This week in Rishikesh, Jack and I taught at the ashram Parmarth Niketan, right on the banks of the river Ganges. Rishikesh is the birthplace of Yoga with ashrams and saffron-robed swamis everywhere, with Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, travelers of all faiths, gathered here. The Ganga becomes a river of refuge, the holiest of all the rivers of India.
Each morning, people do their bathing rituals, ending with a splash of the sacred water on their faces, heads, and yes, mouths. Here in the foothills of the high mountains, the river is clear, like the air. Soft green jade, Mother Ganga pours down from the Himalayas through pale rocks and granite grey sand – offering her waters to all, for bathing, rafting, irrigating, purifying and drinking — for burials, puja (ceremony), for a bathtub or toilet, always a river of blessings, source of life.
The Buddha spoke of the river of life, describing an unceasing flow of senses and thoughts, of joys and sorrows, of praise and blame, of gain and loss, of birth and death. Seated by the Ganges, there is a feeling of eternal flow. The dharma teaches us to know this life, this self, as a river — to not cling nor grasp, but to be present with all the ripples, eddies, currents, waves, with mindful loving awareness. From being with life this way, wisdom grows. Wisdom sees the beauty and the evanescence of life, its emptiness and its fullness, and rests in the midst with compassion and peace.
One evening before sunset, Jack and I accompanied our friend Shantum to do a simple puja (ceremony) for his uncle who died recently. In the glow of the setting sun, we sat on smooth rocks, dangling our bare feet in the cool riverwater, while Shantum carefully unwrapped the red cloth around the bronze urn carrying his uncle’s ashes. We offered some simple prayers and lit bits of camphor surrounded by crimson rose petals, cream colored zinnia, orange marigolds in a small bowl made of leaves, and floated them down the river with blessings for Shantum’s uncle, for all beings (that includes you!) as the sun set.
The flowers and flames bobbed downstream, the little lights growing smaller, while we sat in the afterglow of reverence for this river and for the practices of understanding and freedom that flow down the centuries to us, from the great current of Buddha’s timeless insight.
Image Credit: T. Goodman