I was in Varanasi, my Indian home base, for a short intensive week. Varanasi is getting more beautiful every time. But this beauty does not only open up to the outer eye. Indeed, for the "westerner" Varanasi is a very difficult city to classify, a great challenge, and I, too, always have a split feeling of a terrible and beautiful love-hate relationship with this old and great city.
Cities like Delhi, Calcutta or Bombay are easier for us to understand because they were all built by non-Indians.
Varanasi is deeply Indian and difficult for us to grasp. We see the city remarkably differently than the Hindus see it. We take in the incense sticks, the smell of burns, sweet chai mingling with sticky fruit and fried spicy dishes on the street corner. Washing powder and the smell of camphor from the sacrificial candles on the stairs to the Ganges and garbage and plastic hangs sluggishly on the old cobblestones to be picked up or burned at some point. The Hindus see all this too.
We hear the little bells of the priests and the big temple bells. Again and again prayers and mantras reach our ears, "Hare hare mahadev". Even if we have some yoga experience, or have read a book, been to an ashram, it will all seem strange and controversial to us.
Varanasi is as old as Athens, Beijing, Rome, Damascus. However, not much has changed fundamentally in five thousand years. Imagine Greek rituals in Athens that still exist today, and then you can perhaps understand what is special about Varanasi. Electricity with occasional power cuts has existed since it was created about 5000 years ago, if you look inside the houses, you can see refrigerators and televisions, cars and motorbikes that once clogged them up such a quiet city, plastic packaging replaces banana leaves, and tea is rarely served in small clay cups. Nevertheless, this city is still living Hindu tradition. Time has stood still in the old part of the city on the Ganges side. The houses regularly deteriorate in the rainy season and are then repaired and repainted again in the wintertime. The climate in India underscores the ubiquitous notion of impermanence. Life and death form a unit. Decay is part of life, and our own impermanence is embraced with serenity and a smile in the face of the visible impermanence around us. Nothing material lasts. In return, the rituals are understood to be all the more important and concentrated. In Varanasi, doing your puja is still more important than getting to work on time. The rituals are the bridge to the other world or to immortality. Although everything will seem chaotic and without structure to us, Varanasi is full of rules. Controversially also rules for the conservation of matter. For example, great importance is attached to hygiene. We shower twice a day, before each visit to the temple again. After using the toilet, you rinse your buttocks with water, you only eat or touch food with your right hand, you don't suck on water bottles with your mouth, you let the water flow into your open mouth. When cooking, the food is not tasted in between. The houses and clothes are sparkling clean. And that is a miracle, since in Varanasi all power is in the dust. It has to be swept and mopped every day and almost no family has a washing machine or vacuum cleaner.
The cityscape is dominated by men. The role model is separate. Most of the time, the man goes to work abroad and the woman takes care of the house and children. Women spend a lot of time in their home. But it's not like we imagine that women are locked in the house. The families are big and the house is lively. Marriages are still arranged by parents, and young women, who have previously had little contact with men, rely on their parents to know best what suits them. The young men feel the same way and at the wedding they sometimes see each other for the first time and are at a loss. Finally, the astrologer decides whether the two partners can close the marriage bond. The woman is the boss of the house and the man brings the money home. Men and women in traditional India don't have such a close cuddling relationship as we do in the West. The goal of marriage is to create a peaceful family. This is also a spiritual decision for each other and here again it is clear to see how little our concept of individual self-realization is of importance to the Indians. Karma means accepting your partner like your own child, who you don't choose, and you can love anyone. In different ways for sure. Therefore, one traditionally sees few couples in love, but often a friendly team between the sexes. Women tend to keep to themselves and men's friendships are also stronger than here in the West. Due to the intact extended families, there is also a great deal of social control in the house. According to our media reports, every woman in India is raped by her husband. That's not what I see here. On the contrary, there are far fewer arguments and dependencies than I perceive in couple relationships. Sometimes it even seems to me as if the severe restrictions on freedom here through the many rules and limits allow more freedom and independence, since fewer expectations of romantic love are attached to each other. This is one side of the perceptible. On the other hand, the big cities in India are changing rapidly and women are studying and emancipating themselves. It remains questionable whether this is always to the advantage. Instead of an extended family, childcare comes from outside, individuality and expectations of a promise of glitz and glamor are making inroads. Coca Cola everywhere. The university system introduced by the British, which every good democrat advocates , clearly destroys the traditional system of "gurushisha parampara" = "sitting at the feet of the guru". means being trained from childhood by specialists in your own family. Gurus, i.e. teachers who really have an interest in someone learning something, not so much because of the individual, but to continue the tradition. Today you see fewer good traditional artists compared to just 10 years ago. Traditional music and dance, painting, culinary arts and the correct execution of traditional medicine and crafts are becoming less and less, but young women and men are now specialists in macotronics and allopathic medicine. At Coffee Day, a chain like Starbucks, you can pay an extra rupee and support a child's education. You can now buy yourself a good conscience in India at the glamorous coffee stand with its caramelized Latte Machiato decafe. And that sounds great too, down with the caste system and education for everyone. School books did not exist in traditional India. Neither does the thought that someone is individually talented at anything. Someone is born into the into what exactly this soul has to go through in the course of its development, and if that was from a family of musicians Music was practiced from morning to night, and if the father was a shoeshine boy or a rickshaw driver, this was the trade that was learned. Each caste was important to the maintenance of a society. Today almost no one can repair a shoe anymore, and that is also less valued, Bollywood is ousting Hindustani classical music and a new idea of individuality is entering the Indian consciousness. "I'm worth it", to have a good rich life, I want the same opportunities as everyone else. But to do what? Raise up as a woman instead of children, which becomes less valuable, sit in the office and have a say in politics. Socially caste is perhaps a disaster. Spiritually it is very deep.
I recognize more and more that it is not our place to judge or condemn what we can only begin to understand. Unruliness is so often praised in the West and also hyped in the New Age scene as a "free spirit". But all that individual rebellion and rebelliousness also leads to much conflict. I asserted my rights. Better to die than give in. From shoeshine boy to millionaire, the world is my oyster. Traditionally, India tends to be silent and knows that the smarter ones give in. In Varanasi in particular, the new American structures are not yet having an effect. Coca Cola's power is relatively small compared to Shiva's power.
I would like to show you all of this and our trip will allow plenty of scope for discussions and the exchange of ideas. In this world of confusion and striving, where the ultimate truth lies is difficult for us to discover. Maybe that doesn't matter at all and everything has to be exactly as it is experienced. We are in our self-created web of karma and it takes as long as it takes.
Happy New Year to you all full of compassion and many moments of clarity and light.