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Spirituality and Agra

January 29, 2009

Recently, I had a few friends visit me from abroad. After they spent a few days with me in Delhi we travelled together to Agra, to see the Taj Mahal. We arrived at Agra Cantonment railway station, and from there we made our way through a barrage of touts to get to a cheap lodge. Our destination was a locality called Taj Ganj, which is very close to the Taj Mahal.  Most lodges in the Taj Ganj area have roof-top restaurants that offer a view of the city, and the white monument. The sensory extravaganza awaiting a person on one of these roof-tops typically consists of the following: young boys training pigeons on roof-tops in the vicinity; goats, monkeys, dogs, bulls and cows, loitering around the streets; loudspeakers screaming discordant Hindu sermons–these compete for supremacy with the echoing Muslim prayers; and, the discoloured dome of the Taj Mahal shrouded in the ubiquitous smog of Agra. Almost all the people we came across over the course of the two days that we were there were foreigners; they were a nice bunch of folks. I happened to be the only Indian around, other, of course, than the people who were running the lodge. It was interesting to talk to them, especially since I felt like an anomaly in their picture of India; I was hardly represented in the destinations recommended by the Lonely Planet, a book many of them carried. I was not a part of India’s spiritual aspect, which some of them, and probably a vast number of tourists before them, had experienced in Varanasi and other places.

The India that many tourists experience is not the same India I live in. My India is urban, cosmopolitan, middle-class, educated, and English-speaking. This is in sharp contrast to the India that the foreigners I had met in Agra had experienced–something that made me question my own Indian-ness. What, other than geography, do all Indians have in common? A love for tea and cricket? But even this is doubtful: a majority of Bengalis probably favour football over cricket, and a majority of South Indians probably prefer coffee over tea. Clearly, what unites us is a difficult question. The safest claim would be that there are many Indias out there, with one India often having little in common with another India. Moreover, as clichéd as it may sound, India is a land of contrasts and contradictions, which are at times to an extreme degree and perhaps can be seen only in the developing world.  The Lonely Planet has a list of top destinations; Varanasi figures in that list, and it is widely considered to be one of India’s premier abodes of spirituality. It’s unfortunate that what many tourists experience in Varanasi must become their conception of India’s spirituality. I find this akin to visiting a night-club. There are elements that go into creating a night-club ambience: pulsating music and lights; suavely dressed men and women; alcohol, cigarettes, and hallucinogenic drugs; and, an air rife with sexuality. When one brings these ingredients together, one ends up with a night-club ambience. Similarly, Varanasi has all the ingredients that go into creating a heady ‘spiritual’ ambience: Hindu rituals; Sadhus; ablutions; temples, chanting; cremations; prayers; cows; the vast hordes of people that throng the place; and, the mind-boggling sea of faith that one witnesses there. Take away these elements, and Varanasi would appear no more or no less spiritual than the Scottish Highlands, and the Ganges–a euphemism for treating a river like a sewer–would be no more or less holy than the Thames in London.

Spirituality is largely a business in places like Varanasi. The donations you make in temples and to Sadhus do not go to Him. These ‘God-men’ are largely trying to extract money out of you in the name of God, you winning His favour, you attaining salvation, booking you a confirmed ticket to heaven, or improving your Karma. Unfortunately, most of these people are hustlers making the most of peoples’ faith and naiveté. Also, let’s not confuse holiness with pollution: we are polluting the Ganges by dumping industrial waste, sewage, dead bodies, human and animal waste, and chemicals into it. Let’s not forget that faith is often the last and only refuge of the poor; it’s the one thing that gives them hope that a better life awaits them–a hope that is amply exploited. This is not to say that only the poor have faith; rather that poverty drives a large part of the version of faith that we find in places like Varanasi. Furthermore, a clear distinction needs to drawn between the sordid, the commercial and ritualistic activities, on the one hand, and spirituality on the other. Also, please let’s not confuse Marijuana usage and hallucinogenic drug trips to be the doorway into spirituality.

If Hinduism and spirituality are what one is looking for, the more prudent route would be to read the teachings of people such as Ramakrishna Paramhansa, Vivekananda and Aurobindo. There are many other names, but these are good ones to start with.

Spirituality is about a journey of discovery–of oneself and one’s relationship to the universe. It’s about finding one’s state of equilibrium with the world, inner peace and harmony with nature, and discipline and control. In contrast, Varanasi and other places like it are largely spiritual night-clubs; they are largely Disneylands in the guise of spiritual places.



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One Comment
  1. Rohini Kohii permalink

    Enjoyed this one. Particularly the part about the demystification of Varanasi. Where some people see holiness, others see smells and dirt.

    But what about the priest environmentalist, who implores the Hindus to stop leaving remains of their dead into the River Ganga. The sacred river that purifies even the afterlife of people?

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