Wednesday, 24 March, Bharata Yatra 2004 — En route to Durgapur.
In 2004, Amma gave Her first programme in Varanasi, a place considered by many to be the holiest city in all of India. Built on the banks of the Ganga, Varanasi or Kashi, as it is also known–is famous for its proximity to the river, its Vishwanath Temple and its cremation grounds. It is widely believed that anyone who dies in Kashi attains liberation; so many Hindus relocate there in their final years. The city stands today much as it did thousands of years ago–bullock carts pull people through the streets, sannyasins meditate in the burning grounds, and thousands still come every day to bath in its sacred waters. Very little has changed–except now the river not only carries away half-burnt corpses but also the pollution of many local factories. Amma gave darshan on the grounds of Kashi’s Town Hall, right in the busiest part of the city.
The next day, on the road to Durgapur, Amma stopped to have lunch with the devotees and disciples traveling with Her in the yard of an old coal factory. As food was distributed, one of Amma’s Western daughters took the opportunity to ask Her about Kashi. She had always heard so many special things about it, she said, but during Amma’s programme there, she admitted to not having felt any of the city’s legendary splendour. In fact, she mainly found it dirty. Was something wrong with her, she wondered? And what was Amma’s experience there like?
“For Amma God is not a separate entity,” Amma said, going on to explain the difference between the way She perceives the world and how Her daughter does. “The sculptor sees the idol in the stone. The bee sees honey in the flower. Amma sees God in everything; so I felt Kashi to be like Brahman Itself.”
Amma then went on to say how so many Mahatmas have done tapas in Kashi, and that the divine vibrations of their austerities resonate there. She also explained that the thousands of people praying every day in the Vishwanath Temple has a powerful effect on the atmosphere. “The atmosphere in the liquor shop is very different than that of the one in a temple–is it not?” Amma asked. But at the same time, Amma said, you must have faith in a sacred place in order to have an experience there. “But for one who has faith in the Guru all the sacred rivers are there at the feet of the Guru,” She said.
Explaining the intensity of the faith many Hindus have towards Kashi, Amma explained how in the olden days elderly people would walk there all the way from Kerala–practically the whole length of the country–in order to die in the city. Amma said it would take them more than six months to complete the pilgrimage.
“Only when you are thirsty will you come to know the beauty of water. The fish may not know it, because they are in the water all the time. Maybe you are like a fish,” Amma said.
“Kashi is like Brahman,” Amma said again; this time explaining how, due to their faith and surrender, the people who come there are able to focus on God in spite of the city’s dirt and commotion. “They are focused on God, so they don’t see the dirt as dirt and excreta as excreta,” Amma said. “In Kashi, you will see businessmen along the streets haggling and cheating, priests trying to beguile the faithful, oxen walking, cow dung. In the river you can see dead bodies being carried away, people taking bath, people doing their morning business on the shore, and people drinking from the same river. But when a real devotee sees the Ganga, he or she doesn’t feel squeamish.” Then She added, “If you explore any cavity in the human body, you will find only filth. Compared to that, Kashi is not that filthy.”
Then Amma told a little story: “Once a man came to a sacred place to purify himself from all his sins. When he reached there, he saw that all the people were joking, playing and doing business. The pilgrim asked, ‘Hey, what kind of sacred place is this?’ He then heard a voice from above: ‘They at least pray once a day. You didn’t even do that. Since you came, you’ve only looked at other’s mistakes and shortcoming. Compared to you, they are better.'”
Then Amma compared Kashi to Assisi, the town in Italy where St. Francis had lived. Amma said how the citizens of both cities are adamant that the buildings and roads not be changed; they want to keep them the same as they were in the olden days. The only difference, She said, is that they maintain Assisi better than Kashi, and keep it cleaner.
“If someone dies and you put them in the ground, they will only be eaten by worms,” Amma said. “If you put them in the river, fish will eat them, and birds will also get a share. ‘Let the dead body also be of some use to the world’–this is the attitude of those throwing bodies into the Ganga. The people here catch fish to eat, so they feel they should also feed the fish. Some people worry about the pollutants that come from the half-burnt bodies that flow down the river. Amma feels the poisonous chemicals coming from the factories are poisoning the Ganga much more than these bodies. Some people had initiated efforts to clean the Ganga but the local people believe that there is no need to try to purify the Ganga, that she purifies everything, she is never defiled; and the river does have a very powerful current.”
Kashi, Assisi, the Ganga–all are made holy by the Mahatmas who’ve graced them. In that sense, had not the coal factory where Amma was sitting become just as sacred? Perhaps, one day, it too would even become a pilgrimage site. Lunch and Amma’s satsang were both finished and everyone began boarding the buses to go on to Kolkata. Indeed, traveling with Amma is a pilgrimage, just one where the pilgrims move with the Goal not to it.