16 City of Learning and Burning

Varanasi, the ex-Benares and ex-Kashi is older than history, older than legend, older than mythology, and older than all three put together, so said Mark Twain. It has been a centre for Indian philosophy and learning for millenniums. Besides the river, Varanasi silk brocades are also world famous. No rich and respectable Indian woman would marry without a wedding sari of brocade silk from Varanasi. Varanasi silk is supposed to be the softest silk around, and made from wild silk worm cocoons, vs. the Chinese’s farmed variety. My guide, Dubai “like the country” said Varanasi was a place of learning and of burning. It’s a good place to die. He tries to drive and explain Varanasi and its connection to the Hindu god Shiva. “Shiva smokes ganja, so Shiva worshippers little bit crazy”. The French ladies keep up their chatter and pay absolutely no attention to our Brahmin. So far I’ve heard only 2 people have announced their caste, both Brahmins. This guy bathes in the Ganges everyday before the sunrise and then meditates for 20 minutes (20 minutes is chicken feed, I thought, especially if one is a Brahmin). Only Brahmins and saddhus bathe before sunrise, I guess it’s an elite thing. Brahmins are strict vegetarians, i.e., no eggs, no buffalo milk (only cow milk), No intoxicants, no caffeine, no ganja. Dubai walks around with a pack of herbal tea in his pocket. No regular chai for our Brahmin. He looks like everybody else except for a little lock of longish hair sticking out of the back of his head, a sign of his high caste.

As we make our way into the heavy dust and chaos, with the windows closed, no air-conditioning in hot weather, I learn that it is very big trouble to hit a cow on the street. For penalty, one would have to compensate the family, fast for 10 days, sleep on the floor, and then feed your Brahmin friends a big banquet in atonement. 

Dubai takes us to the little town of Sarnath, the place where the Buddha first started to teach the middle way. There is a ruined monestary, a museum and huge stupa built by the emperor Ashoka, later sacked by the moguls. The significance of the stupa is that it was topped by a statue of 4 lions, which is the symbol of India today. Also in the stupa are some bits and pieces of the buddha’s mortal remains. What is it with humans that we like to have pieces of some one’s corpse close at hand? Communist leaders are embalmed and displayed. Buddhist leaders are cremated and distributed. Catholics bite off the toes of their deceased saints, at least in Goa they did. I can see having the ashes of some one in your family in an urn, but having a bit of ear or teeth or toe of someone else is a bit morbid.

There was also a smallish museum with tons of whole or broken Buddhist and Hindu statues. One looked pretty much like another at this point. We then also saw a Jain temple “near about 200 years old” and then a Tibetan temple “very new one”. Dubai didn’t know that the Tibetan temple was founded by the Kagyu master Trungku Rinpoche, who is tutor to the Karmapa, the head of the Kagyu tradition. The shrine room was beautiful and appropriately ornate without being too extravagant. Everything seemed hand painted and hand carved. There was a huge portrait of the Dalai Lama and one of the Karmapa. “That is the ninth Dalai Lama” said Dubai. “That is the fourteenth Dalai Lama”, said I. Dubai was distraught. “I am Brahmin, a holy man, the highest caste”, said he, in case we’ve forgotten. “Now I am feeling very bad, because I tell many people wrong thing. When I am wrong, then everybody is wrong.” He wanted to know which the current incarnation of the Karmapa is. We were then taken to the usual big carpet and sari store.

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