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A Skull In Varanasi, A Head in Baghdad
The American Scholar, September 2004 To be reprinted in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2006, ed. Philip Zeleski (Houghton Mifflin)
by Todd Gitlin

Varanasi—the British name was Benares, based on a mispronunciation—is not just any city of gods. Devout Hindus go there, alongside the sacred Ganges, the better to extricate themselves from the wheel of rebirth and climb the slippery ladder up and out of the slog of existence. So this Indian city of one million, of teeming crowds and temples, is renowned for its pilgrims, for immersions, and for cremations.

We drove into town past banyan trees with their multiple trunks, past men squatting in the fields, past women in saris of startling brightness bearing water on their heads, past old men pushing carts bearing huge sacks. The road thickened with animals (cows, water buffalo, goats) and with trucks and buses carrying passengers on their roofs, and as we got closer to the city, with auto-rickshaws and human-powered rickshaws—our driver scattering them all with his imperious horn. As the road continued to clot with traffic, we passed a long truck that had on its roof a long object wrapped in bright blue, yellow, green and red ribbons—a corpse, our guide said, being borne to the burning ghat on the river. A solitary elephant lumbered along. Well, that sort of thing was what we came for. Why pass this way in the April heat, well to the wrong side of 100 degrees Fahrenheit, if not to be jarred out of the ordinary?

Close to the river, where the lanes thinned and the density grew, a man squatted in the street in front of another man, choosing from an array of files, drills, and miscellaneous metal objects. A dentist practicing his profession, the guide said. Perhaps there was no connection to the natural toothbrushes women were selling: twigs from the useful nam tree. There was a profusion of shrines. A shiny red statue of a bull outside indicated that the shrine in question was Shiva's, and complicated Shiva, destroyer and lover, is Varanasi's distinct god, singled out from among the Hindus' thousands of gods.

Some pilgrims come to die by the Ganges, their corpses to be dipped in the holy waters, then to be burned. More come to behold.

 

The Ganges is narrow, the heat intense, the air fragrant, the mood expectant and festive. Brahmins set up their assemblage points, where a ceremony will be performed at sunset: chants, horns, bells, fireworks, flags bearing the word Om. Colored stripes are painted on the foreheads of the worshipful. Dozens of young men are selling paint-it-yourself kits and thrusting postcards into the faces of tourists. Cows graze, sit, amble—they're just there, part of the life of the city. Monkeys scamper along a roof line.

Along the bank of the Ganges one ghat abuts another—arrays of concrete steps running from the river up to shrines and palaces built by maharajas and other worthies. Women in saris are bathing, as are men in loincloths and robes. Prayers, colors, aromas: a profusion of life.

We hire a boat and the boatman makes for the burning ghat—the ghat dedicated to the burning of corpses. Throughout the day and night, there's at least one cremation in progress. Each body is carried along the narrow lanes, past the shops where men squat and chat and women prepare meals, down to the riverbank, there to be immersed and splashed by the mourners, then left on the steps until its turn comes for burning.

Close to the river, three sandalwood fires are flaming atop the concrete. Steps away, by the water, an expanse of bundled wood lies in readiness. Sandalwood smoke cancels the smell of burning hair. No photos, please.

A few feet from us, men are playing cards.

The sun is fading as a priest, using a long bar, smashes at the skull of the dead man to liberate his soul from its temporary prison. It doesn't break easily, the human skull. A woman's pelvis, a man's chest—these are slow to crumble, too, and so, if need be, the remains will be buried across the river when the pyre is cleared for the next corpse.

Nearby, a man talks on a mobile phone. Tourists sip soft drinks. Boys scamper around the ghats, selling cremation photos, officially banned. A goat wanders by. Mourners pay no attention. As our boatman rows us away, I count four corpses lying on the concrete steps, waiting their turns.

What did I feel? Wonder. Awe. Exhilaration. Feelings that perhaps should not be examined too closely. Better to buy little dish with a candle, light it and make a wish. Set it afloat on the river.

Bells. Om. Say farewell to the sun. The burning goes on.

 

Not so much has changed in Varanasi, perhaps, since Mark Twain was here 107 years ago, the not-so-innocent abroad, writing thousands of words about sights that struck him as peculiar and, often enough, disgusting. Here he is on the burning ghat (from Following the Equator):

Meantime the corpse is burning, also several others. It is a dismal business. The stokers did not sit down in idleness, but moved briskly about, punching up the fires with long poles, and now and then adding fuel. Sometimes they hoisted the half of a skeleton into the air, then slammed it down and beat it with the pole, breaking it up so that it would burn better. They hoisted skulls up in the same way and banged and battered them. The sight was hard to bear; it would have been harder if the mourners had stayed to witness it. I had but a moderate desire to see a cremation, so it was soon satisfied. For sanitary reasons it would be well if cremation were universal; but this form is revolting, and not to be recommended.

I agree with Twain that "India is a hard country to understand."

I am not religious in any God-attached sense that I can easily explain, let alone defend, but I have long been attracted to the Hindu idea of Brahman: the creative principle that is everywhere, without boundaries, the All, or the Absolute, if you like, a seamless existence where separateness dissolves into a dimension beyond other dimensions‹something like the Buddhist no-thing-ness, or maybe not. It is this all-over universal being (F. S. C. Northrop called it the "undifferentiated aesthetic continuum") that many a Western pilgrim has sought, often ludicrously, in the East, chasing from ashram to ashram in search of a guru and a paint-by-numbers procedure to relieve him or her of the weight of distinct existence.

I'm not the ashram type; gurus incite my rebelliousness. But the thought of liberating the self from what Auden called "the prison of his days" is an inspiration, and I certainly grasp why for millennia human beings have been tantalized by the fervor to believe that by gathering in the right places and performing the right genuflections and uttering the right sounds and straining from the profane to the intermediate world they call sacred, they could extricate themselves from the bog of the everyday and set themselves on the way toward some firmer, realer, more lasting realm. So the smack of the priest's stick against the recalcitrant skull was a sort of awakening—like the rap of the Zen master's stick on the head of the unenlightened novice, saying: Wake up, you dumb cluck, to the illusoriness of your ego's illusions! Like it or not, you're at large in the universe, and your consciousness belongs there whether you feel at home or not! So much for illusions of omnipotence, or omniscience, or omni-endurance. So much for grandeur and arrogance. So much for the white man's burdens.

 

So, since leaving India, I have continued to think about the burning ghat and the smashing of the skulls. That great leveler, smack! So much for a fine pate reduced to fine ash, or a not-so-fine pate, or any pate at all. So much for the spirit, so much for the brain, so much for the rejoicing nose and tongue, discerning eyes, so much for so much. Pompous as it may sound, the memory of the ghat helps me muse on the weakness of the Cartesian idea of a mind that's been pried, analytically, out of the body; on the damages of monotheism, the peculiar (though in its way wonderful) idea that there is a center to all that happens; and the benefits of the all-embracing poly- or trans-theism of the Hindus.

No doubt there is a great deal about these beliefs I don't begin to get. But these are the mind's pastimes of an amateur, a curious dilettante.

As it happens, the day I got home, May 8, was the day the decapitated body of the young American Nicholas Berg was discovered in Baghdad. A few days later, a videotape of his beheading surfaced, one of those loathsome artifacts of our time, teasing with its vile promise of horror: the masked kidnappers, the suddenly unsheathed knife, the stop-tape, stop-heart moment when the brutes—no, let's not blame it on animals, let's call them evil men—slaughter an American to demonstrate that they are instillers of terror and destroyers of worlds....

And where are the fancy ideas about Western vanity now, the arrogance of persons and the limits of individualism?

Be careful how fast you dispose of the individual self and its pretensions. If the self is no longer inviolable, evil will violate it. And who will there be to judge that this is wrong?

I remain a child of the West, and a grateful one—and even if I weren't grateful, this would be who I am. Inside my skull, which is inside my body, which right now resides inside New York City and formerly traveled to the city of Varanasi in India, on the same earth, inside the same universe, there lives the sole self that I know and that has all the curiosity and limits, all the curiosity about limits, that I have. This small self is the gift, and burden, I have, and am. It is the self who goes out into the world to see how the others live. It is the same self who calls murder murder.

Todd Gitlin, who teaches journalism and sociology at Columbia University, is the author of many books on contemporary history, politics, and media, as well as two novels.