My Mystic Lands dvd tour continued yesterday morning as I took in the last program on disc 2 (of a six-dvd set), Varanasi: City of Light.
This program serves as a brief but captivating introduction to the Hindu religion. As the narrator explained it:
For the majority in modern India life does exist without the Hindu influence. It is a religion defined by its lack of absolutes, even by its contradictions. To the Hindu, few religious ideas are considered irreconcilable, and all religions are considered true.
This attitude builds into Hindu spirituality an attitude of tolerance. A religion that recognizes over three hundred million gods (although Shiva is a major deity and from whom, Hindus believe, one is granted true spiritual enlightenment) cannot help but be broad in scope.
There exists one aspect of Hinduism that admittedly I have always recoiled from intellectually. That is their belief in reincarnation, the idea that one has to keep coming back until they get it right. But what's worse, one may come back not just as another human but perhaps an animal or even an insect. It's just an idea I have never been able to take seriously. No doubt that is because of an ingrained bias in favor of the Christian view of the soul. However, even that has been called into question by my mature thinking. Alas, I can only muster a bland agnosticism regarding the concept of a soul that exists wholly separably from the body.
The doctrine of reincarnation is key to understanding Hinduism and another of their doctrines that has become popular here in the West, that of Karma. Again quoting this program's narrator:
While it may be a Hindu's goal to get beyond reincarnation, achieving it is not easy. Karma, the Hindu law of cause and effect, determines the path of the soul as it travels from birth through life, to death and back to life.
After giving us an understanding of these things, the bulk of the program details the spiritual meaning of the holy city of Varanasi and the sacred Ganges River. Before viewing this I knew a little about the Ganges and nothing about Varanasi.
Varanasi is called The City of Light. In ancient Sanskrit it was called Kashi, a play on words that merges the symbolism of light from the sun with that of the individual's spiritual enlightenment. The Hindu naturally think of Varanasi as the place where enlightenment can be found. Within this City of Light there is The Golden Temple, Varanasi's holiest temple which "honors the spot where Shiva pierced the earth with a colossal shaft of light to prove his superiority over the other gods."
Connect this sacred city to India's majestic Ganges River and you have the heart of the Hindu religious experience.
The great Ganges River, we are told, is to Hindus "the liquid form of God, and a pilgrimage to this river is among the most sacred acts of Hinduism." Hindu mythology teaches that the Ganges flows directly from God. In reality in originates in the great glaciers of the Himalayas, but to the ancients "God" would naturally enough seem to be the origin.
This program treats us to the unique relationship the Hindus have with the Ganges. We see scenes of believers ritually washing themselves in its waters, floating atop it in an effort to absorb its divine knowledge. At the same time we see more mundane uses of it, for bathing, washing clothes and dishes, as well as swimming for pleasure and exercise.
There is another aspect to the Ganges and Hindu spirituality. The waters of the Ganges are called the "nectar of immortality." The elderly and the sick go to Varanasi to be cremated upon their death and their ashes poured into the Ganges. The cremations (one of which is shown in this program) go on at a rate of scores every day and tens of thousands throughout the year. The program tells us that Hindus recognize the true moment of death as coming in the burning flames of the cremation ritual, when Shiva "whispers the truth that the soul needs to achieve enlightenment and set itself free." Those who are not able to journey to Varanasi to die and be cremated there, can still have their ashes taken there by family members for the purpose of sprinkling them into the river.
This program drove home to me yet again the manner in which the ancients viewed the earth where they lived as sacred and imbued with divinity. The great religious traditions sprang from the minds and hearts of spiritually minded people with a deep love for and connection with their surroundings. Their gods lived among them and intimately interacted with them through natural locations that became sacred spots to them. Their spiritual and natural homes were one and the same.
I'm thinking that is still true today.