On the banks of the Ganga at Triveni Ghat, Rishikesh, we await the start of the evening special aarti on Ekadashi in early November. At twilight a huge crowd watches as the brimming Ganga swirls by, hastening towards Haridwar on her journey to the great Gangetic plain of northern India. The priests arrive and begin invocation to the Ganga as night falls. Holding in their hands multi-mouthed brass diyas, the priests and host families sing paeans to the river, gods and goddesses to the accompaniment of cymbals and drums.
It is a magical moment, with people poised with earthen diyas in their hands, waiting to offer them to the holy river. But something disturbs my father, who brought us all here. Quite unlike his general rational disposition, that morning we had taken a bath in the Ganga near the Ram Jhula, for the first time. A religious man, but with no faith in religiosity, this trip was rather unusual for him as well as for us. “This seems a glamourised form of a conservative faith,” he muses to me. I wondered if he would walk away, once his rationalist side took over. But he went through the motions till the very end; perhaps his composure came from the very rationalism that we thought would pull him away.
Back at the guest house, now at ease with himself, he said once again that he found an element of vanity in the entire affair. He, like all of us, did not know that the aartis were hosted by particular families—indeed along with the invocation to the deities, the priests had also praised and wished for the well-being of the host families. Utilising his long and sustained teaching to us for the Buddhist golden mean—the Middle Path—and his love for all life and nature, I rationalised that the choreographed aarti should be seen as homage and thanksgiving by human beings for natural forces like the Ganga, a life-giver. I thought this perspective would appeal to my father as his favourite festivals were Holi and Chhath—both outside mainstream Hindu festivals, completely secular, celebrating life and exalting Nature, without show of wealth and privilege and with no mythical gods and goddesses strictly at the centre of it all.
It was Ekadashi, which he had been observing for many decades devoid of all its religious paraphernalia and more as a desire to skip meals twice a month for general benefit. Eating fruits to break his fast, he said, ‘You are right. In ‘Four Quartets’, Eliot called the river ‘a strong, brown God.’ He said this calmly, with a composure coming from the insight he’d gained from, among others, teaching literature for four decades and also annotating and critiquing that long, philosophical poem a few years back.
The next day, we proceeded to Haridwar. As is the usual practice, I bought two plastic cans to fill them with ‘Ganga Jal’ as souvenirs of a tourist destination. My father waited for me as I bent down to fill them with the ‘holy’ water at the Har-ki-Pauri. He carried one of the cans to Patna, and the other can was left with us at Delhi. The Patna can that he carried would come handy for his last rites three weeks later—droplets of the life-giving brown God silently sprinkled their blessings on his still frame -- devoid of all sounds and invocations, perhaps the way he would have liked it to be.
The writer is an editor with National Book Trust, India