INDIA: LAND OF MYTHS
It was 3 a.m., I had just landed in Delhi and I still had to stay there for another 10 hours before finally flying to Varanasi.
At the Indira Gandhi International Airport, worthy of a nuclear power like India, there was a dense smog typical of the most polluted city on the planet at those days. It seemed to me so excessive that it brought to my mind the saying that in India everything is like that, too many people, too many gods, too many religions, too many rituals, too many contrasts ... too much of everything.
Actually, India is so vast and complex that everything that can be said about it is both true and false because everything has its opposite.
India’s is the only great ancient civilisation that has been transmitted to the present day without interruption; somewhat similar to modern Egyptians continue to worship Amun and Ra and burying their dead according to the rituals of the Sarcophagus Text.
Neither in Egypt today nor anywhere else on the planet does this happen, but it does in India.
As I hung out, at the back of the terminal, figures in yoga postures, blurred by the smog, reminded me that I had finally begun a long-delayed journey.
During all that time I had been debating between the expectancy of unknown and exotic things and the certainty that human being, no matter where or when, always have the same fears and desires and always end up asking themself the same questions. And it’s their ability to find different answers to those same questions that has led to our different ways of living.
If there is one civilization whose answers have been radically different from those of the West, it has been Hindu civilization.
As with all other theistic religions, Hinduism, to put it very simply, is a body of myths, beliefs and dogmas of allegedly divine origin (that imagined order of Y.N. Harari) that provide answers to all the transcendental questions that surround human beings.
But while in the West the sacred coexists with greater or lesser intensity with the profane, in India the sacred, the mythical, the ritual is an essential part of daily life.
On the other hand, the special relationship that Hindus have with death and the rituals that surround it is surprising above all else. A relationship embodied in the idea of the cycle of birth, life, death and reincarnation that they call "Samsara".
In India, the omnipresent ancestral rituals, the almost boundless polytheism, the mythical, are like the air that permeates everything with a unique and unrivalled aroma.
Delhi airport was left behind and Varanasi appeared already down there caressed by the sacred Ganges, I thought that now I had finally reached my particular TERRA IGNOTA.
DAY I.- KASHI: CITY OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS
Not when you enter it for the first time, not when you descend its ghats, not when you get lost in its labyrinthine alleys, only when you leave Varanasi - Kashi - you realize how deeply and radically Hindu this city on the verge of collapse is.
Before Rome was known or Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem, Kashi was alrerady shining in all its glory and splendour. In the words of Mark Twain "Varanasi is older than history, tradition and legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together". But the history of Kashi is not a history of magnificent monuments or ancient stones, it is a spiritual, mystical history, flooded not only by the sacred river Ganges but literally by myths and rituals and forged by a huge succession of generations united by the same way of explaining the world and the human being´s place in it.
Varanasi is the only city in the ancient world still populated that preserves traces of a way of life at least 3000 years old. It’s not that it has remained static and unchangeable, but the deep influence of Hinduism on the way of life, on the patterns of interrelation and social structure, and, above all, the almost total ritualisation of daily life, has caused it to remain as it was even in ancient times, despite the pressure exerted on it by increasing westernisation.
So much so that, if Buddha were to return to Varanasi, he would have no difficulty in recognising the rituals that are performed daily by the thousands on the banks of the Ganges and that he had already seen in VI B.C. on his way to Sarnath - just 10 km away - to deliver the first founding discourse of Buddhism.
For ages, Varanasi has been, in addition, unique in India - and therefore in the world - for its special relationship with death, for its undaunted attitude towards it.
Death, the most certain reality of life, feared or taboo in other places, is here expected with the same naturalness that a young man expects his maturity, death here is liberation, it is a safe door to the "moksha": the end of the cycle of reincarnations. For this reason, to get the moksha, hundreds, thousands and thousands of people have gone, go and will go to it in their final pilgrimage when they feel their end is near.
Death in Varanasi is an endless funeral procession which, to the rhythm of "Rama Nama Satya He" (the name of God is the Truth), endlessly feeds two unique crematoria in the world located in the middle of the city on the banks of the sacred river Ganges: Harishchandra and Manikarnika.
DELHI 20 DECEMBER 2019 02 A.M.
DAY II.- MANIKARNIKA: THE LAST JOURNEY [ DYING ON THE BANKS OF THE GANGES].
Today Kashi's light, like your life itself, has irremediably become eternal darkness.
Today in Varanasi, in Manikarnika, you have started your last journey.
It doesn't matter when or how you got to Kashi.
It doesn't matter if you lived in misery or abandoned opulence to dedicate yourself to the study of the sacred texts you inherited from your parents.
You surely complied a thousand and one times with the millenary rituals that your gods demanded for you and your ancestors and you descended again and again the steps of the ghats, on your way to the sacred river to submerge yourself in its polluted but purifying waters.
Perhaps you came here on pilgrimage in order to be blessed by some holy man or looking for a final resting place when you had a feeling that the end was near.
Perhaps you were a wandering renunciant and ended up at the end of your days with your ascetic brothers in some secluded monastery.
Be that as it may, you have already passed through it: you had to shave your head and wear the white tunic while silently mourned your mother's departure as you started the final bonfire around her corpse after the five sacred ritual turns.
At this point, it doesn't matter who you were and what you did, it doesn't matter whether you were a pariah or a brahmin.
Now, your body lies motionless after the last immersion in the sacred waters and under the weight of the wood that will devour your flesh.
Gone are the bright sunsets that your eyes will no longer see and the joyful hubbub of the seagulls that your ears will no longer hear.
Your bones will creak under the fire as Shiva whispers in your ear the longed-for words that will free you from the eternal cycle of reincarnations. You will finally reach the longed-for “moksha”.
Your son, as you did yourself in your own time, will hit your skull in order to free your soul, will throw your unconsumed remains into the river, there where the gold seekers live with the water up to their waists, and will throw over your ashes, still warm, the ritual vessel as it has been done for millennia.
Tomorrow in Manikarnika the fire will continue to devour corpses, but life - that tiny and extraordinary fact within an inert universe - will continue its course in a kind of collective samsara.
Tomorrow, after all, you will continue to exist because your children and your children's children will continue to pray for you in a thousand different ways on the banks of the Ganges.
DELHI 10 DECEMBER 2019 06 A.M.
DAY III.- THE GOLDEN TEMPLE: IN THE LAND OF SIKHS
It was the 5th day I gave my boots in custody in order to get in.
Hours of wandering barefoot awaited me over the icy, slippery marble of the Golden Temple, the holy temple of the Sikhs in Amritsar.
After a month of dodging the mud of the Ganges, they looked awful - despite attempts to clean them up - and they were just a couple more among several thousand, as many as pilgrims parade, every day of the year, through the holy complex.
The history of the Sikhs, like that of so many other peoples, takes place alongside holy books and deadly spears.
They have a well-deserved reputation for being terrible fighters and excellent warriors with a chequered history: they inflicted on the British army its worst defeat in the country, but also suffered, in their own flesh, massacres such as Jallianwala Bagh or the one at the Golden Temple itself by Indira Gandhi's army and which, in turn, provoked her assassination at the hands of two members of her personal guard, Sikhs.
The contrast between the seriousness and roughness of their faces and the affability with which they shake your hand between theirs is truly disconcerting.
Many of them walk the streets with their huge turban, their sword and their sacred dagger from which they don’t separate even during their ritual bath in the nectar pool (amritsar in Punjabi) which gives its name to the city.
We are in Punjab, but it seems that we have already left India. There are no cows, no monkeys, no offerings at every corner, at every moment.
It all began in the 15th century AD with the guru Nanak and his successors and disciples (Sikhs in Punjabi) who founded a new monotheistic religion in opposition to the excessive Hindu polytheistic ritualism, its caste system, the sacrifice of widows and the social difference between men and women - among other measures.
Now, and since then, all the men are surnamed Singh (lion) and all women Kaur (princess); an effective measure to avoid reference to caste of origin.
Night was falling; inside the temple the Granth Sahib gurus were still reading the sacred texts and the kitchen was still serving free food to everyone.
I went back to pick up my boots, one pair among thousands. The boots were spotless and perfectly polished.
Sometimes seemingly insignificant things happen that push you to reflect on them because you intuit that behind that trivial appearance something great and transcendent is hidden.
Over there, at the entrance to the Golden Temple in Amritsar, one of those magical moments happened. Bewildered, speechless, I was unable to thank this totally unexpected gesture, who could I thank?
After a few hesitant seconds I got moody because of my own reaction.
I shouldn't have forgotten that I was in Sikh land.
DELHI 19 DECEMBER 2019 3:30 A.M.
Enterría, Álvaro (2018). LA INDIA POR DENTRO. José J. de Olañeta e Indica Books
VV.AA. (2012). BENARÉS. La ciudad imaginaria. José J. de Olañeta e Indica Books