Morning sunlight washes the Ganges in a rose-infused haze. We row away from the bank, our wooden boat under the expert guidance of an elderly man as small as a ten-year-old. Half naked pilgrims bathe at the famous gnats, bloated cow carcasses float by and the ever-present smell of curry, garlic, urine and rotting food accompanies us.
We are in Varanasi, India.
Nudity, human waste, cremation – it all happens out in the open in Varanasi.
I can understand why Varanasi, while one of the holiest places on earth according to Hinduism, seems like hell on earth to many. To get to the banks of the Ganges – almost always a human crush of seekers – you first tackle narrow streets filled with cows and their offerings to the pavement. Then, you’re up against mad tuk-tuk drivers, bicycle riders, motorbikes that don’t swerve to avoid you and hundreds of corralled pilgrims waiting to visit temples, spitting, urinating and throwing food anywhere it lands.
They are dressed, mind you, in the most fabulously coloured cloth you’re ever likely to see.
Ash-covered, naked holy men squat on the ground offering blessings, then there’s a gauntlet of boats to run to get to your own. All the while, you’re trying not to think of what will happen if you fall into one of the most polluted rivers on earth. With this very thought, the first time I nearly fell – and I refuse even now to think about what I slipped on – I asked our guide what he thought would happen if I did.
He said, “If you believe the Ganges water will give you a blessing, it will. If you believe it will give you a disease, it will.”
Exactly. So to avoid the situation entirely, I decided to simply believe I wouldn’t fall in…and it worked :). This is just one way in which India opens your eyes to expand your mind.
India expands your mind by uncovering pre-programmed beliefs
Most of what we think about life, we think because of pre-programmed beliefs. Beliefs that came from parents, society and our educations. We’re programmed the minute we start learning with beliefs that depend entirely on which country we’re from, which race, which gender, which class or which religion.
Think about it for a moment. Did you read the above description of Varanasi and think you’d never go, because of your perception of how disgusting some aspects seem? Or, are you immediately fascinated? Do you see the differences as strange and appalling, or simply new?
To me, rowing along the Ganges was similar visually to a Gondola ride in Venice. The beauty of the architecture, the romance of the sun on the water, the faded colours of history. But it is a Venice imbued with intense spiritual vibrancy, a Venice filled with raw humanity rather than lovers and tourists, a Venice ripping back the onion skins to reveal the core of life.
All places are ordinary to some and extraordinary to others. Only our perception of things makes them horrible or right or beautiful.
Because your perception of (mostly) everything in life didn’t come from you in the first place, the things you believe as TRUTH are simply the truths you’ve been programmed with. Someone else will have entirely different truths. If you follow Hinduism, you may believe cows are holy and you would certainly never kill or eat them. If you’re from the West, a cow is often nothing more than a three dollar burger.
What is it that makes people believe that, fundamentally, their truth is the real truth, and someone else ’s is just a ridiculous untruth?
How do you see through pre-programmed beliefs?
The key is to look at everything with an empty mind and eyes that simply see what IS, without a pre-determined opinion of what IS.
Emotions still arise – be it sadness or happiness or empathy. But, if you allow them to rise without judging your present situation, they’ll usually subside into pure wonder. Then, everything is new. Fresh. Astounding. Something to learn from. Something to expand your mind, rather than shrink it further with the restriction of longheld beliefs.
It takes some effort and discipline to be aware of when you’re being programmed, on top of the programming you’ve already received. Most people I spoke with before I travelled to India, whether they’d been or not, made the following remarks:
“Don’t eat the food, you’ll definitely get sick, everyone does.”
“Why would you want to spend your money to go there? It’s so dirty.”
“Don’t get on trains/buses/planes, they crash all the time over there.”
I didn’t get sick, and I definitely over-dosed on curry, I didn’t have any vehicle issues and the dirty part of it just didn’t bother me. I could have chosen for it to bother me, but I didn’t. I washed my hands, I chose restaurants wisely, I took precautions at night and I embraced the chance to live differently than I do at home.
I’m grateful I know I’m free to do this, or I may have experienced the horror trip some travellers have in India and across the globe. This is often due to the pre-programmed perceptions they travel with, from people who’ve had horror trips before them. Or, worse, people who’ve seen something on TV.
That’s not to say issues don’t arise. They do. But how good or bad they are, and how you deal with them, is completely reliant on your perception of them. And you can choose your perception.
How do you avoid gaining more pre-programmed beliefs?
First things first. Think about it next time you’re about to poison someone else’s perception with your own. You might do it more than you think, even if it’s unintentional. We’re all guilty of it, whether it’s telling a friend not to cross a certain road just because you had a near-miss with a bus on the corner. Or, advising someone not to go to a certain country simply because you had your wallet stolen.
Be very wary of unnecessarily giving your fears to others, as if the person you’re telling is guaranteed to have the same experience. They’re certainly not, though the chances increase if they truly believe you.
The act of being aware of the negative opinions you spread to others, will help you remain alert to those given to you. It’s no different to covering your mouth when you sneeze. You become aware of it, and you cover your mouth. The aim is to become aware of the integrity of your words and throw them out before they contaminate someone else.
Soon you realise that most things are nothing but an opinion. And you realise how heavily programmed you are. As children, once we’ve learnt how to love and how to do the practical things we need to do in the world to survive, many other beliefs can simply be discarded. This awareness alone is enough to short-circuit the programs in order to see life again with fresh eyes.
Hindus believe that dying in Varanasi is the luckiest thing that can happen to a person because you go straight to Nirvana. No more lives, just heaven.
But once you rip out the old cords plugging you into the system, and simply tap into your own source, you realise Nirvana is already here.
So, you don’t have to wait in line to get to heaven.