The oldest living city in the world, there is nowhere like Varanasi. Settled in a loop of the Ganges it teems with faith so intense that even the sceptic becomes religious for the duration.
Amid the chaos of the traffic – a system of incredibly close shaves – and the nonstop trading of goods and services in small shops and stalls – still humane while Tesco is still absent - the powerful conviction that drives and sustains the religious fervour here concerns reincarnation. If you die in Varanasi you will attain instant moksha, liberation. See Varanasi and die with the relief of having no further rebirths to face.
Mother Teresa once sent me in Calcutta to her home for the dying with the words, ‘I hope you see a good death there. We have many beautiful deaths in the home.’ She had clearly absorbed the Indian attitude to death which has none of the denial or cosmetic cover up of western culture. At the ghats beside the river bodies are burned day and night, more than three hundred a day. The bodies are carried down the steps to the wood pyres, through clutter and garbage, while the male members of the family watch fire reduce the loved one to ashes, which are then washed and thrown into the river. Even in death, caste and class operate – you can choose the expensive best wood or pieces of scrap. Either way it takes about three hours to see the process of death completed.
We were taken to a monastery where, we were told, monks come to wait to die. Only sannyasis (absolute renunciants, closer to St Francis’ inimitable ideal of poverty than Benedictines), pregnant women and those who have died from snakebite are not cremated. The monks, it is believed, have already burned themselves away by their vow of homelessness and complete detachment. Their yellow robes represent the flames.
The old monks awaiting moksha, looked to me like monks in most monasteries, though more serene and content than most. Their life ticked gently away with the domestic routines of meals, prayers and talk. In small groups they chatted like the old anywhere, always finding something new to keep life interesting yet aware that everything that one day seems so important will pass away into a fading memory the next. A little like Chelsea Pensioners, they were used to being looked at and not averse to a conversation with visitors.
One frail old monk moved slowly from the group of those chatting to a flat couch on the porch. Once he had settled down, with the look of relief that the old have after painful exertion, he turned his patient attention to us. His eyes were gentle, strong, penetrating and detached. It was the gaze of someone who has stopped thinking about or evaluating themselves and who is no longer concerned with how they are seen and judged by others. Someone who does not need to be needed; and therefore someone worthy of trust.
One of our group who spoke Hindi tried to open a conversation with him. He didn’t respond but, after some further questions and sign language, we learned that he was a muni, someone who has taken a vow of complete silence. The word is Sanskrit, with the dictionary meaning to think. But clearly, from his steady, kind, gaze it is a different kind of thinking from what we normally think thinking means. For us, in the flow and friction of language, thought is constantly moving, leaping between associations and connections, making and critiquing patterns and seeking something new or closer to the truth. But, without words, thought becomes still and centred and clear. It might at first make you drowsy because the chatty mind is suddenly sent off-duty. It thinks ‘I am redundant and can shut down.’
If, however, you abstain from words and yet stay alert you become more awake than you had imagined possible. With that awakening of consciousness comes a discovery of the true nature of the mind and heart – good, kind, serene and gentle. The old muni taught more than he could have done with words.
We discovered that the ashram was not just for monks waiting for death. Old couples who renounced their possessions also came to live there, chat in the courtyard and wait to see who would be liberated first. A Sanskrit school in the same compound also housed a number of boys, who lived in strict training, because to learn Sanskrit should involve a way of life as well as a library of books. They were bright and infectiously happy. I asked them what their favourite time of the day was. 4am, they agreed, the pure beginning of each day with prayer.
A monastery very different from our ones, but one where St Benedict might well feel more at home.
Laurence Freeman OSB
The World Community for Christian Meditation, of which Laurence Freeman OSB is director, has recently opened a new outreach program – “Meditatio” (www.wccmmeditatio.org)