I asked him if the worshippers were running a risk of getting sick, as the Ganges looked terribly unsanitary. He gave me a look that indicated I was a person of limited understanding and insisted that, as a holy river, the Ganges destroys all bacteria upon contact and dissolves bones in three days.
Above the bathers on the upper tiers, we saw some of the ever-present cows, a man on a bicycle, beggars and small sales booths. When we reached the area where we expected funeral pyres to be burning, there was only one body. I had looked forward to seeing at least one because it is such an important ritual in the Hindu religion. To get a better view of what the rituals involved, I made plans to come back the next day.
Hindus believe you will be reborn after death, and what form you will take will depend on how closely you followed the rules of the status you were born into. What a person will be reborn as is questionable, and as a result, Hindus do not always look forward to the next life. It might be bad now, but it could be even worse next time.
The possibility that they might have what was once a human soul is one of the reasons cows in particular are considered sacred. Varanasi offers a special way to avoid being reborn in any form, human or animal, for to die naturally in Varanasi is to achieve “moksha.” If the right rituals are performed, the reincarnation cycle will end.
In the Hindu faith, Varanasi is the home of Shiva, creator and destroyer. It is Shiva who whispers a sacred mantra into the ears of the dying, granting them freedom from reincarnation. I made plans to come back the next day to see if any bodies were being prepared and burning there.
After our boat trip, our group spent the rest of the day exploring Varanasi. Besides those who had come to die, the city was full of religious pilgrims who came to worship at the many shrines and temples. We found ourselves rubbing shoulders with religious men, beggars and more cows.
It takes three hours for a body to be consumed, after which the ashes and anything left over are thrown into the Ganges to be further purified. It is said that at this point the person’s soul is thus freed from reincarnation.