The chaotic but holy ghats of Haridwar play host to both life and death…
If you want to observe a slice of life in all its joys and sorrows, its hopes and triumphs, its pride and pathos, you really can’t do better than visit the ghats of Haridwar.
Those who visit, do so for a number of reasons. There are the goggle-eyed foreign tourists out for a taste of exotic India, with its chaotic public spaces, its long-haired sadhus, its colourful mandirs, the dilapidated dhabas, and the endless opportunities for that fabulous Instagram shot. There are the devout Indian visitors who have come for a holy dip and perhaps a front-row seat at the evening aarti, when gleaming diyas in leafy containers float across the Ganga carrying with them the prayers of all those present. There are groups of youngsters who are just out for a good time, for whom Har Ki Pauri is nothing more than an improvised swimming pool, or the backdrop for that perfect selfie for Facebook.
And then there are those who are here for a specific religious purpose.
There are the happy families who have brought their infants for their mundan ceremony. The babies look all cute and cuddly – if a tad bewildered; and sometimes a bit weepy – with their heads shorn bare and a swastika in bright-red vermillion drawn on them. The proud moms and dads, and a plethora of relatives (this is India after all, where it is all about loving your family), fuss around them, kissing their bald pates and chubby cheeks, as if to make up for the loss of their hair, force-feeding them laddoos and halwa, the prasad from the nearby temple.
And then there are those who are here to mark the end of a life rather than celebrate the beginning of one. You can tell them apart by that sack of ashes they are carrying across the bridge, straining under its weight and the knowledge that this is the last duty they will ever be able to perform for a loved one. You can recognize them by their quiet desperation as they wander the narrow lanes to try and run down the family priest, even as mendicants pester them with endless requests for alms. You can see them take a ritual dip in the holy Ganga after immersing the remains of their loved ones, right next to those celebrating a mundan ceremony for their infants.
If you ask me, it is in that single image that the beauty of Hinduism resides. This is a religion that treats birth and death as part of the same karmic cycle, celebrating both ritually in the same space. The joy that emanates from the mundan of a young one about to embark on the journey of life exists side by side with the melancholy satisfaction that resonates with the departure of a dear one, who has finally, we hope and pray, broken free of the endless rounds of birth and death and attained a higher state, becoming one with the divine.
After all, when it comes right down to it, no matter which religion you believe in or practice, birth and death are inextricably linked. Each birth carries with it intimations of mortality, with every day lived taking us nearer the inevitable end. But if you believe in reincarnation, one of the central concepts of Hinduism, every death carries in itself the seed of another birth, and the possibility of doing better this time round on the karmic scales – a karmic do-over, if you will.
And so, the wheel of life turns on and on, with its endless rounds of births, deaths, rebirths, deaths, and then, with a bit of luck and lots of good karma, the attainment of moksha.
Moksha: quite literally, liberation or release. A deliverance from the cycle of birth and death as the soul (atma) becomes part of divinity (Paramatma). When a soul has finally tallied its debit and credit ledger and arrived at a zero sum that will free it from the dreary dross of earthly matters.
It was perhaps this principle of karmic deliverance – or Mukti, as it is called in our scriptures – that our social order was founded on so many millennia ago. Do good deeds in this life and you will be rewarded in the next one. Do bad deeds this time around and you will pay for it in your next life.
Even from a purely pragmatic, agnostic point of view, there aren’t many better ways of keeping people on the straight and narrow. Flout the rules of dharma and you will be punished by being born a beggar (or maybe even a monkey or a cat). Follow the rules of dharma, and you will be reborn a king (or even a Brahmin, which was the highest level of achievement in those days).
Of course, we all know it’s not quite so simple. But sometimes it is comforting to believe that those who perished having lived an honest, simple, devout life, will get their reward in this world or the next. And that immersing their remains in the holy river will give them a head-start on that journey.