My friend, Duncan, and I had wrapped up dinner at a restaurant in Varanasi, India and more than half the food was uneaten. We asked for a carry out bag, knowing in the back of our mind that we would probably never eat the food. While walking down towards the Ganges, we started to pass beggars, beaten down to the ground by years of poverty, and one by one we handed them little foil packages of leftover food. A man saw me place a bag in the hands of a blind man squatting on the street. “Good Karma,” he said. “Did you know this man is 100 years old?” At the waterfront we encountered another beggar. I handed him another small bag of food. A smile lit up his face. When I looked back at him he was fondling the gift of food as though it was Diwali. The reaction filled me much more than the dinner. We did not walk by and ignore him.
Varanasi, India is the epicenter of karma, the do unto others, reap what you sow force that leads people to a better life, or at least, presumably, a better afterlife. When we arrived in Varanasi, the holy Hindu city where people come to die, our guide, Deep, told us that people arrive in Varanasi with their hands closed around their worldly possessions and leave with their hands open. The only thing they take on their journey to the afterlife is their karma. The rituals of life and death are out in the open here. People come at sunrise to the River Ganges to wash away their sins in her holy waters, and they come again when their time is over, to be cremated on her banks. Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week fires burn. Shrouded bodies are dipped in the Ganges and then the son or male relative of the deceased lights the fire that takes a loved one on their final way.
The idea of karma is omnipresent in this central Indian city of five million. But karma only gets you so far in the here and now and to have a worthwhile existence people need money. With that in mind those in the old city of Varanasi have perfected the art of the hustle. It starts when you are just a child. Pretty little girls between 8 and 12 implore you to buy their marigold flowered candles to put in the River Ganges, so your prayers will be carried down the river. They are relentless salesgirls with their pitch honed and refined from mothers and older sisters. Young male guides around 15 years old follow you through the teeming alleyways offering to take you to temples, reminding you not to trust anyone else but them. They are charming and sincere. They don’t want money, they want friendship. All this as you empty your pockets.
It is a little easy to become uncertain or even cynical when the man at the burning ghat asks you to make a donation to the hospice, and a woman he says is a nurse comes out of the shadows to bless you and take your money. But as a traveler to Varanasi I wanted to believe in the purity of intention and the notion that the people here practice what they preach. I want to believe that little Warsa and Shivani, young Panka and Rahul, and of course Deep, will be smiled on by the gods Shiva and Ganesha and that they will find a righteous balance in their lives, and if they don’t, that the River Ganges will wash their sins away. And from this place I want to carry home with me a reminder to live my life in a more generous way. Even the farewell at the airport from Deep, evoked karma. We do not say goodbye in Varanasi. We say “welcome again.”
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