"We suffer when we are confused about the nature of our identity. We suffer when we believe ourselves to be our thoughts. We suffer when we believe ourselves to be our bodies. This distortion is only dispelled through clarity of true seeing."

Text by Caverly Morgan. Photos by Vineet Teames.

I am not the body.

Countless times on this trip my husband and I give each other that loving reminder. It's a playful way to remember what is true as I am vomiting. As he struggles with digestive issues and a fever. As my feet are blistered and covered in mosquito bites. As his knees ache and feet swell for unknown reasons. As we are overcome with bedbugs. It's good to remember:

I am not the body.

Nothing brings this truth more fully into the heart of direct experience than sitting at the burning ghats in Varanasi. Nothing. 

I have been to India before. I know that the holy mother Ganges is a river used for bathing. For prayers and religious rituals. For receiving the dead. Until now, I haven't seen it. Until now, I have not been to Varanasi.

 The boats of Varanasi.

The boats of Varanasi.

It's one thing to picture a funeral ritual in which a colorfully wrapped body is set to float down the holy river. It's another to be feet away from the dipping of the freshly deceased into the water. The ritual of then burning the body. To be present for the ceremony of pouring the holy Ganges water over a son's back after his father's form is gone.

My first visit takes place from a boat. Our Indian friend takes us to the ghat. It's night. We're told that once we reach a certain point, cameras must be put away. We oblige as the boat comes close to the shore. The boat stills. We listen. We see. We learn. Not through our friend's words as much us from our experience.

 The burning ghats at night.

The burning ghats at night.

Pujus are underway. Fires hiss. Heat rises. Workers bustle about with purpose, as if choreographed. 

A man with bamboo tongues bows and throws a dark object into the water. It lands so close I'm splashed. 

We learn that the dark object is a chest bone. Those are given to the river. After the allotted three hours of burning a body, that is what's left of a man. "Chest bone. Strong. Can do hard work," says our Indian friend. 

Another splash. A hip bone. Those are given to the river. After three hours of burning a body, that is what's left of a woman. "Strong, can bear many children."

To the chorus of splashing bones in the darkness of the night, we learn more about this ancient custom.

People need to have been dead less than twenty-four hours to be burned at the ghats. If you can afford it, you can be burned with sandalwood. Most people cannot afford that. 

 Stacks of wood for the burning ghats.

Stacks of wood for the burning ghats.

If you were murdered, committed suicide, had leprosy, or died of other "unnatural" causes, you are burned in a gas incinerator sitting above the piles of wood. Those who died of natural causes are given to the fires on the shore. 

Between the wood and the gas stands a small building containing a flame. We are told that it has burning for forty-five centuries. It is the flame that starts all flames. 

If you are a pregnant woman or a child under twelve, you are rolled in fabric, with rocks, and placed in the river. Children, we are told, have not had enough worldly experience to need to be burned. 

Cows, dogs, goats, water buffalo. They all are offered to mother Ganges. 

 Man bathing as the body of a cow floats by.

Man bathing as the body of a cow floats by.

Everyone is purified and prepared for the next life at the burning ghats. Hundred of bodies a day consumed by water or fire. Hundreds of spirits a day journey on.

My husband and I return the next day to be still and absorb the experience in a deeper way. This time from the shore. We sit on the stairs of the main burning ghat of Varanasi — there's more than one here — and become quiet.

The energy of the place is almost dizzying. A dislocation of body and mind and place. Death, so directly unfurled. So unabashedly exposed. Bodies hiss in the blaze. 

There are at least twelve fires burning. We notice feet and legs protruding from some of the flames. A worker see them too and with bamboo tongues, flips the legs, presses them into the heart of the fire, adds more wood. 

My husband turns to me and whispers, "That just happened."

On one level, for someone of our cultural background, it's almost too much to take in. Simultaneously, it's the most perfect and natural thing in the world. I notice a moment of relief even, as death is taken out of the shadows, only existing in the light. 

Consider how much we fear death. Consider how happy we are to hide away what gets deemed as gruesome. Consider how our habitual tucking away of death feeds our conditioned denial of its inevitability. 

 Man at Assi Ghat after morning puja.

Man at Assi Ghat after morning puja.

There's no hiding here. There's no confusion. There's no pretense or erroneous notion that we're going to get out of this thing we call life alive. There's only the backdrop that we are not the body. There's only the truth that we are more than that. 

Imagine throwing the chest bone of your father into the river. Imagine throwing the hip of your wife. Imagine, your son, tossing the last bit of your unburned body into the holy body of the Ganges. 

 Sadhus and grieving family members having their heads shaved.

Sadhus and grieving family members having their heads shaved.

We suffer when we are confused about the nature of our identity. We suffer when we believe ourselves to be our thoughts. We suffer when we believe ourselves to be our bodies. This distortion is only dispelled through clarity of true seeing. 

In seeing clearly, we recognize our true nature as that which contains the mind-body, and yet is not limited to the mind-body. From this place of clarity, there is no need to resist the ending of a human form. No different than how we tend to not resist the wilting of a rose.

 Morning sitting on the ghat.

Morning sitting on the ghat.

From clarity, the perfection of life cycles — all occurring within the same vast field of awareness — are but shadows passing through the landscape of a dream. Each illuminated by the flame of the divine. Each dying into the flame of the divine. 

All things arising and dissolving in the same flame of the divine. The flame that ignites all flames. The flame that burns beyond time.

 In prayer at a shrine behind the ghats.

In prayer at a shrine behind the ghats.

 Varanasi.

Varanasi.