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Looking For Moksha In Turbid Waters

The Ganga is mythified by a large section of Indians who believe its waters can purify their sins. But who will purify the Ganga?

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Thus Flows the Eternal River: A ‘sand’ ship on the Ganga at Chhapra, Bihar
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The Ganga asked: Where do I wash my sins?

The cremation ground was right on the banks of the Ganga, as scary as it was big. There were no settlements nearby. As far as one could see, the massive expanse of the sand stretched into the distance, only broken by one or two date palms or some thorny bushes.

There was a shack right in the middle of the cremation ground. It could be used for shelter in case of rains or a storm, or just to rest. However, people believed that the hut was inhabited by ghosts and were afraid to enter it even in broad daylight.

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But Raju did not worry about such things. He went straight into the shack. Sharat followed him but was shaking with fear. Raju put the corpse on the ground and said, “I haven’t smoked a beedi for quite a while, let me light one.”

Suddenly, a voice came from the dark: “Will you give one to me too?”

Sharat’s hair stood on end and he broke into a sweat. Raju asked, “Who is there?” and struck a match to look around. He saw a man lying on a dirty bed nearby, covered in a quilt.

“Who are you?”

“I am a Ganga yatri (pilgrim).”

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Upon looking closely, they saw that an old man, aged around 80, was lying under the quilt. When Raju handed him the beedi, the old man puffed on it as if he had been given a new lease of life.

He said, “Son, you have saved me. I have been lying here for days, but even death has abandoned me. I was accompanied by two grandsons and a neighbour, but they are angry because I am not dying quickly enough. Today, they have gone out to see the yatra (pilgrimage). They say, ‘We had brought him so he could die quickly, but he seems to be recovering by inhaling the fresh Ganga air.’ I don’t know what will happen to me, a Ganga yatri cannot go back.”

Raju replied, “Why can’t he? You look fine. Where is your house? We will drop you there. Otherwise, those who have brought you here will strangle you to death.” The old man said, “Yes, my son, they keep threatening me and don’t know when they may just do that.”

(From Awara Masiha, a fictionalised biography of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay by Vishnu Prabhakar)

The incident described here dates back around 125 years, from the lifetime of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. I often wondered how we could be so brutal towards our elderly. Then, one day, I got the opportunity to pass through the Rajendra bridge, built on the Simariya ghat (riverbank), around 110 km from Patna. As I looked down at the river, there were several huts made of straw spread around the vacant ghat. I was told that the huts belonged to people who had come there for kalpavaas (a month-long stay) by the riverbank.

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The late journalist NK Thakur once told me about his childhood days in Darbhanga. “I was a child and studied there. I was stunned when I came to know that people took their old parents to Simariya ghat for ‘Ganga labh’ (salvation through the Ganga) and that some of them died there on their own and the others were drowned in the river by force. I do not know how true that was but we were told these stories,” he said.

The incidents from Chattopadhyay’s life and Thakur’s anecdote were similar. The old question in my mind suddenly resurfaced.

It was a November morning, wet with dew. The sun had not risen yet. The first scene that caught my attention, while descending from the slope next to the bridge, was of some old women walking towards the Ganga, holding hands. There were innumerable small straw huts nearby. These women were coming out of the huts and heading to the river. In front of the huts, elderly men and women could be seen brushing their teeth with datoon (a fresh twig chewed into a brush). Another thing that grabbed my attention was that three generations were there together: a grandmother with her daughter and granddaughter. In front of some huts, people had made beds on the ground, where a few wilted tulsi (holy basil) plants grew.

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In the distance, the Rajendra bridge rose above the mist, still as a painting—so light, so ephemeral, as if it would be erased just by running a hand over it. Below, the massive Ganga flowed as far as the eye could see. On the bank, in an area which must have been submerged earlier, remnants of Goddess Durga statues lay strewn about.

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When Gods Need Purification: A statue of Durga being immersed in the Ganga Photo: Getty Images

Before the bridge was built, people used to cross to the other side on steamers. Rabindranath Tagore is said to have travelled by the steamer here. In his book Char Adhyay (Four Chapters), it is here that the hero Ateen meets Ella, on a steamer.  

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The morning mist was slowly clearing up. In the brightening light, I started moving towards the Ganga along with the bathers. On my right, a very old man was walking with me. His stumbling feet, sinking into the sand, suddenly stopped. He stared at me for a while, with surprise and curiosity.

“Reporter!”

“Yes,” I nodded.

“Have you come from far away?” 

I started laughing,

“Have you come for Ganga labh?”

Ganga labh is when people die here. That is a matter of good luck. I have come here for kalpavaas,” he explained. “People come to live here and bathe for the month of Kartika (October–November). Especially women from Mithila come here. Men, too, come, but in fewer in number.” He leaves me and stumbles on, getting lost in the crowd. I stay back and try to stop an old man with a huge tilak (vermilion mark) on his forehead.

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The incidents described here dates back around 125 years, from the lifetime of Sarat Chandra. I often wondered how we could be so brutal towards our elderly.

“Can you tell me something,” I ask him. “What?” he squints at me.

“All of you have come here for this?” I enquired.

“I am Vishwanath Purve. I have come here from Nepal’s Sikajoti village,” he introduces himself. He says that every year around 10,000 people from Nepal come here for kalpavaas and moksha (salvation). He says, “Listen, as per ancient beliefs, during three months of the year, Kartika, Magha (January–February) and Vaishakha (April–May), Lord Varuna resides in the water. During these months, if you take a dip in any water body, you attain Moksha and your sins are washed away. On top of that, this is the Ganga, divinity herself. Taking a dip in her washes away sins accumulated over many births. And if you die here, that becomes Ganga labh, a sure ticket to heaven.”  

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The sage Kapila had said the same thing to Anshuman, the son of king Sagar, “Only the waters of the Ganga can redeem your burned
ancestors, there is no other solution.” Anshuman was unable to make the Ganga appear. Bhagirath, his grandson, performed rigorous penance and pleased the Ganga. She told Bhagirath to ask for a boon. In response, he humbly asked her to come down to the Earth.

Ganga responded, “When I descend from the heaven to Earth, there has to be someone to bear my force. Otherwise, I would descend to the netherworld. Moreover, another reason I should not come down to the Earth is because people would wash their sins in me but where would I wash my sins?”   

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Bhagirath answered, “Mother, Lord Shiva, the protector of all living beings, will bear your force. And those who have given up the desires for this world or the next, be it wealth or a wife and son, those who have renounced the world and found peace within themselves, those who are devoted to the gods and make the world pure with their mere presence, such selfless people would erase your sins by touching you.”

Thereafter, Bhagirath pleased Lord Shiva with his prayers. Shiva carefully tempered Ganga’s descent by placing her on his head. Then Bhagirath took the Ganga to the place where the ashes of his ancestors lay. He rode a chariot as fast as the wind and the Ganga followed him rapidly, purifying everything that lay in her path. At the Ganga-Sagar sangam (confluence), she submerged the ashes of the burnt sons of the king. As soon as their remains were touched by her waters, they ascended to heaven. If Sagar’s sons could attain paradise just by their ashes being touched by the Ganga jal, imagine the blessings in store for those who take a dip with devotion in their hearts. This is how the myth fires the popular imagination.  

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Probably, this is the sentiment that has ,for centuries, driven people to visit the place to be free of their sins.    

“If one dies here.”

“That only happens for the very fortunate,” the old man was still there, immersed in his devotion to the Ganga. It is said that even Ram, Sita and Laxman had spent a night here by the Ganga when they were exiled to the forest. This was, and still is, the southernmost end of Mithila. That is another reason the people of Mithila have a strong bond with this place.” 

Ganga is the name of the eternal stream of our devotion and faith. Our modern industrial lifestyle has poisoned its holy waters.

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“Have you brought your mother here to die?” I ask him, after getting to know that his mother had accompanied him.  

“She herself wanted to come here, to bathe in the Ganga.”  

“But isn’t it true that you all bring your old parents and leave them here to die?” I insist.  

“That is not entirely true. We bring our parents here in their final hour. If they come here and die, good; otherwise, those who want to return, do ret­urn. Those who do not want to go back are left here for Ganga labh. But now, it is so dirty and no­isy here that it has become very difficult to stay.”

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This is true. I have seen the Ganga, which originates in Gangotri, at Rishikesh and Haridwar, and now I saw the river in Patna. It has arrived here after washing so many of our sins (the price of development?), and even here the filth from the Barauni oil refinery, a thermal power plant, the Bata tannery and the McDowell’s factory has been flowing into the river continuously.   

Ganga is the name of the eternal stream of our devotion and faith. Our modern industrial lifestyle has poisoned its holy waters. Even though the Ganga’s revered stature in our faith may not have changed, the question Bhagirath was asked centuries ago grows bigger and sharper. Ganga had asked Bhagirath, “People will wash away their sins in me. Where would I wash my sins?” Does any Bhagirath today have the answer to this fundamental question?   

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The sun had climbed high in the sky. The entire landscape lay vacant at noon. The old women had gone back inside their huts. The people accompanying them had entered the tents set up by different akharas (religious orders). The mahants (head priests) of Mathura, Vrindavan, Odia Khalsa, Baliran and Madhubani all have their akharas. They run kitchens there for devotees.    

Gadadhar Das, a revered saint of the Odia Khalsa order, had said, “Many sinners, evil-doers, abusers also come here. They are redeemed by studying the holy texts and keeping the company of saints. Even they are absolved of their sins.”  

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A frail, old lady was returning after taking a dip in the Ganga.  “Mother, have you come here to wash away your sins?” I ask her.

“Sin? What sin?” she appears confused, but keeps walking.   

“Have you come here alone?” I walk along, but get no answer.

“Are you here on your own?” I repeat.  

“Alone, everyone is alone here. Nobody is there with you, my son,” she says with a mysterious smile. “Do you not long for your children, your grandchildren?” I probe on.

Her lips quiver but refuse to utter what she wanted to say.

“Do you not have (these) desires?” I ask again.  

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“Desire, what desire?” She falls silent again, her drooping eyes filled with sadness. She goes back inside her straw hut with tired legs, alone.  

To be free of desires! That is all!  

I am suddenly reminded of these lines by US poet Arthur Guiterman:

“When life is woe, and hope is dumb,
The World says, ‘Go!’ The Grave says,
‘Come!’”

Can the Ganga really liberate us from our desires?

(This appeared in the print edition as "The Refuge of SINNERS")

(Views expressed are personal)

Arun Singh is a patna-based Independent journalist

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