Varnasi to Vegetarianism
By Jason Freitag
The city of Varanasi in India is world-renowned as a
place where pilgrims come to bathe in the Ganges or be cremated and
have their ashes poured on the river. Purportedly founded by the god
Shiva, it is the holiest city in India and one of the oldest inhabited
places in the world. Cedar Grove, New Jersey is not. Yet, for Jason
Freitag, the two created a particular kind of darshan (vision).
The prototypical travel diary version of the dawn trip
up the Ganges usually deals with certain major themes: the pilgrimage
places, the healing waters, the shimmering presence of the sacred in
this most holy of holy places. I did not go there to find God or a guru,
nor to save my soul and, in the end, neither occurred. I went, in the
basic sense of honest discovery, to see things.
It was still dark-- 5:00 a.m.--when we began
our trip, but I could see the first glimmer of light in the sky. "We"
were myself and my auto-rickshawvala Ram, and as we reached the river,
Ram told me he knew a good boatman. The boatman was slightly shorter
than I, but much thinner. He was muscular and sinewy from all the rowing
and was missing a lot of his teeth. The boat was a long, wooden canoe-shaped
vessel, with two to three slats of wood across for seats. There was
a small puddle of water in the bottom, and I was reassured to see that
it didn't seem to be growing.
By now the sun had risen, and I could see it
low on the horizon. It spread a gentle glow through the morning haze
which hung over the ghats and the river. The ghats, the platforms where
ceremonies take place and pyres are lit, are the most stereotypical
parts of the Ganges. The images of hundreds of people gathering on the
ghats, bathing, with children splashing are all true. The sight of the
bathers performing ablutions next to the dhobis (clothes washers) is
powerful. This most sacred of places is also the most ordinary. Each
day, along with sacrificial pyres, ashes, garlands and candles, children
play and a good helping of laundry soap enters the river.
As we moved up the river, the boatman told me
that I had better take pictures here and put the camera away, since
people didn't like it if you took pictures of a burning ghat. I could
see, a few hundred yards up the river, four to five small fires letting
off a light white smoke. I understood, snapped the pictures and stowed
the camera in my bag. I could soon see the pyres more closely. They
were mostly burnt out--smoldering black piles with small flames visible
here and there. Some would say those souls had gone to svarga (heaven).
I looked in the water and saw charred bamboo, with garlands of flowers
attached, as it floated by.
The journey was completed.
I had been back from India for about a week. My parents
had invited my partner and I for a summer evening dinner. Cedar Grove
is a mid- to upper middle-class suburb of New York City, about 15 miles
to the west. The lawns are well-manicured, there are two cars in every
driveway, and life seems to be as it should--the prototypical image
of the American suburb. We were on the deck in the backyard. The gas
grill was fixed up, and my father was the grill master. He lifted the
grill cover, and the very familiar smell of chicken cooking over a fire
wafted across the deck. I've smelled this smell hundreds of times before.
This time, however, it had more of a resonance--I'd smelled this somewhere
else, or in some other context. I could not immediately place it. The
conversation continued for a few moments--so-and-so is getting married,
so-and-so is late in arriving. In a gentle wave of recognition, it came
to me. The smell of the chicken on the grill in Cedar Grove was exactly
the same as the smell of the funeral pyres on the Ganges at Varanasi.
As I began to reflect, it became clear just how much sense this made.
They were both burning flesh.
Burning flesh. This is an abrasive way to describe
the chicken, and an even more horrific way to refer to the funeral pyre.
They share so much, though. The sacred fire of Varanasi carries out
its quite ordinary daily routine. The sacred coals of the barbecue in
New Jersey also carry out a quite ordinary routine. These events, in
their contexts, are not extraordinary. They become extraordinary in
their juxtaposition--when they are linked. The experience of the conjunction
was not as a bolt from the blue, or a vision of peace for all creatures.
It was a basic and involuntary olfactory reaction that set off a chain
of thoughts. It was a simple recognition of identity.
This recognition had a profound effect on my
relationship to food, there is no doubt. I have eaten solely or largely
vegetarian ever since, and I am acutely aware of what (in a very basic
sense) I eat. This very simple association, however, led to a much more
powerful thought. This realization of the equality of humans and animals
illuminates the base, the profane, in the apprehension of the sacred.
I do not feel like a changed man. I do not feel I have a radically altered
vision of the world, and I tell this story infrequently. But I've seen
something in the ordinary course of life, and this is my lesson.
Jason Freitag is completing a Ph.D.
in Indian religion at Columbia University.