Varanasi March 2020

By Peter Rousmaniere
Vermont , USA

At 10 AM on the 11th of March, 2020, Anand Krishna Argawal came to my hotel, right at the Assi Ghat, the most southern of the 80 plus sets of stairs that (built as long ago as the 18th Century) descend in open air down to western bank of Ganges River.  We took a cab to Sarnarth. Some six miles away, it took us 45 minutes working through the dense fruitcake of Varanasi’s streets, with taxis, tuk-tuks motor bikes, hand – hauled carts and pedestrians heading every way.

Sarnarth is one of the four top Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India. Once the leading religion in India, Buddhism is followed today by one percent of the population. Anand’s father, a tour guide, tutored him on the religion. That was four years ago, when he was 21 and before he completed his master’s degree in management.

On our ride to Sarnarth both of us from time to time thought about the global commotions of the past three days. Italy was in complete lockdown. India announced a tourist visa ban. President Trump banned visitors from Europe. A major bank in India failed.  The stock market was on its way to wipe out all its gains in the past three years.  Colleges were closing. But we mostly talked about Buddhism. The Indians I most respect are those who talk about one thing while keeping a peripheral eye to other things. I have noticed this often on this trip, a high level of alertness which I speculated was due to that living in India is riskier in many ways than living in the United States.

I memorized snatches of his story of Siddhartha, as I wanted to remember his telling. The prophesy at birth that he might become a sage leads his aristocratic father to keep him within the palace. At 19, he ventures out, with his father’s permission, and encounters a very aged man, a sick man, a corpse, and a man smiling as he has managed to discard all his possessions. Marriage, then leaving his family and town for the forest to ask, What is God? Followers gained and lost. Experiencing enlightenment in Bodh Gaya. He migrates to Sarnarth for its proximity to what is now called Varanasi or Benares, a center of learning, going back a millennium before the common era. His articulation of the Four Noble Truths, which Anand recited.  I asked him about the Eight Noble Paths, the guide to how to live, but he didn’t not know them. That is all right, I said, since I went to an Episcopal high school where I attended church eight times a week, I am 74, and I still have really no idea what the Christian concept of the Holy Ghost is.

All religions, Anand opined, are the same salad. They just have different dressings.  Each has a philosophy, rituals which many may not understand, and a mythology, which includes stories about humans as well as of gods. Asked for an example of a Hindu story, he told me about how a man facing death learns through encounters with his three wives what is most important: not wealth or family but dedication.

Sarnarth’s grounds are several flat acres of foundation and bits of red brick walls of small structures. At one corner rises one of the most solid masses of human construction I have ever seen: one hundred feet tall, squat. Ashoka, the Asian sub-continent emperor who embraced Buddhism in the third century BCE, constructed it. We went into a museum holding sculptures dating from about then to about 1200 of the CE.  The most impressive object in the museum stands in a central location, in much too small a place, a polished sandstone work depicting four lions sitting in four directions, mouths open in mirth, their feet (Anand pointed out) primed for leaping upon prey. Around the base were iconic animals and wheels, the latter introduced into the national flag at Independence in 1947.

At lunch in a small roadside restaurant, Anand checked the state of the Indian stock exchanges, down 2,500 rupees or 4%. He and I, much earlier in the day, had talked about his budding business as a personal financial advisor. I asked him if economic inequality is bad. It is not, he said.  People who are rich have used their intelligence and will power to make money. To him, India is opportunity.  Even the lowest caste person with superior intelligence can get ahead. Look, he said an unskilled person in the city can buy a small stove, take a place on the street, and make cakes. He pays off the policeman to get along. So would the tuk-tuk owner (he called them rickshaws) who creates a fleet. What about the very poor?  He said they need to be protected. The country’s guarantee of 100 days of work, introduced in 2005, is very good, Anand said.

The big decision for him was to turn away from looking for a government position or a job with a large company. After graduating with the master’s program in Varanasi, he took a job with an employer in New Delhi. A few months into the job, he was standing in a railway station looking at professionally dressed commuters streaming by, “without time to stop for a cup of coffee, just grab and go.” At that moment he knew his future was in self-employment. India today, he told me, is fully of people with money but without any knowledge of how to invest. They stick with the old custom of buying gold. I remarked how in the United States one has a relative or school mate who can tutor you or be a role model on how to manage one’s surplus.   Anand’s mission is to advise clients on their finances – including on that very day. This disruption will bring in more clients, he said.

On the taxi ride back he got off halfway, setting 6 PM when meet for an evening program at one of the ghats by the river. Before he left, I told him that he was to me a model Indian: observant, self-disciplined, intelligent, friendly, quick to engage in conservation about the world with his or her opinions, but not opinionated.

That evening we walked to a ceremony on at Dashashwamedh Ghat, where five monks on the river bank moved to a piped-in chant, with fire and smells of the spices of the Three Kings and of camphor, and under a high arcade of lights. Many people watched from small hand-oared or motor crafts on the river. This is a tourist attraction, which Anand said twenty years ago was a small evening event for faithful but which became commercialized. (Burning Man, which I attended in 2006, came to mind.)  Just as we left, we passed a small platform, elegantly prepared, where an elegantly dressed boy perhaps 15 year old was performing a rite alone, self-absorbed, carefully turning, arms stretched out then folded in, before a tiny audience and surrounded by darkness.

That was the end of 14 hours of moving by car, foot and boat. That morning had started at 5:30 AM, when Anand arrived at the hotel. We stepped into the dark street and in less of the minute onto the Assi Ghat. Less steep than the other ghats, with few steps, looking in very early norming more like a conventional beach, it has a large open area and seats for people to observe.  Between us and the shore, and before a hazy dark red sky across the river to the east, seven red robed men stood holding flaming urns and moved them in unison. Under a canopy, a chorus of women sang chants in Sanskrit. Cool air, big sky, women and men, perhaps too choreographed, the streets behind silent of taxi horns, and a hundred people watching with us as the sun rose.

We got into a wooden boat, double ended and about fifteen feet long, low on the water, and sat in the front while an oarsman silently rowed up river, to the north, several hundred feet off the shore, on quiet waters with very few other boats active at the time.  Anand introduced himself. Since he and I had both been to a graduate management school, it was easy for me to emphasize and pursue a conversation which mingled observations about the ghats as we passed them, largely empty of people, the city’s history, his family, aspirations and India. I asked him about an old man like me who comes to town to retire, dies and is cremated on the shore. Anand summarized a daily life: sleeping in an apartment rented for the equivalent of $200 a month, meeting others at chai shops, doing yoga regularly, studying under a priest at a temple, and volunteering there to clean up and service visitors.

The endless oarsman rowed until we came to a ghat where some other boats had already approached.  People were on the shore and a fire was burning. It was Manikarnika Ghat, the larger of two ghats dedicated for cremation.

We were several hundred feet from a burning pyre. See the man in white, Anand said. He is probably the eldest son and responsible for his father’s cremation. Large piles of discarded flowers and strips of cloth or plastic were on the side.

The steps were dark, and the buildings above the steps were darker and in more physical distress than others along the shoreline. Beside us were several cargo boats loaded with firewood. Anand said an untouchable handles the body and manages the fire. The family does not take away ashes. We stayed for five minutes, then the silent oarsman pulled away and crossed the river.

At about this time, to my relief as the sights and the rising temperature of the air were intense, we returned to talking about India. He said that he watches financial advisors on Youtube and has joined a Facebook group. From these sources he learned that there are three forces of economic strength to consider. One is the large number of young people. The country is younger than China. There is not a problem of adequacy number of jobs; rather, there is a problem of training enough young people to become productive workers. A second thing to watch is the rise of women in the economy. (Later in the day, I pointed out a day care ad on the rear of a tuk-tuk. He agreed that 20 years ago such an ad would not have brought customers.) the third thing is the hidden wealth of land in the rural areas.

By then we were very close to the eastern shore. Flat land stretched to the horizon, with no buildings visible from the river. In the distance a man was racing a horse. On the beach, families were playing in the water, and children were laughing. A few tents had been set up by food vendors or by families. Under a now blue sky, it looked like a beach on Nantucket. We moved south, talking easily. A few minutes later, we passed within a few feet a red shape in the water, the size of the back of a person. I said to Anand, is that a dead person? He asked the oarsman, and then said to me, “yes.”

[Note: Ten days later, India went into a 21-day shutdown to control the spread of the virus.]