It is dawn in Varanasi. The sounds of singing bowls and chanting are off in the distance. A woman in torn clothes slouches down while sitting in a weaken state on top of a giant stone. Flies rest in the corner of her eyes as she elevates to lock her cold gaze on me. She whispers with a zombie-like tone, "Na-ma-ste."
Welcome to Varanasi! Death is not hidden here. It is WAY out in the open. You turn the corner around the walls of this ancient city and death is staring directly at you. The energy here is as fierce as I have seen anywhere in the world. This isn't a place you can recreate in a movie or even imagine in your mind. This is a place you have to experience for yourself.
The conditions in Varanasi are extreme and unrelenting. The streets in are stained with blood red tobacco spit and cow dung. The mangled stray dogs lie helpless in a state of surrender to the ticks and fleas that feast upon their feeble bodies. Shop keepers are desperate to see customers, with many business owners lucky to make 100 rupees in a day. That is the equivalent to a little over $1.50 to feed themselves and their family. Countless people go about their day with missing eyes, missing limbs, and many of them with some form of severe skin damage. Beggars swarm the dirt roads with their near lifeless infants in their hands. This is a place where the struggle for survival is on full display in all forms.
Death is no more apparent than a visit to the burning ghats. It is a haunting and captivating section of Varanasi where corpses are carried through a field of lumber to a platform of fire to be cremated. Bodies are burned right out in the open for everyone to see. The ashes get funneled down into the Ganges River, creating a pool of grey and black near the banks of the water. The lowest cast of people known as the Untouchables stand belly deep in the filth to pan for gold teeth through the remains. The fires continues through all hours of the day, which for me symbolizes the ever-present intensity that encapsulates Varanasi.
As horrible as this all sounds, Varanasi is a fascinating spectacle that is both beautiful and challenging. This city also makes me reflect upon the practice of yoga with a deeper sense of purpose. Pratyahara, which is commonly translated to withdraw from the senses, shows itself in the most compelling way here. Turning inward from external sensation is practiced out of necessity and survival. How else could a person here endure such enormous adversity and the constant pummeling of noise and pollution? Yoga can truly shift human consciousness to handle the harshest of obstacles.
There has been an awakening here for me. I don't know how a place like this still exists. Varanasi will make you re-evaluate EVERYTHING in your life. There is so much I don't understand. I didn't know a strong presence of death could be so invigorating. I don't know why I feel so alive in the land of the dead.