As a Westerner I am very aware many look on the adoration the Ganges with quiet bemusement. But is it really fair? Landscapes shape the world that form our identities.
As Simon Schama wrote “Before it can ever be the repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of Rock.”
The past lives on in art and memory, but it is not static: it shifts and changes as the present throws its shadow backwards. So perhaps Westerners should consider their own biblical heritage.
Can you imagine the life and death experienced on the ancient Nile river? Plague effecting many, and the threat of hippo attack its huge open mouth wallowing in water? There were of course the pleasures of figs, baths for the wealthy and yet fearsome serpents.
Traveller Felix Fabri plagiarised Seneca to say “the Nile does not take but gives” manuring the soil floods not floods of misery that plagued middle age Europe but a “flood of joy” . It seemed the flood washed away the horrors of disease that sped life and rejuvenation like hatchlings of crocodiles.
Drinking from the Nile will make a make a barren woman fertile, it was claimed.
When emperor Theodosius in 391 ordered destruction of the Serapeum of Alexandria the following flood failures were blamed on the unhappy gods Hapy, Nilus and Serapus. Osiris, a god of death and resurrection and both the Nile and Tigris were said to link to the underworld.
Just as an Indian may bathe in the Ganges for purification, in Pompei water from the goddess Isis was sprinkled on the head to cleanse a person. Is this any different from a believer descending the Ganges during Ganga Dusshera to be purified, offering sandalwood, flowers, and milk.lighting incense and a lamp and feeding fish with flower balls?
In the Bible the Jordan was the river of deliverance. Its cascading pure waters from Lebanon cleansed believers and carried a nation to freedom. In Qumrum it was not the languid lubricant of sin, but of fastidious purification rituals in channels cut in bleached stone that emptied into the Dead Sea.
During the Middle ages people believed that to wash in the Father Rhine could wash away misfortunes for the coming year.
Speculation of Edens four rivers led some like Fabri and Josephus to link the ‘Gihon’ of Eden fed by a primordial Tigris. Fabri points out Nile rises and falls under Leo and Virgo .
I am reminded of the Renaissance attempts to find Plato’s unity of world in time and space. The earlier Philo had described fons sapientiae, the union of goodness, beauty and wisdom. In Islam the Quran describes the reward of paradise as a garden where waters flow underneath. We can also think of Renaissance villas that tried to find beauty in the truth of form.
How does this line my thoughts to the Ganga?
The course of a river depends on the nature of its basin .
So the course of knowledge depends on the condition of the society of the seeker.
Truth to a Westerner is a cellular and compartmentalised. Indian Truths are believed to be simply a frame of reference.
To India science is like trying to see the world from a heliocentric world view that you must transcend. The heliocentric sun is blindingly intense in its logic . But what of the inner discovery that allows you to take the next step?
The divine light of fire was mythologicalyl held by Jupiter who punished Prometheus for taking knowledge out of the realm of archetypal purity and extending it to earth. It is as if by compassion the purity if the circle had been extended, drawn down to earth to form a spiral, like a river.
If we see earth as an organism, a cosmic egg, of sacred mountains and magnetic sacred centres, then the hierarchy of chakras – and all nature has hierarchies – reveal that any religious truth is in fact only a part and never a whole.
After the atomistic world view gave way to a gestalt of integration, society is seeking holism but occasionally loses its way. We can think of Pierre Chardin describing man as having a “reflective consciousness” that can stand outside of data and consider his place in it.
But when I see the ecstasy of believers in rivers of India I am reminded of our small part in the whole.
Hindus revere nature, rarely seeking to mold it into their own design. You see this in the drooping banyan trees drooping its creepers in the middle of a road . Just as Hindu towns, palaces, temples, and buildings growing organically, so does the organic appreciation of nature.
Like the Ganges, much of India is linked to a sacred history, much as Homer linked, say, the sirens of Greek myth between Aeaea and the rock of Scylla.
Hence, the landscape has its memory that fill peoples lives even today. Or to repeat Simon Schama
“Before it can ever be the repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of Rock.”
So as I watch aarti, a small diya with candle and flowers is released and an offering made to Maa Ganga. The lamps have been circled by Pandits as the lamps acquire the power of the deity.
Cupping their hands over the flame palms are bought to the forehead to revieve purification and blessing.