“The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao.” ~ Tao Te Ching
All the way from Shiva’s head, crystalline water spills into the Himalayas.
It lands here, in Gangotri, the beginning of the holy Ganges River. The air is cool and laden with the scent of moss and pine needles. The river slips around stones and downward in glittering waterfalls. A holy man wades in and splashes his chest, imbibing the river’s chill like a child at his mother’s breast. Everything about this place is sacred. It’s no wonder the ancients saw this river as divine.
I came to India to learn to love myself, and I was looking for a teacher. As I traveled away from Gangotri, I had no idea that I had already met her there. She was flowing in the same direction my train was chugging, to the ancient city of Varanasi. When I arrived, she did what all great teachers do: she surprised me.
As the Ganges River flows towards Varanasi, it takes on the sewage of each settlement it passes and accepts tons of garbage. It is used as a dumping ground for chemicals and the dead bodies of animals and people. The water is septic, meaning it is so polluted it no longer contains dissolved oxygen. The river is referred to as “Mother” by the same people who empty their trash into it every day. The color shifts between green and brown. At first I was shocked to see the river so polluted. But if you ask me now, I will tell you that my favorite part of the Ganges River is in Varanasi.
Many native people feel the same way. Despite the pollution, pilgrims flock to the Ganges River in Varanasi every day with the sole intention of immersing themselves in its water. The Ghats are packed at sunrise as the locals take their daily dip–both to bathe their bodies or purify their sins––and throughout the day countless beings, from toddlers to grandmothers to buffalo, bathe in the same water. The riverbank blooms with colorful saris, and the river swims through a forest of brown legs.
What is all the fuss about? Perhaps it is merely a cultural phenomenon, an outdated tradition that refuses to die. But standing on the banks of the Ganges River, one feels different. There is a draw to the river, as there was for me once I got past my initial shock. And it was then that I began to discover a little of what makes the Ganges River so magical.
Two friends and I were walking along the banks, returning from the evening ceremony. After walking a while in silence, one spoke:
”Do you know why the Aghoris wear all black?” She asked. I asked why.
”Because black is the color that accepts everything. Every color in the spectrum, it absorbs. In the same way, the Aghoris practice acceptance of everything that comes, using it as fuel for their awakening.”
We walked a little further, passing a family of pilgrims sending candles floating down the river. “People think of the Ganges River as dirty, but that is only one way of looking at it.” She stopped, and turned towards the flow of the darkened river. “If you feel her, you can see that she accepts everything unconditionally. And she doesn’t just accept it, she is grateful; she treats it as sacred medicine. She transforms all of this garbage into love. This is her alchemy, this is why she is called Mother.”
But it wasn’t until the next day that I fully understood. The three of us had taken a boat across the river to the other side, where the glittering sand dunes were scattered sparsely with kite flyers and holy men. We found a place alone by the banks, and eagerly piled our things together and walked towards the river.
The world was vast and silent as I slipped my feet in, and the air flushed from my lungs as the cool of the water spiraled up my body. I walked slowly, letting the river slip over my ankles and feeling each hair on my legs as it was covered. I shuddered as it reached my belly, then felt the tension melt out of my muscles. The sun warmed me from above as I walked further, and the chill slipped up over my chest and to my neck. One last slow step found no place to land, and I let all the air out of my lungs, allowing the river to engulf me.
All at once the chill was gone, and I was left in silence and depth. My hair floated around me. The flow of the river played with my limbs. There, I was freed of everything. My mind’s clutter, worries, hopes, and beliefs were washed away by the current. And with no striving, no fear or desire, there was nothing but boundless space.
What is the magic of the Ganges River? Whether it comes from my mind or her matter, I do not know. But I do know that when I immerse myself, openhearted, in my own polluted waters, I experience the same alchemy. In holding my own fear or shame or arrogance in the same way she held me, I open to that boundless space that is the love within.
Author: Bianka Nash
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Flickr/Jon Rawlinson