The Polluted Elixir of Life

According to religious belief, the Ganges is amrita, elixir of life, "cleanser of sin," "eternal womb," and "purifier of souls." Even from a scientific point of view, the river once had an almost miraculous ability to purify itself -- up to 100 years ago, microbes such as cholera could not survive in these sacred waters. Sadly, the Ganges is today one of the most polluted rivers in the world. This is mostly due to the chemical toxins dumped by industrial factories that line the river, but Varanasi's ancient sewers and a population with equally ancient attitudes toward waste disposal (including the dumping of an estimated 45,000 uncremated corpses annually) are problems the Uttar Pradesh Water Board struggles to overcome. Several eco-groups like the Sankat Mochan Foundation at Tulsi Ghat are working to alleviate the environmental degradation of the Ganges, but as you will find abundantly clear within an hour of being in Varanasi, much more needs to be done. Still, it may be something of a miracle that so many people perform their daily ablutions -- with full-body immersions -- in the waters and apparently suffer no harm; it's even a popular stunt with braver tourists.

Death as Road to Salvation?

Of all the sadhus (ascetics) and holy men you will see in Varanasi, perhaps the hardest to understand without brutal judgment are the Aghori sect and their rituals. You may spot the occasional Aghori at a shamshan ghat (cremation ground) in Varanasi, usually with matted hair and no clothing, or just covered in white ash, or at most wearing a funeral shroud. The skull he carries is his cranial eating and drinking bowl. Aghoris roam the cremation grounds, where they may smear themselves with the ash from the pyres and/or meditate sitting atop a corpse. It is alleged that as a once-in-a-lifetime act they sometimes also eat a piece of a corpse's flesh. While their rituals are extremely radical and even abhorrent to most, it's interesting to understand what underlies this behavior. Aghoris believe that acting contrary to the accepted norms and taboos of Brahmin ritual and belief is the necessary path to enlightenment. As a result, they eat meat, drink alcohol, and smoke intoxicants. By seeking to reverse all values entrenched within mainstream Hinduism, they choose to embrace all that a Brahmin considers impure. Close contact with the dead, they believe, is a way of focusing on their single-minded quest to live with reality. The funeral pyre is thus for the Aghoris a continual reminder that everyone has to die, and their obsession with death an attempt to live in intimate awareness of it.

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