Immersing In Hope

Immersing In Hope

In Varanasi, the Holiest City in India, The People's Pilgrimage receives a warm welcome from Banaras Hindu University students.

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Wednesday 26 August 2015 at 20:10
Immersing In Hope

by Yeb Saño,

As the sun rises over the horizon in the plains of Uttar Pradesh, the river basks in golden glory, and to the sound of the conch, the burning of incense, and chants of mantras, pilgrims gather at the ghat to pay homage to the great Ganges and partake in the dawn ritual ablutions in its sacred waters. This time of the year, with the rains setting in, the waters of the Ganges are a milky brown, redolent of the delectable traditional Indian chai tea served in earthen clay cups.

A pilgrimage in India will never be whole without paying homage to the Ganges, or mother Ganga Ji as she is reverently called by the Hindus.

And such a pilgrimage will never be complete without setting foot in what is considered as the spiritual capital of India and one of the holiest sites of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Varanasi, otherwise known by its 108 names in Sanskrit, sits on the banks of the Ganges about 800 kilometers southeast of New Delhi, and over a thousand kilometers from the very source of this great river.

The People’s Pilgrimage had arrived in Varanasi and we were warmly welcomed by dozens of students in a public lecture at the Banaras Hindu University (BHU), one of the biggest universities in Asia and home to the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology BHU. Discussing the significance of the spiritual and moral aspect of the climate crisis with the students was a heartening experience and the engagement with spirited students showed us a lot of promise for this homegrown environmental movement.

IMG_3112Yeb with BHU students

Srishti Sanrakshnam, the student-led Forum for Ecological Conservation, organized the event which was attended by thought leaders from the University including Prof. Rana PB Singh, who heads the geography department and is an authority on pilgrimages.

My colleague, Gopal Patel from the Oxford Center for Hindu Studies and the overseer of the Bhumi Project, made the case for the role of religion in empowering the world to confront the climate change. Bhumi is Sanskrit for Mother Earth, and the project aims to foster eco-spirituality and promote sustainability principles in Hindu practices. Pintu Kumar, the resolute leader of Srishti Sanrakshnam, and one among the hundred fellows of OurVoices for the Emerging Leaders Convergence held in Rome a couple of months ago, rallied his group as he outlined the inspiring efforts of the Forum in campaigning for ecological awareness in a city beset with environmental challenges.

As we marched from BHU's main gate through winding ancient roads to the Dashashwamedh Ghat, we realized the potency of the youth in driving transformative change.

On this sojourn to the Holy City of Kashi (one of the many names of Varanasi), we witnessed how these young people unified and stood steadfast in rallying people to protect the environment and the Ganga. The active engagement with which these young students embraced the advocacy is deeply moving and walking with hundreds of them on this auspicious day intensified the hope in our hearts. What is equally inspiring is the evident empowerment of young women in this movement — many of them were involved in the planning and in actual march, and even led the march and walked proudly in the front.

Being in one of the oldest living cities of the world was a dreamlike experience, and both the immense spiritual significance and the cultural cornucopia of this ancient community gave us an inimitable look into how pilgrimages can shape the world. It is widely believed by Hindus that going to Varanasi and leaving your body in this holy city will lead to Moksha or salvation. I made a mental note to myself that on the People’s Pilgrimage, every step is worth making, and silently in my heart I professed that life is worth living because of the journey itself, and that if at the end of this pilgrimage we see the breaking of a new dawn that makes another world possible where justice, peace, and love prevails, then returning back to ashes would be an honor.

As I released the candle crowned with petals into the river, I gave a silent prayer for all the people around the world confronting climate impacts.

Before we left Varanasi, I found the resolve to go for a dip in the Ganga. And so on one such morning as the sun spread its corpuscular rays and the water shimmered in a grand display of nature’s poetry, I stepped off from Assi Ghat and submerged myself in the river. Mindful of the industrial obscenity and the fouled muck that flowed from upstream cities and tributaries, I mustered the valor and allowed myself to be immersed in this homage both literally and figuratively.

If the Hindu people are to walk with us in this battle against climate change, it should be of little consequence that we unite with them as they pay homage to their source of life, livelihood, and faith. Like addressing climate change, cleaning up the Ganges is no easy feat, and it must be emphasized that beyond being an environmental issue, it is one that can only be effectively confronted as a moral issue. The biggest gift we’ve received on this journey is the gift of being able to immerse in hope.

Follow Yeb's journey through India for The People's Pilgrimage on Flickr!

Photo credits: Nitin Bhardwaj

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