A Dying and Death Yatra along the Ganges

The Bodhi Tree in Bodh Gaya desperately needs care and attention. The 60 metre Maha Bodhi Stupa immediately behind the tree forces the tree to grow in unnatural directions. The tree shows a sick appearance. It is in desperate need of pruning, and needs watering in the heat of the summer. Branches are lopsided and cracked, the leaves appear dry and dull and the level of pollution in the village affects the tree. The situation isn’t helped with the fears in the village. There is the possibility of the police taking action if anybody prunes a single branch. Is the intention to sell the branch to corrupt businessmen? Will one make bad karma by cutting limbs off the tree and so get sent to the hell realms?

Mother Ganga (River Ganges), another sacred and iconic symbol of India, is sick. The 3000 kilometre river serves the needs of some 300 million people in the sub-continent. With a burgeoning population and exploding economic expansion, India’s most beloved riveris is in a similar plight as the Bodhi Tree – sick, possibly dying, and in desperate need of urgent treatment.

The river is polluted. Hundreds of raw sewage outlets pour 24/7 into the river, industrial plants dump their chemicals in the river, household and factory rubbish ends up in the Ganga as well plastic, tins, cans and bottles. You can see the pollution as you take a walk along the Ganga. Over the years, the number of Hindu pilgrims taking a total dip in Mother Ganga to purify themselves of their sins has dropped off considerably. If the pilgrim swallows accidentally one droplet of water, it could kill them or make them violently sick with diarrhoea and vomiting.

Making my annual hour long walk along the ghats (steps leading down to the river), and feeling rather sad at the Indian government’s neglect of its major religious icons, as well as the health of its people, I arrived at the burning ghats, where hour are corpses are brought to be burn on massive piles of wood – despite the desperate shortage of wood.

There is a black joke in India. “If Jesus was spotted carrying the cross, as he made his final walk along the lanes of Varanasi, and not in the lanes of Jerusalem, locals would be rushing up to him and asking him to tell them where he got the wood!

Black smoke billows out from the area known as the ‘burning ghats’ as families and friends of the deceased gather around watching the corpse burn away in the heat of the open fire. I recalled in 1990 spending a couple of days in small hotel a few hundred metres from the main ghats. My sister had been trying to track me down. Through a close friend in Geneva, she secured the hotel number and rang. She had rung a day or two before; the hotel receptionist said “guru-ji” (as they called me) hasn’t come.” She telephone back on a chance of my being there. The telephone rang on the desk just as I was checking in. My father had died three days before and the family had booked his cremation in 48 hours time. Could I get back to Croydon, England as quickly as possible? His death was not unexpected. The tobacco industry with his co-operation had slowly murdered him during the past 50 years or so.

I thanked my sister for the call and took a solitary walk along the ghats to the ‘burning ghats’. It was a time of reflection, memories, a reminder of the brevity of this life on earth, and appreciation for my father’s presence in my life.

Is the Bodhi Tree and the Ganga experiencing a long, slow painful death – like my father? Is The Tree and the River closer to the Burning Ghats than we think?