The Pursuit of Liberation

VaranasiUttar Pradesh
October 8, 2015


Umbrellas dot the rows like colorful dimes, angled on slopes of stairwells spread across the River Ganges. Streaks of sunrise’s pastel sheen glaze over empty chairs set under the parasols. By mid-morning, hordes of pilgrims will crowd priests stationed along the river ghats. But for now, and from my view aboard this canoe, all remains calm as dawn breaks over Varanasi.

I lean back onto the boat’s edge, eyeing the banks in front. Young boys cluster in groups, dousing scrunched clothing into the water before slapping it dry onto the pavement. A man stands laughing in the center of a step, waving his hands vibrantly in half circular motions. He undulates with an energy that seems to meld into the stream as our boat drifts idly by. “Laughing yoga,” our tour leader motions. “He welcomes the rising sun.”

For Hindus, the River Ganges elevates every procession leading to life’s culmination. Cremation at the riverbanks is said to bring the soul to moksha, liberation from nature’s cycle of life and death. Yogic meditation finds home alongside devotees submerging in the holy water as a Hindu cleansing ritual. Dust sprinkles trash mounds spilling over the steps. Flickers of the cremation flames dance in the distance.

They say India will pick at your every grain of patience in a confrontation with elements otherwise separate from our Western daily view. Death is an honor and cremation a public ritual, bodily ashes seeping into the same stream Hindus view as a sacred bathing pool and universal laundromat. India blurs the Western divide of public and private in a mergence of the highest honors within each of our holy beings. And in doing so, we, the tourist, are left to grasp the differences in traditions that define our worlds—and the parallels in values we share simply in being human. 

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Our group had left Orchha the night prior, bearing the discomfort of a 12-hour overnight train to Varanasi. We’d been warned of the rats that slept amid the bunks, the squat toilets that would undoubtedly reek and the unwarranted gaze Indian men oft plant on the white female traveler. Only one in our group awoke to a cockroach in her hair. The train’s security officer stared at me for a solid hour while Caitlan and I sat the early morning hours out on the stiffness of a 90-degree cardboard seat. 

Varanasi marked the last stop in our two-week circuit of northern India. The trip commenced in Delhi, followed by hours-long bus rides to Jaipur (India’s “pink city”), Agra (the mandatory Taj Majal visit), Tordi Sagar, Alipura, Orchha and finally, Varanasi.

In India, food and language and saris change for every 30 miles you travel. Our two weeks in the North merely scraped the surface of the medley of culture flavoring the veins of the country in its entirety.
India is home to the majestic memorials and historic mosques, the grandiose pilgrimages and sacrosanct Hindu rites. Curries dosed in spices submerge the senses, all amidst the backdrop of an unspoiled landscape touched so marginally by the norms of Western living. Goats nibble at lettuce leaves dangling from market stalls, hurried along by the hundreds moving in and out amid the cars and cows and rickshaws sharing the same strip. Our bus rides through India’s countryside passed men and women working in the fields, women’s saris rich with color as the material swayed so softly in the wind. I’d watch them finger the fabric, modestly drawing the loose hanging pallav to cover their mouths.
India’s ever-present honking is the pulsating nerve of the country’s soul: cars, trucks, rickshaws (and cows, if they could) jam the “blow horn” unremittingly. In every village and city, at every juncture of each unpaved road, “here I am,” the honk signals. Indeed, in a country of 1.2 billion people, here they are. 

India is a stark disparity of grand wealth surrounded by intense and widespread poverty. Children walk barefoot along streets caked with gravel, garbage and cow manure. Oddly, it did not strike me as out of the norm. This is simply their way of life.



Scenes from Delhi, Tordi Sagar and Alipura. Cows, viewed by Hindus as sacred, roam cities freely. During our stay, newspapers reported on a Hindu man who killed his Muslim neighbor for allegedly slaughtering a cow. The bottom picture shows child beggars asleep on the Jhansi train station floor.
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Orchha, Madhya Pradesh
October 5, 2015

“Orchha,” our tour leader explained, navigating us briskly through the throngs spilling from the town's central square, “is the site of the famed Ram Raja temple. You will see thousands of pilgrims here from all across Northern India.” We trailed at his heel, maneuvering past block print sheets coloring designs onto the concrete floor. Children dozed on the blankets in oblivion to the cows meandering among the few open spaces. Our group paused as a magnificent thud prompted a stampede of men battling for entrance beyond the temple doors. From where stood, women conversed as if it were an ordinary day, unfazed by the palette of movement consuming Orchha's temple grounds.

Caitlan nudged me. A half curve of men had begun to form around us, peering as intently at our group as we were at the scene. We must have appeared to them what the pilgrimage site looked to us: extraordinarily different.


At first glance, the Indian existence seems so far removed from the daily of our American lives. Cows idle by village homes, the interiors largely barren save dangling wires hooked to a tube TV. We entered a potter’s courtyard in Alipura, captured by the swiftness at which he spun the clay mold into cups and vases. His wife crouched on their doorstep as she cooked over a portable mud stove. 

Female pilgrims in Orchha trekked without shoes, their posture upright as they hiked up their saris, balancing luggage on the surface of their heads. Our hotel in the village of Tordi Sagar brought in a young woman likely no more than 14 to apply the traditional henna to our arms and feet. She bore the red dye on her scalp: a Hindu symbol denoting a woman as married.

I found myself contemplating the similarities between my religious customs and those of the Hindu practice. Cows do not grace my synagogue’s aisles, yet, like the pilgrimage at Orchha, like the rituals at the banks of the River Ganges, our High Holy Days do draw out devotees en masse. Hindu, JewishChristian, Buddhist, are the basic intentions set by our various traditions not the same? 

I thought of the jitters the henna artist in Tordi Sagar may have felt on her wedding day, if she too had experienced the anxiety of life transitions. I reflected on my own personal challenges I had spent the months prior attempting to resolve. And through this rabbit hole of never-ending thoughts, I wondered just how different, really, is my reach for fulfillment from the experiences of those we came across in our two weeks in India?

Our worlds, at face value, resemble so little of each other’s. But when you strip aside the structures that define how we live, the core of our innate desires must frame around resounding similarities. The hope we seek as answers to life’s complexities; the sense of belonging so critical to the fulfillment we crave: this, I believe, is what we share as humans. 

Our cultures dictate the application of our pursuits. But no matter the form, our journeys to fulfillment, to liberation, find common ground in the human connections that bypass our cultural differences. The beauty in traveling enables a certain appreciation for how we—the universal we— come to the varied traditions that instill hope and honor life.

India has left me starkly aware that it is not the things we live with that grant the fulfillment we desire. But rather, it's through the depth of our relationships that we forge our own paths, uncovering the richness of life in this pursuit of liberation.

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We ate at this farmer's home in the rural village of Tordi Sagar. He's a father of 9, wraps his head turban in about 10 seconds, and cooks up a mean dhal and chapati. According to our tour guide, 75% of Indians live as this farmer does. The picture below captures men bathing in the River Ganges.


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