Sraddhalu Ranade at a beach sunset

Varanasi, the Circle of Life

Global Spirit host, Phil Cousineau, travels to India and meets Runjhun Kejriwal, a practicing Hindu, who will join in on the pilgrimage to Benares.


PHIL: I thought I was ready for India, but now I see that there was no way to fully prepare oneself for the sheer intensity of an encounter with almost a billion human beings and a kaleidoscope of cultures and faiths. Such an overload of the senses on our very first day in Old Delhi, could only be balanced by seeking out a place of calm. On our first afternoon, Runjhun Kejriwal meets us at our hotel. Runjhun is a talented painter and a practicing Hindu who is excited to make the pilgrimage with us to Benares for the first time as an adult.The pilgrim’s journey typically includes an ordeal. In our case, we are taking a second class train, the Kashi Express, which is rumbling eastwards for 19 hours across much of north India, to arrive on the banks of the Ganges, and to “Benares” or Varanasi, considered the spiritual capital of India. Founded in the 12th century BCE, this is the most holy place for Hindus to come to die, to be cremated, and to have their ashes scattered in the holy Ganges.

PHIL: We’ve arrived at dawn, that liminal point, between night and day, the threshold that announces the shift between one world and another. We’ve entered the sacred space as pilgrims. My senses are fully saturated. I feel the need to take a moment, to pause, to pay attention, to reflect on death, my own death, my father’s death. I’m floating on this sacred river, feeling the very continuity of life and the journey of all souls.

RUNJHUN: This is a very sacred place. I do revere the Ganges a lot. It touches my soul more than anything else. Taking a palm full of water and connecting to all of the people who are touching the river, from where it begins [at its source] and where she goes and meets the ocean. I’m connecting with everyone, so many millions of people. There is this sense of Oneness.

PHIL: While the dhobis beat dirt out of people’s clothes, the Maharaja’s palaces loom high above. Rich and poor, attractive and horrific, the circle of life. It’s all here, all visible for the eyes to see. Two hundred corpses a day are burned on these ghats, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With six to nine hundred pounds of wood needed to burn each human body in order to release the soul from the endless cycle of rebirth.

RUNJHUN: All my ancestors been cremated here, or had their ashes submerged here in the river. So I feel I can touch a part of my own self here. Amongst all the charcoal and ashes from the pyres flying off getting onto my coat, it was almost surreal experience. I feel like I’m one of them being burnt.That exact spot – it’s so easy to just reach out and touch…touch a bit of me. Maybe in some previous life I might have had my ashes submerged here. It is what sacred means to me: a soul journey starting somewhere else, but always ending at this place. What can be more sacred than that?

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