India Afterthoughts II: Varanasi

Puja Varanasi

Varanasi was the most memorable of all the places we experienced in India. It’s probably the poorest big city I’ve ever seen – and somehow the most spiritual. Its streets were jammed with pedestrians, scooters, auto-rickshaws, and pedicabs.

Shop owners invited me into their stalls. When I ignored them, they followed me offering marijuana and opium. Ragged beggars held out their pitiful hands. The place was teeming with life. The city’s small shops were shoe-horned into winding streets too narrow even for Vespa and Honda Hero “two wheelers.” But as I walked rubbing shoulders with the crowds, a voice in my head kept repeating, “This is amazing, absolutely amazing!”

And then there was the great puja (religious ritual) we witnessed on the Ganges’ banks. Everyone in Varanasi seemed to be there sitting in sprawling grandstands. Others sat in boats anchored close together just off the river’s edge like the crowds in the gospels listening to Jesus.

As we entered the scene, women painted dark red bindis on our foreheads without being asked, and then demanded money in return. Others equally unsolicited thrust miniature bowls of flowers and candles into our hands to float ceremoniously in the River, and then exacted their fee.

As I returned from floating my own offering, a young man reached out to shake my hand. Suddenly he was giving me a vigorous massage – my hand first, then my arm; he reached out for my shoulders. That cost me a hundred rupes.

And then the ceremony itself! Four brightly lit stages stood before us each covered with golden embroidery. As we watched from the wooden stands, six priests chanted and danced majestically on each stage. They were dressed identically in beautifully gold vestments. They stood at measured intervals on the platforms, and with constant loud chanting blaring from huge loud speakers, the holy men swung thuribles first of smoking incense, then of candles by the dozen, and finally of wild orange fire. All their motions were choreographed with exact precision.

(Meanwhile our blond, blue-eyed grandchildren ran through the crowds laughing and playing as people reached out to touch them , bless them, or snatch them up to be photographed in their arms. It was like that wherever we went. They were constantly ogled and treated like celebrities.)

Totally other; totally amazing!

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

4 thoughts on “India Afterthoughts II: Varanasi”

  1. Really amazing…the ideas of poverty and being happy….remains in the mind.
    There is something basic in life we ‘Christians” seem to be missing.
    We seem to be so full of self-assurance…on most everything. Spiritually unsighted!


    1. I agree with you, Jim, although (like Mindy — and you, I’m sure) I’m worried about romanticizing poverty. However, it becomes every-clearer to me that beyond a certain point happiness is not increased by added income. It even seems that the contrary might be true. So many people with limited resources seem quite content. My own self-examination shows that was true even for me as I was growing up. At the same time something must be done about those income inequalities lamented by Pope Francis in “Evangelii Gaudium”


  2. Mike! Sounds amazing! It makes me wonder how I would feel now that I have children. Were you nervous at first with your people trying to take pic with your grandkids? I’m not sure I could be that trusting in a big crowd. I’d like to be because it sounds like everyone had a great time! In a situation like that how do you reconcile your wealth against the backdrop of extreme poverty?

    Jim I appreciate your comments about poverty and happiness and I agree. Also I don’t want to idealize poverty. I’ve lived among poor people for a short time but have never been poor myself. It was difficult and there was joy. Now that I have a family and especially a toddler I have so much stuff. As I sit here on my iPad mad drink coffee from my keurig I am considering if I’m creating a like I feel comfortable passing on to my kids.


    1. Yes, Mindy, I was often very anxious about our grandchildren and all those crowds with the pinching of cheeks, “laying on of hands,” and picking the children up for photographs. Be assured though that we were all watching very closely. Otherwise, it would be so easy for the kids to disappear or simply get lost! In the end, the kids themselves became quite resistant to the whole process. And they weren’t shy about making their resistance known!


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