Magic; thoughts on India

“Still, what I want in my life

is to be willing 

to be dazzled – 

to cast aside the weight of facts 

and maybe even 

to float a little 

above this difficult world. 

I want to believe I am looking 

into the white fire of a great mystery” 

- Mary Oliver, The Ponds

I was talking to my friend Nikki the other day – one of those long, talk-about-everything talks that goes on for hours that feel like no time at all – and we came across the topic of magic. “I believe in the magic of the world,” she said, or something along those lines, and I was struck with the knowledge that I used to wholeheartedly feel that way and that I had somehow completely forgotten that I did.

There is a certain magic in the world that we humans tend to lose sight of with age. The struggles and heartbreaks that we all must go through as we grow up slowly erase our childhood knowledge of it, until we are left with little more than a faint memory of the feeling it once brought forth in us.

Every once in a while, I get a glimpse of that feeling. The pure joy and wonder that used to come with seeing any glittery object still reveals itself, if only for a split second, when I see such things again – a sparkly box or hair clip can still, once in a while, send a rush through my body of wonder and excitement before my brain recognizes it for what I know, as an adult, it really is - cheaply made “junk” which one should never spend money on. Well, it still holds magic nonetheless; doesn’t it?

I’ve found that magic in nature, in the stars and the ocean and the wind. Most people forget to look for it, but it usually finds you if you’re open to it. One night, at camp, during my first summer working there as a dishwasher, it found me. Late at night, having finished my shift in the kitchen, I pulled my tipi-mates out of our tipi so that we could all watch the meteor shower that had been going on for the past few days. We climbed down to the rocky beach below our unit (the circle of tipis where we and our campers slept) and stood staring at the sky as shooting stars whizzed by in all directions. This would have been enough to restore my connection with magic – the stars usually are. However, the world had more to offer that night: as I tossed, with no purpose in mind, a piece of driftwood into the ocean, the water lit up like electricity. A rush coursed through my entire body as I realized that, upon closer examination, every bit of water surrounding us was sparkling – the phosphorescence, which only occasionally shows itself in the San Juan Island summers, was out in full throttle that night. We waded and watched our feet light up, and cupped our hands in the water to hold its twinkling light between our fingers. Standing under a sky of shooting stars, in water full of glitter more beautiful than that of any glittery box or hair clip I had ever seen as a child, I felt the world offering its magic up to me, convincing me of its existence as it always has, every so often.

India knows of this magic. It harnesses it, and worships it, and doesn’t go a day without seeing its light. This became especially apparent to me in Varanasi, India’s “Holy City” and one where spirituality and faith take precedence over any and every scientific fact or theory. Varanasi lies on the bank of the Ganges, a river infamous for its pollution – it is full of all kinds of waste, from petrol left behind by the hundreds of boats that live on and visit it, to human excrement (as it must serve as the sewage system for the many who have none to use), to an uncountable number of people’s ashes who are burned and dumped there with the belief that it guarantees freedom from the vicious cycle of rebirth, to actual human bodies (for those who can’t afford cremation but still want the river to carry their souls away); I am probably forgetting a number of other pollutants that belong to this list. The water of the Ganges has a bacteria content that is astronomically higher than that which is classically considered to be unsanitary and unfit even to bathe in (not even to mention drink). And yet, the people of Varanasi bathe daily in the Ganges, and drink its waters, too, believing them to have healing powers and to guarantee lifelong health.

On my first trip to Varanasi, when I was twelve years old, I was struck by one thing that my family’s tour guide told me – he said he had drunk a cup of Ganges water when he was little, and that he had never been sick in his life. I chose to believe him, though I was flabbergasted by the statement – even at that age, I couldn’t count the amount of times I’d been sick. However, in India, it is believed that faith can overcome anything – “Faith over science” is what my tour guides said over and over this time around. “Faith can move mountains,” they said.

If any faith can move mountains, it’s the kind I witnessed in floating down the Ganges in Varanasi. It is an entirely different world over there, and one you can truly only believe or understand when you see it. The banks of the Ganges are replete with “Ghats” serving different religious purposes. One is home to a crematorium, where, all day and all night, bodies burn in the open air while their families stand by and mourn, waiting to gather their ashes and give them to the river. They call the river “Mother Ganga” and believe her to be a goddess (and one of their four mothers, the other three being their biological mother, mother Earth, and cows – as a representation of food). The two Ghats that are home to the most Hindu temples are, every evening, host to hundreds – sometimes thousands – of Hindu worshippers, who gather in a crowd of vibrant colors and beautiful sounds to partake in a Hindu ceremony. Several religious men stand in a line and chant and dance with fire while the gatherers, both on the riverbanks and in boats of all kinds, pray around them. The energy and magnitude of this gathering is impossible, even with my love of wordy and hyperbolic adjectives, to describe: it is something beautifully unfathomable to color, emotion, and crowd fearing westerners.

During my Semester at Sea program in Varanasi, we were lucky enough to hear a lecture from a local university professor about the city and its role as the sacred heart of India. “It should be a part of our life,” he said, “to look at the metaphysics instead of just the physics of our surroundings.” He claimed that Varanasi does this, though he allowed that it is a very difficult task to maintain this kind of spiritual life. He emphasized that these metaphysics didn’t simply belong to Hinduism – they belong to all spirituality and to all religions. Varanasi and the Ganges are more about the magic of faith and of spirituality than about any specific religious doctrine. They teach to look beyond the limits of reason and science in order to accept the true beauty of life on earth. They teach that, no matter how filthy, by scientific standards, the Ganges may be; those who accept her as their mother are the receptors of her powers to heal any sickness of body, heart, or mind. The metaphysics of the earth exist in everything - in the magic of nature and of stars and light and of human beings and of fateful encounters; we just have to be willing to see and believe that the magic is there.

So, I’m happy to steal Nikki’s words and to proclaim once again that I believe in the magic of our world; everyone should – it makes life more fun.