I went to India open to magic and mystery, and (spoiler alert) I found some, but (spoiler alert) it wasn’t where I expected it to be.
To set the scene, let me introduce you to Ganga, the Hindu demigoddess, also known as the Ganges River. She was originally born of the god Vishnu’s divine toes and only flowed through the heavens. One day, however, the god Brahma ordered her to descend to earth to resolve a situation among his devotees. She was not impressed with her demotion and vowed to fall with such force that she’d flood the entire world. To prevent this destruction, the god Shiva stood under the spot where she fell and cushioned her descent with his thick hair. This contact with Shiva made her even more holy.
To this day, Hindus travel great distances to bathe in Ganga Ma (Mother Ganges), believing that her waters can cleanse sins and secure one’s place in heaven.
That’s the story of the mythical and holy Ganga Ma. Recent history, however, is writing a new story for this great river. Considered the fifth most polluted river in the world, the Ganges has been overburdened with human and commercial waste. Stretching over 2500kms, Ganga Ma provides water to approximately 500 million people, and is used to cleanse more than just sins. In her waters, untreated sewage mixes with the cremated remains of humans and the bloated corpses of animals.
Fancy a swim?
Not I. Decades of living with Lyme disease and unknown bacterial infections have made me somewhat cautious paranoid. Before leaving for India, I vowed to my husband (and my naturopath) that I wouldn’t bathe in the Ganges.
So, imagine my reaction to being invited to partake in a ritual bathing ceremony. This was during my stay at Phool Chatti Ashram, located just east of Rishikesh in northern India. Because the Ganges originates a mere 70kms from Phool Chatti, the water at this point is remarkably clean, the worst assaults of pollution waiting further downriver. Still cloudy with glacial silt, it has the pale turquoise colour I associate with the Rocky Mountains and Lake Louise.
I decided to join the bathers, but promised myself I would only dip my toes in. While I didn’t want to miss out on the experience, I had no intention to submerge myself.
We were asked to wash our bodies thoroughly and dress in clean clothes that covered our shoulders and knees. We walked in silence, single file, down to the river bank. There, we sang a mantra of devotion to Ganga Ma and offered her freshly picked blossoms. Slowly, still singing, people began to wade in.
It’s difficult to describe what happened next, but I’ll try. Standing at the water’s edge, I stepped one foot into her cool, fast-moving body. The energy I received from her was immediate. I felt a magnetic pull, and my feet took several more steps until I was submerged to my waist. While others around me were gasping and shivering in her glacial waters, my body was warm. There was a heat radiating from my skin that was deliciously refreshed by her coolness. I felt entirely welcomed by her. Without hesitation, I plunged my head under three times, as is customary, and then spent some time just standing in her depths. It was as close to bliss as I’ve ever been.
Relating this story to my teacher Kat, we laughed and laughed. Because isn’t the spirit world so very contrary? How many hours have I spent on my mat or on a cushion, watching my breath and chanting mantra, wondering if I would ever experience anything other than my own monkey thoughts? Then to have one of the most profound experiences of my life just as I was trying to opt out. I wonder if Ganga Ma chose me for that exact reason?
But here’s what I’ve learned from my wise teachers and from my own experiences. So often we practice as a means to an end. We sit down with a desired outcome in mind: to become calm, to gain insight, to experience a spiritual high. And so often it eludes us! It’s important to practice without expectations. I have a sense that, had I gone to Ganga Ma that day looking for bliss, she never would have bestowed it on me. And had I gone back the next day chasing that same feeling, it would have been gone. This is just a hunch, but I think it’s a good one.
So, I thank you, Mother Ganges, for your gift and your teaching.
Om Ganga Mai! Ganga Mai! Ganga Mai Mai!
Images of Erin © 2018 Clever Ricardo
Other images © 2018 Erin Bidlake