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Varanasi: The Waters of Gangaji

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A friend recently read an article in Newsweek about sacred places, and Varanasi was one of them. The article reports that the river Ganges (Gangaji) flows from the Himalayas, where it is clean and clear, and by the time it flows through Varanasi it is polluted with industrial waste, human feces (1.5 million
times the healthy rate for consumption), cremated remains, as well as uncremated bodies of infants, animals and everything else. And people swim in it. And drink it.

It's true. I saw it. People swim in the river, and drink the water, and brush their hair and teeth in it. And they do all this right next to cremation grounds and not too far away from the sewage outlets.

There are a host of problems. First: the river is considered to be sacred and cannot ever become impure. Second: what else should they do? There is no infrastructure to replace the function of the river right now. Next: religious  thought about the river makes it impossible to stop people being "dunked" in it. It is scripturally mandated I understand. And on it goes.

The banks are brown and eroded and the shores switch between scummy and  litter-strewn. People are getting in it all along the steps that line the city.  Busyness tapers off toward the ashram where I am staying. The banks are an  unexpected shout of green. The guru is developing environmental
awareness among the boys and staff. He has brought in a compost specialist and has the ashram
dividing garbage as if for recycling. This doesn't happen anywhere else that I've seen. Mostly garbage is burned on the banks, sidewalks, and at freeway onramps in steamy, bizarre scenes. He has a plan to build an eco-village on the opposite bank with land gifted to the ashram. It would be run by children and would host visiting youth from around the world. It would serve as an illustration of possibility in a spot on the planet that is fast approaching failure-point in terms of ecology supporting humanity.

It would sport an eco dome and a garden featuring ayurvedic herbs as a catalogue of these plants that the current generation knows less and less about. There are few young disciples of the last remaining ayurvedic specialists in Varanasi. The garden would keep the tradition alive.

"Maybe," the guru says, "we could have an ayurvedic clinic on that land, and after all, if it doesn't work the cremation spots are close." We laugh because it is both wacky and probably not too unreasonable here where people make do with what they have.
A few days ago, I lose track when, we drove past an ayurvedic store where the shingle on the front displayed a list of the conditions treated. My favorite was "loos of memory." I am. I am terribly 'loos' of memory lately. I must need a treatment. It's as if I don't ever remember not being here in Varansi. I am loosing my memory. At satsang last night the guru asked me to address the boys. (Not me alone, he picks people at random, age six to whatever so people get to
say what's important about life in the ashram.) I asked if I could bring my translator and pointed to one of the older boys who is usually a strong leader
among the kids. I sensed that he was disappearing himself with so many teachers and adults around. I asked him to translate my speech of love and appreciation.

He glows.

After satsang the boys piled on me and told me how well my speech went. They pressed upon me to swear an oath that I would come back. With each plea the conditions of the promise became more intense: for two months, twice a year, forever. They love that I shaved my head and left the Hindu patch. They think it is the funniest thing and they absolutely insist I shave the soul patch on my
chin.

They ask me why I did it. I say "the guru said so". They nod with approval.  The most satisfying answer to them is 'the guru said so." It is never  questioned.

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