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Seeing the world in the Ganga

Part 1 of 2 in a series on Husk Power System’s recruiting in Varanasi, India, from Global Fellow Neha Kale. This post originally appeared on Neha’s blog on June 15, 2012

Yesterday, I experienced Varanasi first hand. I drove there with a few colleagues to recruit candidates for Husk Power University’s – a professional training institution of Husk Power Systems- linemen training (more details in a later blog). If you know anything about India, you’ve invariably heard about Varanasi. I too had heard extremely varying views from friends and family about what is considered to be the holiest sites in India.

Along the banks of the Ganga – you truly witness life, death and everything in between all in one glance. Children running around selling candles as yogis meditate in stillness; buffalos bathing as families cremate loved ones; young adults smoking marijuana while pundits chant centuries old scriptures; foreigners walking around with rudraksha malas as locals soak in the sun with flaunting their DIOR sunglasses. The sensory overload pales in comparison to Mumbai airport’s exit gate or New York’s Times Square for that matter.

What was most shocking and unexpected though was the hustle and bustle of ongoing business transactions along the Ganges bank. Cops stand by a temporary barricade to openly accept bribes from cycle rickshaws and bikers for entry to a“pedestrian only” pathway leading to the river. Along the way, men wearing saffron robes look for their prey and insist on guiding visitors to the hidden temple entrance.  They offer deity darshan for a small “finder’s fee”.  Along the bank, priests walk around with brass plates used for religious ceremonies – eager to adorn a tikka on a non suspecting visitor’s forehead and swiftly hand over coconut as prasad (blessed offering) – all in return for a fee they deem appropriate. The ferry boats in the Ganges are no exception. After your guide has introduced you to all the ghats along the river – they stop to share that last ghat is where visitors give “Gupt daan” – literally translated to “anonymous donations” – an act that will bring the donor good luck. I was dumbstruck by the facade of religion and tradition used to promote dishonest businesses everywhere I looked. Under the disguise of holy and pure, the Ganga can be described as a market place filled with deception.

We sailed to end the day with the Ganga Aarti. As I listened to the chiming of the bells, the chatter from all that I had just witnessed silenced itself. I started to think about the millions that had come before me –  full of hope to cleanse themselves in the Ganga. I thought about how for hundreds of years, thousands of souls from all around the world had probably left feeling blessed to hear the same prayers, I was witnessing. The glowing lights diverted my thoughts away from the numerous examples of deceitfulness I had observed earlier.  An amazing sense of calmness came over me as I experienced the synchronized Aarti made as an offering nightly to the Ganga.  I was in awe and suddenly I felt fortunate to be there.

I concluded on our six hour drive home that Varanasi is certainly special.  The negative noise within me was silenced while I floated amidst the dishonesty, corruption, lying and cheating. I suppose the Ganga is just a unfiltered and clear reflection of the world. A world filled with selfishness, dishonesty and deceit balanced with hope, faith and generosity. We choose where to focus our thoughts and effort.

Neha Kale is an Acumen Fund Global Fellow working at Husk Power Systems in Bihar, India. To get more updates from Neha, read her blog and follow her on Twitter

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