As I walked by the Ganges River this week, with my father, in the ancient and holy city Varanasi, India, two corpses floated right by us. This was near the ghats where bodies are cremated. In India, for Hindus the bodies that are put in the sacred river and not cremated are priests, sadhus (holy men), pregnant women, children and those with leprosy.
In contrast to the lifeless corpses, less than 100 feet away there were locals bathing; some were chanting and praying at sunrise on the riverbanks, chanting mantras and the names of the Divine. These uplifting sounds and bathing in the river ensure their day will be a happy one, according to the locals. Many start the chants, meditation, prayers and bathing or swimming in the “mother” Ganga (as the river is sometimes endearingly called) all before sunrise.
The Sanskrit term for these two hours is the Amrit Vela, the auspicious and ambrosial hours when all is the most calm and settled outside and in the mind, fresh from a night’s sleep and when most others are sleeping. The yogis meditate at this time, to gain clarity, inner stillness and peace when the universe is the most peaceful.
“The period between 4 and 6 in the morning is called the Brahmamuhurta, the Brahmic time, or divine period, and is a very sacred time to meditate.” — Swami Satchidananda, The Yoga Sutras.
Many people living in Varanasi, including travelers from other parts of India, on this morning, as all mornings, were on boats or on the banks of the river, offering flowers with a candle to the river that would swiftly float away as they said a prayer for their families. Some women and children were also bathing with their heads shaven, showing they are in mourning of a loss of a husband or father.
A corpse, those in mourning, those praising and chanting with bhakti (the Sanskrit word for devotion and love) with gratitude and joy…both life and death, sharing the same waters, yet flowing in complete harmony.
“Through intellect you know the difference between the permanent and the impermanent.” — Yoga master Swami Sivananda.
We all understand that our physical bodies are limited to a mere 100 years or so, if that, on this planet and we all know one day soon our bodies, too, will be a corpse (regardless if you believe in an afterlife or reincarnation). Witnessing this from the perspective of a Westerner, not used to seeing decaying bodies floating in a river, touched the very core of my being in a profound way. Truth brings peace. This truthful contrast of life and death in one river was reminding me, yet again, that we are all here for such a short time.
As a yoga practitioner, the goal is to keep our awareness centered deep in our innermost Selves, our true being that is beyond the body and mind, even while living in this physical body. “Be in the world but not if it.”
Patanjai’s Yoga Sutras says, “Yoga is experienced in that mind which has ceased to identify itself with its vacillating waves of perception.”
Awareness of the temporary reality of our body and time on Earth can cause anxiety and depression for some. It creates an urgency to complete visions, goals and a life purpose (one’s dharma, as the Buddhists call it). For others, this reminder of impermanence may cause a sense of grief for dreams unfulfilled.
However, with the practice of meditation (dhyana in Sanskrit), concentration (dharana in Sanskrit) and sitting in stillness as you observe the breath, the anxieties, and unsettled thoughts or emotions may disappear as you detach from the sense that “I am only this body or I am only this mind.” Then a great acceptance and inner peace may arise even in the impermanent and chaos of this “world ocean,” as some yogis call it.
Swami Sivananda said, “You are not a creature of time in the material universe, but you are a spark of Divinity. Assert this and roam freely.”
Maya in Sanskrit is the illusion that the reality of the material world is all there is. The Sikh verse in the Raihraas Sahib says, “O Man! Invest an effort to attempt crossing this worldly ocean. This human life is being wasted in the allurement of Maya.”
Swami Sivananda said, “Hanker not after sensual pleasures. Know that the Infinite alone is Bliss. There is no pleasure in these little things of the world.”
When you experience a taste of the peace that lies beneath the waves of the mind and external sources of joy, then all that occurs on the outside, even if temporary and fleeting, can be experienced with more ease, joy and a sense of present awareness, so that life flows…just like the river.
As Lao Tzu says: “Be still like a mountain and flow like a great river.”
Top Photo Credit: Lihi Koren | Other photos: Stacie Dooreck