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February 1998
From 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.

Another Pyre

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.


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