Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Looking at the other side

Note - this post is likely to depress you

A few days back, a friend of mine posted a (probably by now a much-shared) link to a series of photos a Chinese tourist took in Varanasi, of corpses abandoned in the river and washed up on the shore. His tone was one of (in my opinion, slightly gleeful) horror at what looks like the rejected props from a Walking Dead episode coexisting with daily life, which goes on like it's nothing out of the ordinary. 
Other than the tone taken, I don't really disagree. Yes, these are corpses, the decaying remains of what was once human beings, abandoned and left to rot like refuse in a public river, with nobody to lay them properly to rest, to clean up, to even bat an eyelid. 

Nobody's disturbed because this is daily life. This is how things are. The only people who get disturbed and upset are the people coming from places where their society has the time, the resources, and the inclination to handle corpse disposal properly. 
On the opposite end of the spectrum, but in a similar way, we get shocked when we go to a first-world country and find we can drink the water coming directly from the taps, no filter, no UV, no boiling. 
The truth is, there is no regard for human life here. nobody cares when you're alive, why would they care about your corpse? 

Think about poor Varanasi's history. For centuries, the city has lived under the plague-ridden burden of perception that it is somehow spiritually elevated, that a death here is different, more meaningful in some way for the one dying. Freedom from reincarnation? Spiritual upliftment and enlightenment? Privations in this life rewarded in the next? 
It's meant a flood of people with nothing left but death, a flood of people hungry for soul-cleansing, a flood of people trying to understand something of what's happening. The tourist money keeps the economy running briskly, but the concept of a just reward in an afterlife has left little motivation to improve this one. 

There is no enlightenment here, no spiritual reward. It's something we make up, desperately, to somehow justify the appalling conditions we see, the misery, poverty, deprivation. People don't choose to be poor for a spiritual reward, they are poor because they had no choice, and every waking moment they fight it. There is no alternative. 
Be, or die. 

That's why the tourists flock here, too. They cannot imagine a life that is so bad, yet continues to be lived. They're convinced there's some great secret behind it all, something that we know and they don't, something that justifies this horror. Some mysterious philosophy of rebirth, reincarnation cycles, karma, an understanding of the nature of reality that they haven't got yet. Some knowledge that lets us continue to live in this place, walk these streets, where corpses wash up on the banks and lie putrefying in the sun. 

Chill, guys, there's no great secret. Step back and look at the big picture. We live because the alternative is to die. We live here because there are a thousand million little threads that tie us here, because there is nowhere else to go. 
The native will keep the farce going. The yogis and godmen will speak about this great secret in hints and allusions, translated into the guides' commentaries, the documentaries, the book and the stories. 

We live, and we die. There is nothing after, but as long as people believe there is, the money keeps coming, the stories keep perpetuating, the society keeps functioning. 
We make the tools we need to survive, and faith and hope are just some of those tools. 


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