Varanasi: India's city where people come to die (bbc.com)

109 points by MiriamWeiner 27 days ago

63 comments

davedx 26 days ago

I visited Varanasi in 2010, it’s truly a special city. Wandering the endless twisting alleyways, occasionally having to retrace your steps because a cow is blocking the way, getting thoroughly disoriented by the constant bends and turns, and discovering the myriad of ghats along the riverside is a unique experience.

If you go there it’s also worth paying a boatman to row you to the opposite bank, which is a very different place to the center of Varanasi.

If you want to see a similar but also very different settlement on the Ganges, Rishikesh is also amazing, I liked it more than Varanasi. There’s more access to nature and it has a comparable spiritual heartbeat. The Beatles wrote the White Album in an ashram (now deserted and half reclaimed by jungle) just on the outskirts. Shiva watches the mighty, unpredictable river that becomes calm and docile by the time it reaches Varanasi.

geodel 26 days ago

There is beautiful movie shot in the city on same concept.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hotel_Salvation

    swamy_g 26 days ago

    There's a documentary called Forest of Bliss about Varanasi. It's a non-narrative documentary (the best kind). From it's imdb page:

    A look at daily life in the city of Benares (another name of Varanasi), India, one of the most religious places in the country.

    It's streaming free on Prime (https://smile.amazon.com/Forest-Bliss-Robert-Gardner/dp/B01M...)

    bankim 26 days ago

    Came here to mention about this movie. I watched this movie last year and couldn't stop thinking about it for days after watching it...

bobosha 26 days ago

Varanasi is purportedly among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in human history (with Damascus, Jerusalem etc).

    inflatableDodo 26 days ago

    I know some people from Erbil that run a phone shop up the road. Continuous human settlement there apparently dates back at least 5000BC, becoming urbanised sometime before 2300BC.

gen_greyface 26 days ago

One interesting thing in Varanasi-also known as Benaras- is that it houses many Aghoris-a small group of shiva sadhus- who are known to eat burning corpses. They also cover themselves with the ashes of the burnt corpses.

    qwerty456127 26 days ago

    I'm curious about why do they persist in doing so. Obviously development of psychological ability to do things like this without any inner disturbance is a serious step in weakening ego conditioning but once it actually stops being a big deal for you there seems to be little sense in keeping on.

      dhruval 26 days ago

      Being free of "any inner disturbance" is a high standard, and hard to achieve. Most Hindu sects would consider Aghori practices to be too extreme and too focused on death.

      But here is a very visually stunning documentary on Varanasi and features Aghori sadhus to get a better insight into their mindset...

      https://vimeo.com/55246312

      whatshisface 26 days ago

      Why would you want the psychological ability to do that? You could just as well be training to recall the names of every Pepsi soft drink.

        qwerty456127 26 days ago

        Training to recall the names is a mental skill, not a psychological ability (although there actually is a mental-heavy tantric hinduism practice of matrika-nyasa in which you are to visualize different hindu letters in 50 particular parts of your body simultaneously which is hardly possible for an ordinary man).

        The point of spiritual training is to become free from any form of conditioning (not cultural only, natural instincts like disgust and fear too). Of course you don't need the actual ability to mess with burning corpses, surely it is useless from the practical point of view but the fact you feel bad about it means you are conditioned, an unconscious complex (a samskara - a building block of karma) in your psyche controls you and the goal is to annihilate all of these so you can experience and do anything blissfully, without giving a fuck. The result is a "now I can do anything, feel and think whatever and whenever I choose so I am free" achievement, it also means dissolution of duality and realization of union with the divine.

          rramadass 25 days ago

          Nice explanation of the end goal of all "Spiritual" practices i.e. "freedom from ALL mental conditioning". The "Tantriks" come at this from the "negative" side of our psyche rather than through the socially acceptable practices. In a way, these practices are more powerful since "taboos" are psychologically deep-seated and hard to overcome.

          A simple experiment that i often use to show people the power of mental conditioning is to lay down a picture of their favourite/personal god/deity and ask them to deliberately step on it with their foot (extra points if they do it with shoes on!). Almost everybody recoils and will not do it and the ones who attempt it (out of a sense of "need to win the argument in the heat of the moment", a classic example of ego temporarily overcoming conditioning) still feel bad about it for days afterwards until they do a "good deed" to balance away "the sin". It is illuminating when you think about it and brings home the point that "everything is in your head".

            qwerty456127 25 days ago

            Nice clue. BTW there also is a chemical way to overcome this. A person given a sufficiently strong dose of MDMA will probably pass your test easily with a deep profound feeling he is performing an act of worship normal people can't understand as he would perceive everything as a manifestation of love (the rational part of the mind does not get disabled however, so he won't go kill somebody out of love, it's not this dangerrous). As far as I know scientists are exploring the potential of MDMA to dissolve mental complexes and trauma.

      inflatableDodo 26 days ago

      I suspect most of them haven't killed their ego at all, but instead have managed to fetishise either the act, or the reactions.

        rramadass 25 days ago

        Very true but not applicable to all. In fact the texts mention these sort of "sidetracks" as something to watch out for and avoided actively. It is one of the main reasons to only attempt such extreme practices strictly under the guidance of a "realized guru".

          inflatableDodo 25 days ago

          If it is very true and the texts mention it, then it is presumably applicable.

univalent 26 days ago

We visited Varanasi when I was around 10 with my family. The Ganges was flooded (some structures were underwater) and there were crocs aplenty. The shopkeepers warned us. My dad insisted we rent a boat so we could go to this holy spot where 3 rivers merge so we could take a dip. Fast forward 10 minutes and there's 4 of us in the boat with a boatman stuck in some kind of swirling water and the boat spinning round and round. The boatman asked if we knew swimming (none of us did). I look about and remember seeing a crocodile (or at least a very threatening looking floating log) some 200 feet away. The guy finally got control of the boat and we escaped unharmed. Fun times...

    shubham_sinha 25 days ago

    3 rivers meet at Allahabad, not Varanasi

      univalent 25 days ago

      You are probably right. I remember my mother called it Tri-veni-sangamam. I see now that is in Allahabad. But we took a boat to this spot from one side of the river in Varanasi. Can that be done? Wondering if we took a dunk at some random spot and were duped.

9nGQluzmnq3M 26 days ago

There's another city in India, Vrindavan, where widows goes to die, and it's probably the grimmest place I saw in India.

https://womennewsnetwork.net/2007/11/05/nothing-to-go-back-t...

    ansible 26 days ago

    Damn, that's... phrases like "searing injustice" don't adequately convey the gravity of it.

    I can't imagine living in such a situation. One day, you're a fine and valued member of society. And then your (often much older) husband dies, and it is all gone. You have nothing, and you are worth nothing to the rest of society, because you aren't even allowed to earn anything.

      dgjrhgi 21 days ago

      That's probably what you were told by India mainstream media(read pro-western). 'Sati'(widow threw herself on to her husband's funeral pyre) was never a part of broadly accepted Hindu culture. It was practiced only in some areas in West Bengal,India.

      If you want the read the un-biased facts and stories for pre-British and pre-Mugoul India then I would highly recommended: "India as they Saw" book which is collection of snippets from travel journal from foreign visitors to India during that time period.

weeksie 26 days ago

Wild place. By far my favorite city in India and I've travelled pretty widely there. If you're in town and partake, make your way to Blue Lassie for a "special" one, then make sure to get somewhere you feel comfortable before it kicks in.

    kranner 26 days ago

    You really should warn people you're talking about a cannabis-laced drink.

      weeksie 25 days ago

      It's eye-bleedingly obvious from the context.

codeduck 26 days ago

I'm almost certain I read this exact story about two years go, but bugger me if I can find it anywhere online.

26 days ago

taxicabjesus 26 days ago

A while back I tried to figure out how many people die every year. I didn't find a number then, but figured it was on the order of 50-100 million people. Searching just now, the number is probably around 56 million people, meaning approximately 153,000 people die on Planet Earth every day.

In America we have an odd relationship with the inevitable. Sometimes people get a terminal diagnosis, and sometimes they fight it. Two of my former passengers (I have a few I stay in touch with) were recently witnesses to some rather terrible death experiences related to cancer. One was the passenger's daughter-in-law's mother (breast cancer -> metastatic cancer), the other was the passenger's mother (uterine cancer -> metastatic cancer). I drove the one passenger's mother to her first cancer surgery, 4 years ago. She was a fighter until the very end, and only spent a few days on hospice care.

My mom's 95 year old friend has been waiting to die for a few years -- she'd had a stroke 7 years ago, and can't speak coherently. Mom and the other caretaker told the woman's doctors that the 95 year old has absolutely no desire to prolong her suffering, but the doctors kept treating her like an 85-year-old with plenty of life ahead of her. Patients are worth more that way, I think.

Commenting on the 95 year old's predicament, my brother said sometimes it's best if one's ticker just stops ticking, and not trying too hard to keep it going (with stents and pacemakers and the like).

(minor edits)

    paganel 26 days ago

    We kind of let our 86-year old grand-mother die this spring. I guess we could of had prolonged her suffering had we insisted on hospitalizing her once she decided to stop eating (she had been more or less bed-ridden by almost an year by that point), but we decided that it was best for her to pass in her own bed, in her own house, outside of hospitals of which she was very frightened and where she had last spent the night more than 60 years ago, when my dad had been born. We took the right decision.

    pkaye 26 days ago

    Being diagnosed with kidney disease and now on dialysis, I had to think quite a bit about how my life will end. Both my spouse and I had a talk and filled a health care declaration so doctors would know what we want at the end.

    kshacker 26 days ago

    My father passed away earlier this year. Not that old but for the last 3 years of his life, he was unable to get up (body weakened by diabetes and a round of cancer), unable to see (almost 95% blind), and for the last 7 months unable to even speak. I do not live with the family so did not interfere but in my mind the question always was "what is the purpose of living at this point" whereas in the minds of close family and doctors: how else can we prolong life! To what purpose, I could never figure out. Whether we call them death panels or whatever is the current demagoguery term, I think we need to discuss them more because I definitely would not want to linger like that.

      jessaustin 26 days ago

      If that is your preference, you may need to take responsibility for it. The default in the medical community is to prolong, so if you're far enough gone that they control your fate then that is what will happen. "Living wills" exist but IME they change what gets argued about not the result.

        Mikeb85 26 days ago

        Of course it's the default. It both makes them money and absolves them of having to make a decision (and rightfully so IMO, should be up to the patient and family).

          jessaustin 25 days ago

          Maybe? There are trade-offs. Since patients can't trust hospitals to stop heroic lifesaving efforts precisely when patients choose (rather than a month later after all the arguments have been exhausted), they end up avoiding hospitals and receiving both less palliative care and less care in general.

      nashashmi 26 days ago

      Think of it as a vaccine for community. My grandfather passed away recently too. He had been 2 weeks away from death at the slightest sickness for two years.

      At the point of failure, his heart was at 10%, lungs at 20%, kidney on dialysis, swelling in body, GI bleeding, but conscious and tired.

      All were treatable but only after surgery which nobody was sure he could endure.

      When things got bad, there was no option but surgery. He passed away shortly after emergency surgery.

      The grandchildren witnessed and were there to take care of him. They witnessed the parents taking care of him. They witnessed family coming together and LIVING. They were part of a tradition that needs to live on. Because deep inside it nurtures a thing called care and love. In community.

      The sick and dying exist and persist to nurture a calmness in our communities and it is essential in an era when time is moving faster than life.

      There is a saying that goes like "Curse be he who witnesses his parents reach old age but does not take care of them." Not everyone is fortunate to witness that."

        wwweston 26 days ago

        This is a great and much-needed comment.

        There's absolutely a need for many Americans (and perhaps other Westerners) to re-examine approaches to death, and judgment about when it's best to prolonging life and when it's best to avoid intervening.

        But that reckoning may not be as thoughtful as it needs to be if it's all about thresholds of individual capability; it may need to be nested in a larger conversation about what makes life valuable as age may diminish that capability.

    C1sc0cat 26 days ago

    I was in hospital last year with sepsis in a renal Unit and the person in the bed opposite was in a similar position.

    When you got woken up at night by the nurses feeding him via a nasal tube was a bit grim.

    baybal2 26 days ago

    My grand grandfather on father's line, before he died at 98, made an impression "if he will not die from age, he will die from boredom." One day in 1996, he went for a walk on his own, and collapsed on the street.

    He survived Qing, Khivan khanate, Russian empire, commies, many of his children, and two of his wives, one of whom was 15 years younger than him. Nothing of modern era ever delighted him. I think, for like 30 years, he sat and waited for his days to end.

    Boredom frightens me as much as death, if not more

      Frondo 26 days ago

      Whoa! Was he Uzbek?

      The Khivan khanate thing sticks out at me. I lived a year in central asia, I'd love to hear more.

        baybal2 26 days ago

        No, Chinese. His family left Qing within months of him being born when the country was on its dying breath.

        Khiva was still at least nominally a vassal, but somewhat independent state. A decade after they arrived, Russia finally annexed it completely, but only to be toppled itself by communists just few years later.

inflatableDodo 26 days ago

The UK has something like this. Is called Eastbourne.

    bitwize 26 days ago

    In the USA it's called Florida. The Coachella Valley in California is also an enticing prospective home for retirees, especially rich ones.

    drchewbacca 26 days ago

    Ha ha.

    I keep trying to tell people Woking is the Vienna of the South East.

    C1sc0cat 26 days ago

    Lol apart from summer when its conference season and the tennis.

    All those Middle aged tennis fans and delegates really lower the age profile :-)

    Jonnax 26 days ago

    Is that because of Beachy Head or it being some seaside town?

      inflatableDodo 26 days ago

      I have long suspected that people are throwing themselves off Beachy Head, because the last place they encountered was Eastbourne. It is very elderly, has a massive drug problem and is something to point accusingly at should southerners ever claim that it is grim up north. Also, Alistair Crowley is said to have placed a curse on it while dying there, though if anything that just made the place slightly more interesting than it would otherwise have been.

spiralcirc 26 days ago

On a related note, enlightening talk about Kashi/Varanasi by Sadhguru https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ks6kmCVERg

    kaushikt 26 days ago

    I have never truly understood why Sadhguru has so many followers or say fans.

      mayankkaizen 26 days ago

      Or Sri Sri Ravishankar.

      To me, they are more of celebrities than real saints.

      They don't even live the life of austerity. They live luxorious lives. They have indirect access to hundreds of acres of lands and money. They like to stay in limelight.

      unmole 26 days ago

      Same reason Mr. Mr. Ravishankar is so popular. Urban, upper middle class Indians lap him up because he fills a void in their lives left by traditional religious beliefs. They want to feel a part of something larger. Given the general lack of critical thinking in India, all kinds of nonsense spewed by such charlatans is unquestioningly consumed.

        26 days ago

      gbuk2013 26 days ago

      Because what he teaches makes our life better and because he's awesome. <3 :)

      skilled 26 days ago

      And why wouldn't you try to understand? Is all the spiritual talk keeping you from engaging from what this person has to say about life? Look at it any way you like, but this guy (Sadhguru) has influenced hundreds of millions of lives.

      Before you go and judge him just take that into the account. Ask yourself, what have you done for other people? Even if he has some sort of a capitalist agenda, at least his main motive in the public context is to be helpful to others.

        23 days ago

        mayankkaizen 26 days ago

        Influencing millions of people doesn't mean a thing, especially in spiritual world. What would you say about the likes of RamRahim or Asharam? They have/had more followers than Sadguru. Even after they are charged with rape cases, they still have millions of followers.

        How do you decide if some saint is real saint or just a fraud (in the sense he doesn't mean what he preaches)? What is the test?

        These kind of saints live like rich people. They have access to loads of money. Saint like Ramdev has access to hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of acres of lands. They buy hundreds of acres of lands from government at 75-80% discounts. What kind of austerity and spirituality can they preach? To me, any saint who likes to stay in limelight, lives in palace like ashram, uses PR to bolster his image, hangs with celebrities is nothing but a thug.

          shripadk 26 days ago

          The problem with your argument is that neither Sadguru nor Ravi Shankar call themselves Saints. They both call themselves Guru or Teacher. Sadguru qualifies it by calling himself a Yogi.

          I don't understand how you can assume stuff like this when it is not even the least bit true. Neither Sadguru nor Ravi Shankar have ever claimed to be a Saint/Sanyasi.

          If you are not a Hindu then it is understandable to get confused with these terminologies. So I'll assume you aren't and explain the meanings behind these words in the context of Hinduism.

          > Saint like Ramdev has access to hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of acres of lands. They buy hundreds of acres of lands from government at 75-80% discounts. What kind of austerity and spirituality can they preach?

          Now let us address issue of Ramdev as he is a Saint/Sanyasi (in the context of Hinduism). A Sanyasi, in Hinduism, is one who has given up material desires for himself but can be involved in the society he resides in. A Sanyasi is not barred from working towards public good in Hinduism. There are plenty of examples of this in Hindu scriptures:

          Lord Krishna is himself referred to in the Mahabharata as the greatest Sanyasi. Wasn't he married? Wasn't he the King of Dwaraka? Did he not fight multiple wars? And was he not himself involved in the Mahabharata war? Why then did he refer to himself as the greatest Sanyasi while narrating the Gita to Arjuna? He was a Sanyasi because even though he was involved in the materialistic life he remained detached from it. Saṃnyāsa is a state of mind that is achieved by being detached mentally from the materialistic life rather than physically.

          On the other hand, what you are talking about exists and it has a specific word in Sanskrit: It is called "Vairāgya". Do not confuse Vairāgya with Saṃnyāsa (or Sanyasa).

          The biggest problem is that people try to interpret Hindu scriptures through Western concepts and completely misunderstand the true meaning behind those words. Worst yet, if they come from another religion they try to compare and contrast Hinduism with meanings defined in their own Religious texts. It is natural to do so because the human brain always tends to find similarities to familiarise itself with the unknown. If you lookup the meaning of Sanyasi in English the nearest word would be Saint. Lookup meaning of Vairāgyi and it will be Saint as well. Now how is that a fault of Sanskrit if there are not enough English words to express these different words succinctly?

          You can learn about the differences between Sanyasi, Guru and Saint here (the top answer explains it really well): https://www.quora.com/What-is-difference-between-Sadhu-Saint...

          Sadguru himself explains what the difference is between a Guru and a Saint in English: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Deh7k-ohE-I

          Now you may have problems with them running a business. However, Hindu scriptures don't prohibit it in any manner. In the Ancient days, Sanyasis themselves ran Universities and took donations (called Guru Dakshina) from Kings and in return imparted education to their heirs. The Vairāgyis, which you were referring to as Saints, were actually few and far between even in those Ancient times.

          So no. A Sanyasi is not barred from running a business or holding a political office as long as he does it for the greater good and not for personal benefits. Sanyasis in the past have even taken up weapons to fight and protect people. You can read up on "Nath Siddhas" or "Mahants", who in the 12th Century, fought battles with Mongols and Persian invaders and it continued all the way till the British rule over India until Gandhi started the non-violent movement. If you travel around India, especially in villages in Uttar Pradesh, you'll get to hear stories about these Warrior Saints. Many of these stories remain undocumented to this day and remain as folklore.

          Not just that. There are instances of Sanyasis having ruled Kingdoms as well. Vidyaranya was a Saint who was entrusted with ruling the Kingdom of Vijayanagara (present day Hampi, Karnataka, India) during the Navratri festival by the Empire's founders (Harihara Raya I and Bukka Raya I).

          Hinduism is pretty vast and intricate with lots of historic events due to it being the oldest surviving religion. Having surface level understanding of it will only take you so far.

          > How do you decide if some saint is real saint or just a fraud (in the sense he doesn't mean what he preaches)? What is the test?

          A fraud is one who misinterprets and misrepresents scriptures. It is as simple as that. Ram Rahim, Osho and Asharam fall in that category. They exploit by twisting the meaning in scriptures to their advantage. The test is quite simple: you have public access to Hindu scriptures. Just check if what they claim can be validated against the scriptures. If they can't then obviously they are twisting it for their own gains. It is as simple as that.

          Frauds exist in all Religions. Some frauds do it for illicit gains, some for meeting political objectives, some for forced conversions and some for terrorism. The fault lies with the people who support them blindly without comparing and contrasting with their own scriptures. A majority of the time it is blind following rather than conscious reasoning that is the cause for all such issues.

            skilled 25 days ago

            Thank you for your comment.

            The tech-delusional HN crowd will never learn to appreciate this wisdom. For most, seeing an elephant deity is enough to trigger full-blown ignorance.

      sidyapa 26 days ago

      This is not the right place for provocative comments, your opinions are precious but this may hurt others', so please keep it to yourself or vent it out on forums like Reddit.

        unmole 26 days ago

        HN is above all else about intellectual curiosity. If someone is hurt simply from expressions of bewildered curiosity, then HN is perhaps not for them.

          shripadk 26 days ago

          Intellectual curiosity is good to have and always welcome but when you start your intellectual exploration by labelling people as "charlatans" then the term loses its purpose altogether. The reason being that you have already made up your mind and are not actually curious; even though you claim to be.

          Provocation cannot be a foundation for intellectual exploration. Intellectual exploration always begins with your desire to know and understand things you "do not know or understand". If you come to a debate with opinions already formed then it transforms from being a debate on points to a fight of opinions. With the former, you leave with a better understanding (or not) but with the latter you leave with nothing but the opinion you started with coupled with wasted time and energy.

          dang 26 days ago

          The problem is that comments like the GP lead to religious flamewars, as indeed we got a small instance of here.

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superpowerby 26 days ago

Holiest city in India, but people still shit on the streets, I bet.