India: Maybe We Are Dirt and Maybe We Are Holy

A magnetic pull, decades deep.

I have dreamed of this place forever, didn’t imagine I would go in grief. I lost my mother suddenly a month before leaving, and the weeks after were a haze of tears and shock and logistics and that dull throb in the throat that never quite entirely fades. After a season of transition, all my paradigms shifted. My universe untrustworthy. Painfully alert. It was the hardest time, and the best time, to immerse in another world.

There are many Indias. Some are more globalized, more apparently organized, more focused on the future, but the old threads of its culture run through them all. I spent most of this journey in places that consciously look backward: places with a deep sense of tradition, weaving the past into the now, rooting into the wisdom of age. Places marked by devotion. That was the word—the feeling—that pulsed through everywhere I went. Devotion. In Sanskrit, bhakti—भक्ति—an unembarrassed, heartward, humble practice of bowing to the divine, interwoven into the routines of everyday.

It was strange and energizing to be in a culture where belief is default. Faith is assumed. I dropped a ragged heart into the refuge of epic ceremony that’s just part of the fabric of everyday routines. Most of my culture’s ceremonies of grief and celebration are so meager. By contrast, Indian rituals assume that we have radical grief and gratitude on a regular basis, that we need material ways to mark them. So, I found myself on my first night in Rishikesh, way up north in the foothills of the Himalayas, on the rocky banks of the Ganges fresh from its glacier source, its twists and rapids an otherworldly shade of aquamarine. I gathered with the villagers for nightly aarti—an evening offering of prayers, maybe yoga and meditation, and little banana leaf bowls of flowers lit by a single candle released into the river as a prayer, usually for someone, something lost. Thanks to the Indian cash crisis of the last few months I had no rupees to buy a bowl from the kids who sell them on the ghats—the bathing steps—of the river, but when I tried to explain to the kid who approached me, he just put one into my hand and walked away saying “gift. gift.” So I knelt, wiped my eyes, lit a prayer, and let it go, scattering its petals and light into the current. Which is how we want to pray big, heavy prayers—with our bodies, with our knees to the earth, with our hands wet in pure, racing water, with something that signifies the hope, the delicacy, the materiality of the world we want changed, the beauty of whom, of what we’ve lost.

I stayed about 20 miles above Lakshman Jhula and Ram Jhula, the two villages at the heart of Rishikesh, at an ashram on the bank of one of the rivers that flows into the Ganges. In the cold mornings before the sun rises over the mountains yogis and villagers sit meditating silently or quietly chanting, their white wool wraps barely visible in the mist. Beginning the day grounded, whispering desire alongside the rushing river that embodies a flow of gift and loss. Morning possibility. Evening peace, resignation. Almost everywhere I went in India people marked sunrise and sunset with some form of aarti—most dramatically at night in Varanasi, most delicately in the quiet mornings in Rishikesh or on the coast in Goa: a woman sitting alone for an hour until her breath matches the river’s give and take, a man on the beach practicing salutations at sunrise or standing in the surf at sunset, feeling the waves pull back only to gather again. These moments of sunrise and sunset are made holy—

Limits that become rhythms

if we learn the freedom

of bowing before

the too muchness of day’s beginning,

the enough of day’s end

in silence, in gratitude, in something closer to

satisfaction. In unison.

Riverside, beachside, or in a dingy airport, I experimented with ways of marking these times of day, the coming and going of light. Pausing even if simply to fully feel whatever had been bubbling beneath the surface of the day—fear, grief, delight. Amazed at how the practice started to infuse attention to the moments in between.

From Rishikesh, I went to Varanasi, Vrindavan, Agra, Bharatpur, and Goa—cities the yogis have always called “thin places,” where the borders between heaven and earth get hazy. Long-time centers of yoga and meditation. I didn’t plan for this trip the way I usually do. Didn’t have a return ticket booked when I left, only knew there were three essential cities, and that I wanted to feel led. Wanted to experience the grace that can fill the gaps in our preparation. So many stories of that, which was the greatest gift of this journey.

Part of what I wanted was to open up to other side of the world—not just the rich weirdness of a radically different culture but vast differences of economics and opportunity. It's painful to let that in. To physically get in touch with the realities of limitation and need on such an overwhelming scale. I experienced this most dramatically in Varanasi, India's oldest, holiest, and dirtiest city. Varanasi never stops ringing with prayer. Its physical forms thicken the air and float down the river constantly: the flutes and cymbals of monks and a smoky mix of incense and hash rises upward; flower petals and the shimmering metallic fabrics bodies are wrapped in before riverside cremation swirl downstream with the Ganges currents. The Buddha preached his first sermon a few miles upstream, in Sarnath. You can’t escape the city’s obsession with reaching for God, for purification, for enlightenment, for union with the whole we sense beyond us, for each other in song and ceremony. And you can’t escape the filth. For its promise of holiness, Varanasi attracts the most desolate and broken. Beggars, cripples, blind, abandoned who hope in the Ganges, the temples, and the tourists. The narrow, twisting streets of the old city leading to the river ghats are dense with lives on the edge of survival. Maybe this is why no one seems to care about the heaps of trash everywhere. More wandering cows and water buffalo than I saw anywhere, more poop and mysterious fluids. The cobblestones ran with it. I turned a corner to a temple and almost tripped over a huge plastic bag smeared with blood. My first morning I stepped out the door of an ashram on the edge of town right onto a muddy riverbank that served as one big public toilet where several men squatted before a ceremonial dip in the Ganges and water buffalo rolled before walking the city streets in search of food. An even ratio of shit to prayer.

Maybe there is some uncomfortable wisdom in this culture’s acceptance of decay. The India I experienced was not disgusted by death or waste. It lives alongside bodily fluids, dirt roads and walls, corpses, animals that move in and out of the wild. There are all kinds of reasons for sleek systems of waste removal and recycling. But I tried to get curious about what it means to live alongside it undisturbed. To practice faith in the midst of filth. To oscillate well between this material world that decays as much as it renews, and the perfection we suspect possible. There is some deep acceptance of the body behind all of it. The body as the way, rather than the roadblock, toward God. That maybe we are dirt and we are holy.

This groundedness may have something to do with something else I saw over and over. A kind of delicacy in acts of devotion. Huge, gnarly trees wrapped in hand-made prayer flags, hand-woven strings. Tiny altars, everywhere—tucked into cracks in a concrete wall, built by the roadside like a birdhouse, on the steps of a home or the roots of a grand tree—filled with handmade deities, painted paper flowers, votive candles. Not that India lacks industries of mass production. But often, in acts of devotion, the rough, quirky, marks of someone’s hand. Even in the birthplace of transcendent meditation—worship, on the scale of the body. As an act of the body. Streets smeared with the waste we can’t help shedding. And beside a shack of trash and blankets, a palm-sized bowl of marigold petals, a single flame of light. A shrine to possibility, on a scale of enough. Brick and mortar of Mother Teresa’s invitation: “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

India, still undoing, enlarging this heart.