poetry, spirtuality

Awaiting a Renaissance of Wonder, Varanasi’s Portal

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Ganges River, Varanasi


I am waiting for my case to come up
and I am waiting
for a rebirth of wonder
and I am waiting for someone
to really discover America
and wail
and I am waiting
for the discovery
of a new symbolic western frontier
and I am waiting
for the American Eagle
to really spread its wings
and straighten up and fly right
and I am waiting
for the Age of Anxiety
to drop dead
and I am waiting
for the war to be fought
which will make the world safe
for anarchy
and I am waiting
for the final withering away
of all governments
and I am perpetually awaiting

a rebirth of wonder

(See the full poem here)

Days before leaving for the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, I read Ferlinghetti’s poem from his book, Coney Island of the Mind. The poem ends, “and I am awaiting/ perpetually and forever/a renaissance of wonder.”  Ferlinghetti repeats a variation of these words at the end of each stanza, and since reading them, I can’t get the poem out of my mind, especially since visiting Varanasi where you don’t have to turn a corner to be surprised by wonder. Wonder walks down every street, floats down the river, and fills the sky with light and smoke. The Celts believed there are certain places on earth where the veil between heaven on earth is so thin that you can see through to the other side. Varanasi is such a place.

A city inhabited for 5,000 years, Varanasi is a stoop-backed, broken down, broken open ancient place where life, death, joy and suffering live openly side by side. Its narrow, (approximately) four foot wide streets spill over with foot traffic, broken brick, refuse, water, cows, cow pies, motorcycles, bicycles, and pilgrims, all hoping to move. Waiting in long lines winding through the humid streets in 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) degree heat holding offerings of flowers, rice and red tika powder, pilgrims wait for hours to enter temples. Though it might not fit my ideal of how I want heaven’s portal to look or be, Varanasi embodies how things likely come to be at the end of one’s life: poor–left with nothing in the end but our failing bodies, bent down in humility, and waiting to be released into the elsewhere. Varansi is one of India’s most holy cities. Though there is suffering most everywhere you look in India, suffering, for Hindus, meets its end on the banks of the Ganges. To die in Varanasi and have your ashes cast into the river is to enter moksha–to never have to be reborn again into the cycle of birth and death. Death after death, millenia after millenia, this 2,525 km/ 1,569 mile river absorbs the ashes of a multitude of suffering and more.

For the Hindus, the Ganaga (Ganges) is sacred–a goddess. According to the World Wildlife Federation, “Approximately 1 in 12 people in the world (8%) live in its catchment area…Together the Brahmaputra and Ganges water sheds span 10 biomes and contain the widest diversity of all large river systems.”The river supports somewhere around 500 million people. Nevertheless, “Every day, over 3 billion litres of pollution, mostly toxic chemicals and untreated sewage, enters the Ganga, putting countless lives at stake,” Reports the Global Alliance for the Rights of Nature. Watch this 20 minute National Geographic Live, Chasing Rivers, Part 2, The Ganges, and you will see a fascinating and  fantastic insightful, and powerfully engaging look into the Ganges, its social and religious significance, as well as the environmental issues surrounding it.

The word sacred means to be set apart, while the English word, holy, or whole, uninjured “that must be preserved whole or intact, that cannot be transgressed or violated,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Alongside this river of life flowing down from the high Himalaya and our desire to be released from suffering, flows the river of our industrialized and overpopulated world with its humming electric wires and ever charging lithium batteries in our iPads and cellphones. Sewage, chemicals from leather production–all go into the river, the goddess who can take it all, because she is, after all, a goddess, is the thought of some.

At some point while growing up, I remember hearing that in days gone by people didn’t place anything on top of their Bibles because they were thought to be sacred. Similar to this notion of treating the sacred differently, when visiting an ancient temple on the island of Samos in Greece, I recall being asked to remove my shoes because the area was still considered sacred, even though people no longer worshiped the gods that were once housed in that temple. What makes something sacred involves an awareness, a setting apart and a setting aside. We do this with portions of the earth that we decide are special in some way. The Monterrey Bay in California is one of these areas. After decades of abuse resulting from pollutants and over fishing was made into a marine sanctuary, the Monterrey Bay is now a place where sea life thrives, and where “Every summer, a vast array of animals travel thousands of miles to reach the waters of the Monterey Bay — home to one of the biggest wildlife gatherings on Earth,” according to the Mercury News article, ‘”Big Blue Live’: Monterrey Bay to star in its own ‘Reality Show.'” (You can see more about this documentary here.) In the Monterrey Bay, you can find “humpback whales, blue whales, sea lions, dolphins, elephant seals, sea otters, great white sharks, shearwaters, and brown pelicans,” says the PBS, who, together with BBC, is creating the Big Blue Live documentary on this wildlife gathering. The sacredness of something requires our recognizing its sacredness and treating it as such. This is what has happened in the Monterrey Bay, and it has made a difference. Treating something as sacred can include holy practices in offerings of flowers and light, but as understanding of our interaction with the world grows, it can also include doing other things such as protecting the life in a bay or river and that demonstrate our respect.

According to the The World Bank’s site on “The National Ganga River Basin Project,” domestic sewage accounts for 70-80 percent of the wastewater that flows into the Ganga, Industrial effluents add another 15 percent, with far-reaching impacts on human and aquatic health due to their toxic nature. And, in the absence of adequate solid waste management in most cities, mounds of uncollected garbage add to the pervasive pollution.” Along with prayers, ritual bathing and offerings, waste water management, controlling industrial pollution, and making and enforcing guidelines regarding development along the banks, are all things people can do to show their recognition of the river as sacred. To keep it whole and healthy, the Ganges, like the Monterrey Bay can be treated like a sanctuary.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote Hopkins, in his poem, “God’s Grandeur.

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

Nowadays, National Geographic discusses the dead zones in our oceans. If you look at the facts regarding places like the Ganges, and other rivers around the world, you will notice everywhere the blight we’ve left upon God’s grandeur. When we no longer recognize a reality larger than ourselves, God’s grandeur gets harder and harder to see. We aren’t choosing to notice it. As a result, we lose an understanding of what is sacred. In this context, Nietzche’s idea that man’s self-centeredness had killed God makes sense. If you look at the worst polluted places in the world the pollution is created because of human action. In Varanasi, the amount of wood needed to cremate bodies in Varanasi causes deforestation, according to Living On Earth’s article “Ritual and Deforestation in India.” To burn a body takes about a 1,00o pounds of wood. It’s also true that soap used for washing in the Ganga’s water causes pollution. The bigger polluters, however, are industries. If industries do not recognize the sacred that is because those who own and control them are looking to see profits instead of God’s grandeur. Religion could provide a motivation, but regulations are needed.

In his poem, “Poet as Fisherman,” Ferlinghetti writes about the fisherman out on the sea, looking out and “listening for the sound of the universe,”

Whole poems whole dictionaries
rolled up in a thunderclap
And every sunset an action painting
and every cloud a book of shadows
through which wildly fly
the vowels of birds about to cry

The earth speaks to us when we are listening. When nearing death, Hindus want to go down to the water–the earthly element of transformation. Something in us intuitively understands our connection to the earth helps us understand the sacred. Entering the water, the body lets go and opens itself to the ultimate transformation–death. Birth in death, death in birth. This is always the way in India–opposites are bound together–so perhaps out of the death of rivers, an awareness can be born: the need everywhere for people to find the sacred again. We find that awareness, at least in part, through choosing to set aside our self-centeredness, and to recognize the intrinsic value of nature and our connection to it.

Through the centuries, poets have drawn nature as a central source of inspiration and metaphor. Poetry explores where the sacred touches the earth, touches the heart. Our current inability to recognize the sacredness of the earth seems connected in my mind to why poetry is so little read or valued today. Buddhist affirm the interdependence of all things, Hindus, that there is a bit of God in all things. The Psalms state, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.” When you love someone, you show him or her respect. You take care of the person. You listen, you look for a way to touch the person, to connect. We barely look at the night sky these days, however, or notice the moon, what the trees have to say in the afternoon, or notice the way “the sun streaming down/ in the meshes of morning,” as Ferlinghetti describes dawn in his poem, “Uses of Poetry.” Poetry, like dance or art, can help us connect again, help us find the sacred.

My last morning in Varanasi, I rose before dawn to travel down river to watch a ceremony honoring the sun. Men dressed in magenta silk stood on risers facing east. Lifting brass cobras with flames leaping from their bellies, the men swung them in slow, repeated circles while at the side of the audience women sang hypnotic mantras with humming vowel sounds, interrupted in intervals by the men on the risers ringing handbells for minutes at a time. Gradually, the night’s dark turned to dusky apricot, then blazing gold. The sun emerged above the horizon, and struck its rays across the water. There, amidst the funeral pyres and bathers, the worshipers raised their arms to hail surya, the sun, the life giver. I thought of the intensity of the previous day’s heat, the struggle and effort so many took to come to this city, the effort it takes so many in India just to live. As I watched a man slowly row his boat across the illuminated gold water, I breathed in the smoke of death from the funeral pyres, the loss, the heat, and breathed it out again with a new awareness and respect for the sun, for the earth. The ceremony had made the space between this world and the next a little thinner. In spite of the earth’s worn and weary state, in this city, its beauty is still visible.

If we want to rediscover the sacred, perhaps something in us, in our way of living must die in order for us to receive it. For a little while, I am here on this planet. With my words, with my whole self, I am trying to learn how to listen to the world, and as Ferlinghetti states, “I am perpetually awaiting/ a rebirth of wonder.”

Street side well
Streetside well, Varanisi