate and when. This was the rationale I used to explain why sometimes I replayed conversations we had shared in our twenties over broken hearts when at other times I’d see her as she looked at my fourteenth birthday party.

Just four weeks before departing for Varanasi, the only person of interest there had ever been in the case of Jackie’s disappearance twenty five years earlier was tried and convicted of both aggravated rape and first degree murder. Her body was found in the lake after 5 days and the one man the authorities honed in on was able to elude charges for lack of evidence. Things turned around one day in 2007 when a new detective was given the file and took advantage of advances in DNA technology that hadn’t been available in 1985. Remarkably, even after being submersed in murky water for nearly a week, evidence collected in the rape kit provided the match needed to indict the most hated man in Nixa, a man who by this time was rumored to be responsible for several other women’s disappearances and deaths.

I’ve always accepted that my grief for Tracey would last the rest of my life and that the severity of it would ebb and flow around certain dates. The birthday I share with her son, her birthday, the anniversary of her death and funeral all fall into the holiday season between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I also knew when the trial was going to be held and that barring a delay or mistrial it would have seen its conclusion before my visit to this city that is intricately painted by death and the beliefs and rituals that define it.

What I hadn’t anticipated when I booked the trip was the emotional assault that this incredible undertaking that I spent 7 months planning and memories of past events were all congealing to perform. The unfathomable loss of Tracey and the re-opening of wounds suffered during the trial for Jackie’s murder would all become heartbreakingly entwined in India.

New Delhi

Landing in New Delhi is like landing on another planet in an entirely different universe. Day or night, the haze of filth and pollution is visible on descent and by the time the aircraft is roughly 1000 feet above ground, your eyes seem to be looking at the cabin of the plane through a filtered lens that blurs perfect lines. You blink a few times trying to clear the view that you think is just brought on by the fatigue and dehydration of the long flight before acknowledging that the haze is actually inside the plane and settling into your eyes. The burning starts and your body’s own defense mechanisms kick in to attempt to stave off any further discomfort by stimulating the tear ducts to irrigate and rinse the eyeballs. This inevitably leads to rubbing them with tired hands contaminated with the countless bacteria picked up in the cabin and lavatories of a jumbo jet that circles  the earth and sets down in various environments, which only serves to further exacerbate the burning and itching.

Then the smells start to permeate; with each foot of descent they change and change again, one moment being a stench of something burning, the next of unsanitary toilet conditions, nearby raw sewage, then back again to a faint burning whose source and substance is indiscernible. Is it just a combination of all the industrial development and lack of environmental controls that has caused the immediate assault on the senses or did the government raze part of the slums adjacent to the airport that day? Albeit a crude form of zoning and population control, it is a method frequently utilized in this country by the authorities who use bulldozers to demolish shanties and huts of cardboard and corrugated tin sheets. Most are homes in which the sole method of cooking and heating water is with a kerosene burner so fires are a common by product of this measure. There’s rarely much effort by any emergency services to control these fires; they seem to assist the government in spreading the destruction, death and homelessness by engulfing in flames large areas of the communities that neighbor the areas actually flattened by the heavy equipment.

As unwelcoming as it all sounds, India held my heart from the first time I resided there, and at the moment I once again smelled that rancid odor and felt the burn in my eyes, a sensation of contentment and resolve overwhelmed me. During the months of planning, I had repeatedly resisted the urges to chicken out and cancel the endeavor. Every hour spent studying the ancient holy city of Varanasi and reading about other travelers’ experiences only stirred up more anxiety than excitement. I wondered if I was taking on something that I wasn’t at that time emotionally equipped to deal with.

Learning of the significance of Varanasi in Hinduism and its role in the soul’s perfect departure from this earth left all my loved ones who had already passed on dancing in my mind questioning if, and hoping that I would, feel them there. I wanted to feel Tracey. I yearned for a connection with her to see where she was, how she was, and perhaps be able to comprehend –at least grasp an atom of understanding –why she was gone. It was a reverberating ache, this thought that I may see her in some way if I just believed it and I latched onto it, took possession, as if that would will it to be so.

When I thought of Jackie, I imagined seeing her come out of the darkness and into a soft light. During the 25 years that her killer was living his privileged life with no repercussions, I saw her in the dark, not a bad place, but just a quiet darkness like someone who sits up at night settled into a chair in the corner of a room with the lights turned out. Nothing could bring her back or undo the crimes against her but the trial changed the way I thought of her spirit. Now it felt like she could emerge from that wait and go into the comforting light to let her face feel the warmth and she could see ahead to truly pass on. She could have some peace; she could rest now that she had helped catch the monster that killed her.

I liked that for once I thought of her being in a more comfortable place than those of us still living. I didn’t feel that peace for us. So many had said, “Now her family has some closure,” when the verdicts were announced and that beast would be made to pay for what horrors he had put her through. But I don’t believe there is any closure possible when it comes to murder. A mere human was so saturated with evil that he took it upon himself to end her life in a way that tortured her family and friends and broke the heart of a small town that loved her. He could be sentenced to death by the courts or he could die a thousand deaths at the hands of others as devilish as himself but nothing offers closure on that kind of wound. Closure for a murder can only come when everyone who knew the victim is gone. Only when everyone who knew everyone who knew everyone who loved her is gone. Only when everyone who was touched by her story is also dead and gone can closure be possible because until there is that buffer zone of a generation with no personal attachment to the lost, someone will still be grieving. True closure isn’t sealed until the last tear has been cried.

The exhaustion that had been left by all this turmoil showed hints of starting to lift once I boarded the 15 hour flight from Chicago. I knew that I was doing what I needed to do and that while it may not have been the best idea for some, it was right for me. Rather than waiting for a more appropriate time when I would be feeling stronger, I started to see that this was how it was meant to be. It’s the more challenging experiences that allow us the greatest opportunity for growth. It’s the greatest flames that purify and cause elements to change form—the entire point of cremation. Those who put off feeling emotions until they feel more emotionally ready miss the whole experience. Those are the people who make their hotel beds before letting the housekeeper in or who paint their toenails before a pedicure. This incredibly spiritual journey was destined to be one of healing. The bounce of the landing gear on the runway was validation that I was exactly where I was meant to be.


There were multiple breathtaking moments that I experienced in Varanasi. Many were a sudden gasp at a near miss from being struck by a lorry or a very large cow but most were provoked by tuk-tuks, the black and yellow motorized tricycles covered with a canopy but otherwise open air that topped out at a maximum speed of about 35mph. What they lack in speed, they make up for in mobility and convenience and are the most popular form of transportation in Varanasi, a city of 2 million, mostly poor devout Hindus.

The roads in India would laugh contemptuously at the appearance of the highways to which most Westerners are accustomed. Where our traffic primarily travels in organized lanes and orderly processions, the same road that we divide into 2 lanes would, in India, be wasted space where it’s assumed perfectly reasonable for tuk-tuks, motorcycles and automobiles to be crowded into creating 6 or 7 lanes that fade into one another as the drivers of these vehicles maneuver their carriages in a chaotic dance. Sprinkled into the mix are the labor intensive rickshaws which are best described as adult sized tricycles that offer no protective barrier for the pedaling operator or the passengers were anyone’s brakes to fail. The lofty riders’ seat that sits about 4 feet off the ground and tall skeletal wheels lend a feeling that the contraption is always perilously close to capsizing. Of the many road accidents that do occur, one is astonished at not witnessing them more frequently given the density and disorder of the whole affair.

Traffic signals do little more than provide mere suggestions as to who is to progress through an intersection. A red light is acknowledged by few drivers and they only become obstacles to everyone else who chooses to employ tunnel vision, ignore periphery and to pretend not to see the crowd of vehicles swarming toward the inter-section. Brake lights illuminate intermittently and most of the vehicles are the tuk-tuks which have no turn signals therefore forcing the operators to use hand signals and reach outside the frame of the canopy—at great risk of losing the appendage—to signal that he’s turning or edging a different direction.

The intersection takes on the appearance of an orchestrated dance floor. From each direction many small movements from so many participants, all taking turns, moving forward, some three steps and some two at a time, others standing still, blocked in at the moment that should have been theirs to proceed.  It’s like a waltz at a royal ball in which the dancers know each step and every so often reach out to change partners and directions; however, one who is a spectator and unfamiliar with the procession can never anticipate the next turn and can’t help but be amused at the uninterrupted flow of the sequence.  The simple task of getting out of passenger pickup area of the airport and to a hotel just a few hundred meters away becomes a chess game in which you are an unwilling pawn and the player’s (your driver) poor strategy could cause you serious injury or, at the very least, quite elevated anxiety.

The horns. The ever constant bleeping and brain rattling cacophony of horns! Rather than turn indicators, there is the honking of horns. For every brake tap there are bleeps. For every acceleration there are bleeps that shout, “My turn! My turn!” In the hundreds of autos, bikes and mopeds attempting to conquer just one traffic light, every movement provokes multiple bleeps and it’s unfeasible to make a distinction between who bleeped their announced next steps and who are the responders making their objections known. Pedestrians and desperate, darting children are the recipients of scolding shrieks of brakes at the first hint of a step off the curb, saving them from certain collision by sheer millimeters. The Lorries that share the roads with the rickshaws, taxis, and tuk-tuks literally request horn honking from other drivers to indicate they are approaching the truck in the rear or coming up beside them. On the tailgate of the large vehicle will be artistic script painting in bright Hindu art colors stating, “Horn Please”, in Hindi and English, and Indian drivers are clearly more than willing to oblige. In fact, hugging the horn would appear to be the one rule in India that is adhered to unfalteringly.

The first damned horns started blaring at about three o’clock in the morning. At first there were just a few sporadic ones off in the distance, most likely in the direction away from the river and toward the busier streets that bore the business commuters and Lorries. It had been a less than restful first night. The mattress was just a couple of inches thick and the sheet that was stretched over it was so thin that the floral pattern on the mattress shown right through. Two pillows with no cases were at the head of the bed and there was no top sheet or covers of any kind. It was still in the 80’s at night so I didn’t think asking for blankets was necessary but in the middle of the night I ended up pulling clothes out of my luggage  and slept with a couple of shirts draped over me.

I thought I’d try to ignore the noise by convincing myself that I was still sleeping and perhaps incorporate the sounds into a dream in an effort to steal another hour or so of much needed rest but it was no use.  I lay there on my dandy little prison style bed and began to consciously prepare myself for what I’d be seeing again when the sun brought my reality back to light. Nighttime in Varanasi had already become personified, taking on the characteristics of someone I looked forward to seeing, a dark ghost who provided an escape for just a few hours—yet a spiteful visitor who laughed as he left me and found amusement in watching me struggle through the day.

The ceiling fan roared and stirred the air just so that even in the high India temperatures, some kind of cover was needed on the bed to ward off a chill and the teasing of the hair on my arms that became an annoying tickle. As long as my sleep aid was in its early shift of potency, this was subtle enough to not be bothersome but once it had started to wear off and I began to feel my limbs again it felt like gnats were crawling all over me. It was the loudest ceiling fan I’ve ever heard and sounded much more like a lumbering old window mounted air conditioner but I was grateful for that for it was the only thing that helped cope with all the city noise by drowning out what could not even be touched by ear plugs or an iPod. I thought for a moment that I could have used a noise canceling headset but I’m sure even the highest end Bose set would have been about as useless in Varanasi as tits on a warthog. What was really necessary to defeat the racket was at the very least an egg of Silly Putty to cram into each ear, stuffed in bit by bit to plug up the auditory canals. After that I could don the headset but even that would have to be outfitted with mechanisms on each earpiece that mimicked that sound of jet engines. I have no doubt that I would still hear horns.

God bless the pharmaceutical company that makes Ambien. It’s well known that sleep deprivation and excessive noise are both widely recognized forms of torture and my Ambi-candy treats them both. Of course it doesn’t actually affect my hearing or make the environment any less noisy; it just renders me so barely conscious that for a few hours it’s like flipping the bird to all the chaos. That little orange prescription bottle is worth more to me than gold bullion. Picking up a refill is like Christmas, only better because I get refills a lot more than once a year.

I hadn’t yet purchased any figurines of Ganesh, Shiva, or Ram, but with those gods as my witnesses, this is how I felt about my little orange Ambien bottle: it was my chosen diety. In Hindu homes you’ll find shrines and altars dedicated to the deities that particular household are devotees to. This is usually a prominent place in the general living area where there are statues of their most important gods set upon a shelf or mantle surrounded by beautiful textiles, flowers and candles. To complete the altar there are often paintings of the primary diety of the household that creates a backdrop. In Puja (worship) the deities are adorned with fragrances, garlands of marigolds and offerings of sweet treats while prayers of thanksgiving and blessings are offered as well as petitions for wellbeing and protection. I didn’t have to be in Varanasi very long in order to realize that my Ambi-baby bottle was deserving of that kind of adoration. Remember the old Bugs Bunny cartoon that had him disguising Daffy Duck as a rabbit and bequeathing him to some big ogre of a creature who clumsily grabbed him and hugged him so hard his little eyeballs popped out?

“I will hug him, and squeeze him and call him George,” said the oaf. As said I to my ten milligram gods every night in Varanasi. The few hours that those little white pills helped to dispel of the racket and allow some recharging rest were the sweet nectar of life.

Resigned to the fact that my opportunity for sleep for the night had concluded, I opened my eyes to the glare of a streetlight shining through the window of the room. Actually it was more of a hole than a window for it was a large square opening cut out of the wall high up near the ceiling and it had no glass panes, just a couple of iron bars spaced just right so that only a small child could fit through them if someone hoisted him up about 9 feet. They may have kept hooligans out but they did nothing to discourage the lizards from visiting me every morning and with regard to my phobia of reptiles, I’d rather take my chances with a hooligan.

They were just little gecko type creatures which, when in Hawaii or Florida, I find amusing but thrown into the mix of my sensual bombardment here, not so much. On more than one occasion, I awoke to a couple of them hanging out on the ceiling directly above me prompting a rapid roll and leap out of bed for fear of them dropping onto my face. It didn’t escape my thoughts that in that initial moment of sheer panic, I gasped so forcefully that I’m lucky I didn’t suck one clean off the ceiling and inhale it. That would have been a less than glamorous way to go after all the precautions that had been taken over the past several months. I had gotten all the immunizations for hepatitis, typhoid, the adult polio booster, yellow fever, tetanus, took the anti-malarial pills that wreak havoc on the digestive system, flew to Varanasi, ate the food and didn’t get sick, drank the water and still held my own and I practically bathed in Deep Woods OFF and Germ-X alternately. Damned if aspirating a lizard was going to be my undoing.

It was still completely dark outside at four o’clock in the morning and as I came to the bottom of the stairs and into the simple lobby of the Ganesh Guest House, I found that the two staffers were still sleeping on the gray tiled floor, no pillows or covers. Just to the side of the doorway, an ancient computer that was touted on the establishment’s business cards to have “free internet” for the guests clicked and clattered randomly as those obsolete machines do, and cyclically the fan inside would whir for a few seconds at a time. The little green power light blinked weakly as the machine wheezed and rattled as if trying to communicate that it still had a will to compute, to outlive dial up service and grow up to be a big boy with a router and DSL. The same two young men were manning lobby every day and night, Abbas and Ravi.  Ideally, I would have sneaked past without disturbing these poor sweet men who work such tiresome hours but the entrance to the hotel was locked by a large iron accordion-style gate secured with an impressive padlock. I looked around for any other way to leave without having to wake them but that was the only access or egress I could see which led me to wonder how we were to get out in case of an emergency. In India fire exits are viewed as nuisances, not necessities, whose only purpose is providing one more entrance for thieves and beggars.

I debated returning to my room for just a little while longer till I started hearing more activity, thinking that I’d rather let one of the other guests be responsible for deciding that it was time for them to start their day when one of the men stirred and lifted his head a bit to try to focus his sleepy eyes. Offering an apologetic smile and an Indian head waggle that I was still trying to master, I put my hands to heart in prayer and nodded at him.

I whispered, “Namaste, so sorry to wake you—do you mind?” and glanced toward the gate to imply a request for it to be unlocked. He smiled and waggled in response and willed his thin frame to lift him to nearly standing. Sleeping on the cold floor had clearly left the poor man too stiff and sore to straighten out of a stoop. I scolded myself for having found the 3 inch thick mattress on my bed so inadequate when offered up against the discomfort so many have to endure every second of every minute of every hour of every day is beyond comprehension. Abbas’ heavy keychain jangled against the baby blue painted steel as he inserted an oversized, very archaic looking key into the lock and then leaned against the gate having to use most of his weight to push it open. The metal squealed in protest as its joints were forced to fold back into themselves and the bottom rim scraped against the polished tile.

I walked down the few steps from the guest house entrance and stopped to look in both directions in the alley so I didn’t step directly into the path of anything oncoming and then looked down at my feet to watch for piles of cow shit to avoid. The only thing on the pavement that was more plentiful than cow pies were potholes and I had visions of stepping into a pile of shit, slipping, and tripping into a gaping hole in the street and breaking my leg. The thought of needing an emergency room in this town was far from appealing.

I stopped again at the end of the alley before turning into the street and as I stood there taking in the rhythm of activity that was waking up, I felt something push me from behind. My foot slipped on the uneven pavement and I leaned into the outside wall of the corner shop as an enormous cow claimed her right to the slim passage. She wasn’t intentionally demonstrating aggression; she was simply looking ahead and saw where she wanted to go, lowering her head to the ground every few steps to investigate possible food sources. She was blissfully unaware of her girth past her head. I braced myself against the building and sucked in my breath as much as possible to allow her to lumber past me, chewing on a decaying banana peel, her massive ribcage pressing me until she narrowed again at her flanks.

Only 38 hours had elapsed since the drive from the Varanasi airport and I felt a crushing anxiety already. It was just too overwhelming to comprehend being able to endure the entire 4 weeks I had planned to stay and I was already about ninety-nine percent sure that I would be cutting the trip short. However, I was there and I’d spent months planning this adventure and before admitting defeat I was first going to force myself to do something here that I was terrified to do, something that could not be experienced anywhere else in the world; take a dawn boat ride down the Ganges to see the famous banks including the burning ghats where the majority of the city’s cremations take place.

It is believed that if you die in Varanasi or at least have your body cremated there on the ghats (the banks of steps leading down into the river) and your remains are put into the Ganges that you achieve moksha, meaning, you are released from the turmoil of samsara which is the cycle of death and rebirth and you go to Paradise or Heaven. For this reason, the city has grown to a population of over 2 million people who take comfort in knowing that this is their last life on this earth. To die in Varanasi means that the misery of all physical life is over; no amount of bad karma can cause you to be born into a more miserable next life and you no longer have to strive so hard to build up good karma for a favorable next life. This illustrates the appeal that it holds for the large number of widows. The widow’s existence becomes so challenging after her identity dies along with her husband’s that hundreds make their way there every day to live out the rest of their days often actively praying for death. If, however, you foolishly cross the Ganges and happen to die while on the other bank, you will be reborn as a donkey.

Rounding the corner the river came into view and the full moon reflected on the surface illuminating the ghat just enough for the boats at the water’s edge to be made out and the dark figures of the oarsmen started to stir as they saw business opportunities arriving. I braced for an onslaught of hecklers and touts but the crowd was much more docile than what I had experienced in Delhi and Mumbai. The men made themselves available by passive eye contact and polite offers of boat rides but they were refreshingly non-aggressive. Even with the poverty and a daily struggle for survival, the people of Varanasi were welcoming and non-threatening. Their faith avows that in the holy city limits, any crime committed is weighted a thousand times more heavily and the desire to avoid bad karma is palpable.

I wanted to give my business to a younger boatman and Deepak approached me at just that thought. He looked to be in his mid to late teens, lean and muscular with teeth so white that they and his eyes were what I could see the most clearly in the dim moonlight.

“Boat, Miss? Boat, Miss? You come in my boat?”

I waggled my head in agreement and asked, “How much?”

“Five hundred rupees.” About eleven dollars US for my own guided boat tour with a single oarsmen rowing about a mile upstream and back. The ride would take about 2 hours and by the time we’d return to Assi Ghat the sun and heat would be too great for him to do another tour until the evening. Even then it wasn’t guaranteed that he’d get another fare so it was possible that what he made off me would be his only income of the day.

Deepak took my hand and guided me to his boat with the aid of other men whose boats were all crowded together on the shore and led me to use them all as bridges and stepping stones to get to the one we’d be taking up the river. They all looked the same and I wondered how they could distinguish one from another in the dark as they were all suffering from faded paint and no real identifying marks. It was quickly apparent that I needed to pay close attention to Deepak’s instructions and step only where he did for several boats looked less than seaworthy and even when he indicated we had found his, he reached down to adjust a couple of the floor slats, sliding them into place so that I had a firm place to step into the vessel.  I took one of the seats and checked around to see how it settled with my weight, noting the rotting pieces that seemed to cry out wanting to detach from one another. I am nearly as afraid of water as I am of snakes and was about to float out into the Ganges, arguably one of the most polluted waterways on the planet, in the dark, in a rickety old rowboat that looked like it could have been built by Christ himself. Well, I thought, if I die at least it was while doing something cool.

I was getting settled in when I looked up and saw a beautiful little girl running toward us. She had something in her hands and a determined expression on her face and I knew that she had found in me an obvious sucker who would buy her wares even if she had been selling baby cobras.

“Madam! Diyahs! Good karma, long life! Madam!” She leapt with quick agility over the boats to get to me. Deepak tried to shoo her away to discourage the pestering that most of his customers surely tire of.

I said to him, “No, it’s ok. I don’t mind. I was meaning to get a few of them anyway to set out on the water.”

The little girl was selling diyahs, small offerings constructed of a waterproof paper bowl that looks somewhat like wood parquet. In it is placed a pool of ghee or oil, marigold blossoms and flower petals and a long wick. They are to be lit and then set afloat as a prayer for favorable karma but they are also symbolic of leading a departed soul’s way across the river to progress on to Paradise. I bought 3 of them from her and she ran away to proudly show her profits to her brothers.

This was the primary task I had set for myself to complete before anything else could be absorbed on the journey. There was something so beautiful about the gesture of the setting of diyahs on the water and I wanted to light one for Tracey, one for Jackie, and one for Austin, a 17 year old boy from home whose sudden death a couple of months ago had shaken the high school football team on the first day of summer practice. I didn’t know him but felt connected to his mother who was my age and with whom I shared mutual friends. My heart broke for her and although we had never actually met, we corresponded through emails and I felt an intimate connection with her. Ironically, her name was Tracey. The diyahs had been on my mind since I left home. They were to be like a last hug and kiss to the 3 of these people who were all struck down in the primes of their lives, a sort of letting go, and I wished that their family members could have been there instead of my feeling like I was cheating them. It was an experience that they had much more right to than I.

As Deepak labored and rowed us upstream and past the adjoining ghats, I listened to the worshippers as they rang their chimes, splashed and bathed in the river, chanted and prayed. I was amazed that I wanted to breathe deeply to take in the morning air, which was bafflingly without stench. How could it be that all the sewage, death and pollution of the city is offered into the Ganges flowing downstream to meet us yet out on the water was the one place that offered a respite from the odor of shit and rot that engulfed the rest of the town?  I mentioned this to Deepak.

“The Ganga is not dirty. It is our Mother. The no smell is part of the mystery of her Divine,” he smiled, straightening me out. “You wish to light diyahs?”

I did want to see them before the dark was gone so he stopped paddling and pulled a matchbook out of his pant pocket. I wanted the whole event to slow down so that I could feel every rock of the boat, listen to the fizz of the matches igniting the three diyahs one by one and meditate on distinct prayers for Jackie, Tracey and Austin individually, but that would risk missing the greater moment. I knew that their concept of time was now on a different plane than mine and that no matter how much of a blur it was to me, they would still feel the energy.

All three diyhas flames were now flickering and I stared at them on the floor of the boat.  The still air let them dance daintily to the distant bells and priestly chants. One at a time I scooped them up and attached a name to them.

Austin. Austin, I’m so sorry I never met you. I’m here for your mother right now and at this moment on the other side of the world I want you to know you’re thought of, how far your life reached. I wish we knew why you were taken. How did that one seemingly simple choice lead to such excruciating agony for those you left here so young? I set his diyah on the water and watched the tiny light till it disappeared on the current.

Tracey. My dearest childhood friend Tracey who had solidified a relationship with her God and Jesus and while my own beliefs were scattered, there was no other place I could imagine her but exactly where she believed she would be. I hoped that she could at least see me from where she was to know she was being remembered at that very moment. I was still in the dark on the Ganges but I only saw her in comforting sunlight standing in a field of brightly colored flowers with white rays of Heaven shining down all around her, clearly she was with the God who holds her heart. I miss you so much. At times I think I understand why you’re gone but those brief thoughts don’t erase the moments that flash now and then when I nearly reach for the phone to call you to tell you about something I just saw. I lose track of seasons and years in those moments. Losing you crushed my faith. Your mother, father and brother are shattered but they still have a piece of you in the little baby you made. He is their lifeline to you and I wonder if he will ever comprehend exactly what that means. It was hard to let Tracey’s diyah go and it floated off as quickly as Austin’s.

I may not have known Jackie but it was when I set her diyah on the water that I felt the wind purge from my lungs. Maybe it was being able to turn the page of injustice for those 25 years in which her killer paid no price and now it felt like Jackie had won. It was another stitch in the seam of the collective heart that had been ripped apart that night and while it can never be completely repaired there was a genuine feeling of one more stone turned upright in the world. Her mother had passed just a few years after her murder but her father and 4 sisters were still living on and as her diyah drifted away I hoped that they had felt at least some comfort that her killer would live out the rest of his miserable days as a cursed evil marked for death far from the luxuries he had known most of his life.


While contemplating the grief process one night I was trying to find a thread of reason to grasp that I could use to reel myself to a place where I understood how to feel from the moment of tragedy to the stage of acceptance and moving on. As a child I would crawl under the covers and cry unendingly because I didn’t yet have the ability to see that the pain would alleviate and I would be able to compartmentalize this experience and move on. But now, after enduring painful events and being able to clearly reflect upon them and acknowledge getting past them all, I wanted an understanding of the time in between. I wanted to know how I would counsel my ten year old self in a time of loss with the lessons learned with age.

It slowly came to me that I may have chosen to hold onto and continue hurting over some painful memories where others I easily processed and let go. Contrary to popular psychiatric protocol, I don’t believe that we have all that ability to choose our thoughts and dismiss the hurtful remembrances that hold us back, but I can’t explain why we’re able to slough off some more easily than others. It seems that if we could take in information (such as the news of the death of a loved one) and embrace the lesson and wisdom that the experience has to offer, yet not feel the pain or sadness, we would be a much stronger and emotionally healthy culture.

That may be possible in a science fiction story but in humanity it simply isn’t. We have to feel the gamut of emotions for the experience to be complete. A sob not released and a tear not spilled from the eye short circuits the lesson that will at some point impart a measure of comfort. I remember a line from a book of devotionals I was gifted years ago in a time of stifling grief; “Breaded corn is broken”. In order for a cake to be made or a loaf of bread to be kneaded, one of the main ingredients has to be taken from its purest and most complete form and picked off the stalk, have the husk ripped away and separate the kernels from the cob. Then each piece is pummeled and ground into a fine powder no longer recognizable as that solid outgrowth from the six foot tall plant. What starts as a kernel has to be crushed into flour, a workable form before it can be the largest ingredient in bread.

An image started to develop that, to me, became a moving picture to illustrate the confusion of this life experience.

I saw a long, gently curving cobblestone road ahead of me, a memory of one of the streets of Varanasi. It was fairly level and didn’t appear to meet with any changing grade going uphill or down; it just snaked on ahead in even waves from the left to the right. The stones were slightly varying in shape but similar in size and closely set in an irregular yet flowing pattern so that it had an aesthetic appearance that kept the eye interested. The lighting was even as if the sky were overcast or the entire road was shadowed and the one consistency in the stones was their color; that of a dark sienna brown. The space between the stones was minimal and just enough to see where to differentiate one stone from the next by the grooves where the depths escaped what little light was on the surface of the pavers.

I was taking it all in as a peaceful, dream like vision that felt like that last hazy moment before falling into sleep, when the picture started morphing. As I let my eyes gaze farther and farther down the road, in my peripheral vision I started to notice something changing. I looked down at my feet and one at a time, some of the stones before me softly illuminated and then faded out again in a single subtle blink. I looked behind me and more of them were doing the same thing randomly and never in unison but graciously taking turns. It wasn’t done in rapid succession but very slowly so that perhaps for a second or two there would be none that were changed and then from much farther behind me one would take its turn. They were communicating, somehow orchestrating the arrangement in which each chose when to rest and if or when to glow. They were allowing one another to breathe its complete illumination and then return back to its unlit state before the next would commence its glow.

A stone behind me took just a few moments to go from that deep brown to a muted shade of glowing green– not a bright and fast blink but more like a light that was filtered through fog. The gaps between the stones kept their darkness but the brown color of the rock itself gradually faded giving way for the green that slowly bled in from the edges until it showed through most directly in the center of the stone. It maintained its faint glow for a brief time and then came back into rest much in the same way that a candle is snuffed out.

All along the road from the area directly beneath my feet to as far in the distance that I could see in either direction, many stones took turns undergoing the same metamorphosis but through different colors. There were flickers of blue, mauve, green, or gray and although they were hazy and subtle, the image was in no way lackluster. The sequence of the dancing colors varied so that I couldn’t anticipate where the next changing stone rested, instead it would catch my eye as it lit and went out again. Looking behind me and all around, I saw something like a soft, slow motion strobe-effect. As each stone stopped glowing and faded back to opaque, it retained the color that it had changed into. The light’s life span quickly passed but the stone was left permanently changed in its color. The ones that had glowed blue became a darker hue of blue, the luminescent mauve altered to a darker mauve, and so on with all the stones that had shown themselves lit.

This road of changing stones was a metaphor. The road was a life. The stones were all the components and experiences of a life. Some of the stones were people whose paths we cross, friends, family members, even acquaintances.  Some were events that placed themselves in this life, those that brought profound sadness and those that offered inexplicable joy. The moment my dear friend received a call that her brother was critically injured in an accident and most probably would not survive. He did, but each surgery, each step forward and each setback in his recovery resulted in colored stones. A couple of years later, another stone lit when someone else she was very fond of was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Each tearful interaction, each conversation filled with sobbing, every opportunity taken to commiserate with her would be another stone kilned to color on the path. She chose to see colors on her road one day when she committed to accompanying him to his chemotherapy appointments. She could have chosen not to do it and avoid coming face to face with the rigors of cancer treatment and take the less painful direction that would leave stones as they are.  Not everyone would endure this with a friend—a spouse or child, yes, but not always a friend. Fully aware of the horrors of cancer and its remedies, sharing the anguish of the sweats and chills, the vomiting, the “should I even go on” moments that her friend will inevitably go through, I know she will be with him every time, the fact that it means frequent travel notwithstanding. As painful as they will be, she is choosing to share this experience and create these memories.  She will one day be looking back at an incredible mosaic of her life.

Some of the stones were specific conversations with persons that no matter how brief the exchange of words, were meant to leave a lasting impression.

“You’ll never leave me. You’re such a little girl. A little Daddy’s girl and you’ll never be strong enough to just pick up and leave. I can do anything to you—and what are you going to do? You’ll never leave me.” Such was the claim of the emotionally abusive and controlling individual I endured for a year in my early 20’s. The memory of that conversation is a stone that changed the course of my life. Within three months of leaving him I went from being an unemployed student living with and financially dependent upon him to pursuing my first flying job, traveling the world and buying my first house. I was never tempted to look back, to reconnect or even just “catch up”. That stone stayed put and stayed a solid muddy color of the darkest brown while all the stones adjacent shone in all those other heavenly colors.

As each stone that would go through the metamorphosis was a moment experienced or a chance grasped, those were the stones that would feel the warmth of my foot. Thinking about life in this imagery made me want to tap my toe onto as many of them as I could without losing my balance and falling, allowing as few as possible to go untouched. From this point on, I would attempt to live consciously, try to recognize the potential lesson in every moment. In spite of this, I had no regrets over the stones behind me that had never changed. I reasoned that one that I had come so close to stepping on– but then didn’t– had been loosely embedded in mud and would have slipped out of its place. Another one may have looked like all the other beautiful stones but was actually quite weakened by decay and rot. Stepping on either of these could have caused me to fall as they shifted under my weight. Those stones are not missed or ignored opportunities over which to be remorseful; they simply lie beside the stone that was the better choice at the time. The stone that provided the firmest footing.

No unchanged stone was representative of regret; some were never meant to be touched but were meant to be there to buttress the stones that were stepped upon. When I turn around to look back at the portion of the road that I’ve already traveled, I see a beautiful path of perfectly coordinated stones. And while even the ones that were never changed from that unsightly appearance of a mud brick certainly do serve a purpose, it’s the others, the ones that felt the questioning touch of life and are forever embellished with color, that really make the road worth traveling.

Touch stone.

A special thank you to the family members of Tracey, Austin and Jackie who gave their blessings for me to write about their loved ones and the enormous impact their lives had on this journey.