Tuesday, July 14, 2009
"Service to Mother Ganga is service to the nation," reads part of an ad for the Phulwari Restaurant and Sami Cafe painted on brick near steps leading up from the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi.
People of all classes revere the Ganga River as a goddess, their mother, a form of the infinite god/goddess who is present everywhere.
Many rise before dawn to pray and present offerings at the river's side or in the river, sometimes to bathe as well and brush teeth or wash clothes.
My group decided to witness dawn at Assi Ghat on the steps above the river today.
I set my alarm for 4:45 am and was wakened from a dream in which I was about to walk to a river at dawn with my cousin Keith (deceased), one of my brother Bill's sons, and Millie (Bill's daughter who has visited India. Keith did not know them--I felt a little awkward that I was not going with Keith alone, and I was reluctant to leave the dream.
As soon as I looked out my window, I saw the low clouds flaming orange in the east, I knew my friends and I would not get to the river in time for the earliest brightest colors of the dawn. It takes 15 minutes to walk there.
Still I quickly put on clothes and left walking down the empty street past people sleeping in the open air on their flat wooden carts (for vegetable sales later in the day).
As I was running down the street, a bicycle rickshaw driver invited me to ride. Because it was faster, I agreed though it seemed profane to ride in luxury to the Ganga to pray.
At Assi Ghat women in full saris were walking into the river to pray and bathe. They filled a metal pitcher with water and poured it into the river, repeatedly. Men with only a cloth wrapped around their waist were bathing and swimming into the river. One washed out his mouth with river water and spat it out in a spout.
Some were sitting with knees flat before them (lotus position?) praying. Some stood at the river with a lighted incense stick and waved it in a circle above their heads, left and right, bowing.
I declined many offers of a boat ride and wondered what would be an appropriate way to honor Ganga Mata. In contrast to Shiva, Hanuman, and others, I did want to show respect to her.
I went up the steps to buy a small basket of blossoms held in a leaf bowl. The woman selling it gave me a necklace of white flowers as well. I tried to ask her, "For Ganga? Or can I wear it?" She signaled that I could wear it. It cost 10 rupees.
Then she handed me a box of matches to light the candle in a small clay bowl in the center of the flowers. I failed using up two matches and handed it back to her to light. Then I asked her to take my photo and gave her another 20 rupees.
I took it down to the water and wondered whether to toss it in, toss the flowers individually, or set it to sail. I chose the last course, first going to a place where no one was bathing and no boats were nearby... but as soon as it floated off, I realized it was floating toward a rope mooring the last boat.
Should I splash it to keep it from setting the rope on fire? In a few moments the short wick burned itself out.
The soil of the waterside is soft clay, and in the water I sifted it with my hands like a fine sand.
I loved the feel of the clay under my feet and began wading in the river, rolling up my pants. The water was so warm, sweet to feel swishing around my feet.
After I waded a ways, I realized I had left my shoes behind and had to go back and look to find them.
Then I found a secluded spot to sit and read the Psalms I had brought with me... but I realized I was getting sunburned at 6:30 am. I hadn't brought the sunscreen with me--only mosquito repellent.
There weren't any mosquitos but flies on the garbage along the river and also huge red wasps with yellow abdomens. I saw one woman walk to a fenced platform and dump a bag of garbage over onto the mud slope and garbage below.
I found another spot in the shade of a large tower and under the trailing branches of a banyan tree growing out of the stone and bricked up river slope.
I try to read five psalms a day, and for today the psalms were 65-70. I use a Hebrew/English interlinear psalm book so I can try to get the flavor of the Hebrew.
Opening to Psalms 65, I read:
Of You, silence is praise, O God in Zion...
O Heeder of prayer, unto You all flesh does come....
O Security of all who inhabit the ends of the earth
And those at sea far off,
You who set the mountains with your strength,
Who is girded with might,
Who calms the roar of the seas....
Awed are the inhabitants of the furthest ends by your signs;
With the appearance of morning and evening
You cause joyful song.
As I sit in prayer on the Ganges River with others nearby chanting prayers or reading prayer books in Hindi scripts ( see lowest photo), the words "unto You all flesh does come" take on powerful meaning.
All who inhabit the ends of the earth... we are awed, we come at dawn to worship and sing praise with joyful hymns.
Psalm 66: "Shout joyfully to God/dess all the earth!" Kol ha-aretz.
The introduction to Psalm 67 says, "A prayer for the arrival of the Messianic era, when all humankind will worship God and earn His [sic] blessing."
May God favor us and bless us,
May She illuminate her countenance with us, selah,
To make known on earth Your ways
Your salvation among all nations.
The peoples will acknowledge you, O God;
Ha-amim will acknowledge you, all of them...
May God bless us, and may they fear You,
All the ends of the earth.
What a powerful assertion these Hebrew prophets made so long ago, many of them in present tense--Unto you all flesh does come--not waiting for a Messianic era.
Here I sit, a woman with Scandinavian blood, praising God from the Hebrew psalms at the Ganges with people of various Indian ancestries.
I worship YHWH; they call you Ganga-ma, Ram, and other names.
Twice during our visits with academics and activists, someone has quoted ancient lines from the Veda about One God, everywhere present, sustainer of all life, in order to affirm that Hindus, Moslems, Christians, Jews all worship the same god.
As I close my book and walk up the steps to street level to walk to an "internet cafe" (no food or coffee, just open air computers in a shaded patio next to the Haifa Hotel), I see each man and woman I meet as seeking the Goddess in his or her own way.
And because Jesus said of the woman who gave just one coin, "She has given more than all these others," I know that the One in whom we live and move and have our being hears each prayer--even to Shiva and Hamuman--and sees into the heart of each one offering prayer.