Sunday, August 7, 2011

The City of Shiva -- Varanasi, India

One of the most memorable experiences while I was in India in July was our visit to Varanasi, the sacred city of Shiva, the most holy of all the Hindu pilgrimage centers (tirthas) in India. I did not really know what to expect, though I knew it would be full of pilgrims as well as devout Hindus wanting to spend their remaining days in the city from which moksha is guaranteed (but only if you die there). I knew about the ghats, or stepped platforms and terraces, along the Ganges –some used for devotion, others for the mundane tasks like laundering clothes. Bathing can occur in either context – sacred or mundane.

The trip began in a jarringly memorable way: as we were boarding our plane, two coffins were sitting on the tarmac, waiting to be loaded into the cargo hold. Devout Hindus on their way to be cremated at the place where Lord Shiva would ferry their souls across the river to the great beyond. I realized that their grieving relatives would most likely be on the same flight with us. Having come to India almost directly from my grandmother's memorial service, I was all the more attuned to death and grieving. My grandmother was with me on that trip to India, in the way that people keep telling me she is always with me, in spirit. I kept wanting to share with her my experiences and impressions, and then realizing I couldn't.

I was not surprised to find in Varanasi extreme contrasts with New Delhi. Varanasi is one of the oldest cities in India, and Delhi, while several centuries old, is also probably the most modern city as well. Delhi’s airport is only one year old, and road-building seems to have kept pace with the boom in population and in automobiles (unlike Hyderabad, for example, where traffic is a total nightmare).

Varanasi is intense – old, dirty, with narrow winding streets thronged with market stalls; the crush of pilgrims and tourists making their way to and from the ghats; religious fervor and fervent hawkers; pedestrians, bicycle rickshaws and automobiles all competing for space; very loud music! All of one’s senses are assaulted, between the fragrant aroma of flowers and the odor of cow dung, the loud music, the visual cacophony of colors and textures, foods both tempting and repellant. The heat, the humidity, the mud, and – once you get to the Ganges – the water (I stepped in up to my ankles) – it all overwhelms. Varanasi is like India itself – intense, larger than life, sometimes too much to handle, but somehow captivating.

We were there during a special month devoted to Shiva; in the lunar calendar it occurs only once every three years (or once every 32.5 months, according to Wikipedia). Pilgrims -- almost all of them young men, dressed entirely in orange -- travel on foot to Varanasi to gather water from the Ganges in small pots, and then to travel on foot to other Shiva temples located throughout the country to pour the sacred water on the Shiva lingam. In these photos you can see the decorated poles used by pilgrims to carry the Ganges water:

According to Subhadra Sen Gupta, Kashi may have been a Dravidian center of worship before the arrival of the Aryans in the subcontinent. The cult of Shiva dates to before the Aryans’ arrival, and Kashi is believed to be Shiva’s sacred city. Remains of a city wall dating back to the 9th century B.C. have been found on the northern edge of the city.

The city is known by many names:

1. Kashi (or Kashika, or Kashi Kshetra for the region of Kashi) is the name used in the oldest literary reference, the epic Mahabharata; it means “the Luminous,” or “the City of Light.” This is where Shiva’s jyotirlingam first appeared, a column of light that symbolized Shiva’s presence.

2. Varanasi – the city lies between two streams, the Varana (to the north) and the Asi (to the south); together they make the name Varanasi.

3. Benares – a mis-hearing of the word Varanasi

4. Anandavana – “Shiva’s forest of bliss”

5. Anandakanana – “Shiva’s garden of happiness”

6. Rudravasa – the abode of Rudra (because one of the aspects of Shiva is as the Vedic god Rudra)

7. Mahashmashana – the Great Cremation Ground

8. Avimukta: the Never-Forsaken, or the city never forsaken by Lord Shiva

There are some 80 ghats in Kashi, built mostly from red sandstone. The five most sacred ghats are the Asi, Kedar, Dasaswamedha, Panchganga, and the Manikarnika. (Some pilgrims prefer the Adi Keshava ghat to the Kedar ghat.) These are said to possess the most spiritual power and sanctity. The only ghat we visited was the Dasaswamedha Ghat, where the virtuous King Divodasa was forced by the gods to perform the horse sacrifice, or ashwamedha yajna, not just one but ten times. In the Vedic religion, the horse sacrifice was the most elaborate and auspicious ritual, and was performed only by kings because it required so much wealth. Divodasa performed his ten horse sacrifices here at this ghat, which thus became the most auspicious of all the ghats. Bathing here at this ghat brings you all the blessings of the ten horse sacrifices.

The Ganga Aarti is performed at the Dasaswamedha Ghat every morning and every night; this is a worship ceremony (puja) in honor of the goddess Ganga Ma (Mother Ganges):

Our group got to watch the evening ceremony while seated in a boat on the Ganges. Several priests performed it in unison, circling fire, water vessels, incense, bells, and the other gifts made to the goddess. The ceremony signifies waking up the goddess in the morning, and putting her to bed at night. For the devout Hindu, the river IS the goddess, the living and energetic form of the divine; as we watched the puja being performed, we floated atop her divine presence, occupying the space between worshipers and worshiped.

Early on Sunday morning a small group of us went back to the ghat and in pursuit of the main Shiva temple in the city, the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. Not only are you not allowed to bring a camera into the temple, but you aren’t even allowed to bring a camera anywhere near the temple. There were two security checkpoints leading up to the temple, and I took a photo of this sign at the first security checkpoint saying that cameras are not allowed (plus I got yelled at for taking this photo as I walked past!):

Foreigners are generally not allowed to enter the temple, either, so not surprisingly we did not get in. I was able to look into the two doors leading into and out of the temple, and could only see that it was really crowded with worshipers. We could see the tops of towers rising above the wall (at the point where we had already left our cameras behind). I stood in line hoping to get in, and came temptingly close, but an argument in line right in front of me slowed things down to a halt and I had to leave.

I’m not sure why foreigners are not allowed, but a couple of explanations occur. According to one of the leaders of our group, the Brahmins (priests) do not want non-Hindus in the temple, and are very adamant about it. For them this is the holiest of the holies, so that attitude is not surprising. A second explanation offered by an historian in the group is that Kashi is witness to quite a lot of communal violence, so in order to preserve security they are quite strict about controlling who visits important sacred sites.

Our final visit was to the cremation grounds, the “burning ghat,” where there were, indeed, a few cremation fires still burning. A yard filled with enormous piles of wood stood next to it; they performed about 100 cremations every day, so lots of wood was needed:

The photo of the cremation grounds was also not allowed, “for privacy,” but I couldn’t resist taking one picture:

The fires were attended only by the workers whose job was to take all the ashes into the Ganges after the cremation was over. One of them invited me to walk closer to one of the fires, and the heat was really intense. He pointed out where the skull was still burning, and explained that after burning for two hours, they would smash the skull so that the soul could escape; then the fire would be allowed to burn for another hour, so that the cremation was complete. (I thought of my grandmother, whose body was cremated in January -- the Indian method is so much more visible and hence more tangible.) During roughly 24 hours spent in and around Varanasi, we saw numerous cars and trucks traveling with dead bodies, wrapped in shrouds, attached to the roof -- bringing them to be cremated here.

In my yoga practice, my teacher / guru, Sienna, talks about feeling cosmic vibrations, and reverberating with the universe. The sacred sound "OM" is supposed to help you get in touch with it, but even during practice -- even during shavasana, corpse pose -- one should be able to contact this place that's latent in consciousness. In Varanasi, this feeling came upon me, it snuck up on me unawares. After spending about two hours on foot exploring the oldest and most important areas of this sacred city, my body was shaking involuntarily, microscopically. It was as if every atom of my being was suffused with the energy of Lord Shiva. Maybe it was from the close proximity to death, beginning with the coffins at the Delhi airport and culminating in the corpse burning a few feet away from me. Maybe it was the cumulative energy of religious faith taken to its most extreme form. Maybe it was the opportunity, at last, to see a side of India that had eluded me in my visits to modernized cities -- Hyderabad, Bangalore, Delhi. I am still struggling to understand why I felt how I did.

I would have needed to sit for several hours in contemplation to absorb everything I had seen. The experience left me speechless, and I'm still trying to make sense of the emotional intensity I felt on that gray morning on the banks of the Ganges.

Diana L. Eck, Banaras City of Light (New York: Columbia U.P., 1999).
Subhadra Sen Gupta, Tirtha: Holy Pilgrim Centres of the Hindus (Delhi: Rupa & Co., 2001).

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Eulogy for My Grandmother

On Saturday, June 18, 2011, one day after what would have been my grandmother's 100th birthday, we celebrated her life with an event at the Woodstock Community Center. It was a very special day, with music, readings, and spoken tributes. One of her friends, who is a former professional opera singer, led us all in singing Happy Birthday. Some Native American musicians played music (Mescal was interested in Native American culture her entire life). Family members played "The Ashokan Farewell" and other instrumental arrangements. A New Orleans-style jazz band, called the Saints of Swing, began the event with a rousing musical procession, and after all the speeches were over they led a procession of guests down to The Colony for the reception.

New York Congressman Maurice Hinchey was the first speaker, and his tribute to her was very thoughtful and engaging. Mescal had been a political activist for the last four decades of her life -- she even served one term on the Woodstock Town Council in the early 1980s. She meant a lot to a lot of people, and really made her mark on the community.

The Woodstock Town Council decided to name the Woodstock Community Center after my grandmother because of the instrumental role she had played in acquiring the building for the community while she was on the council. She would have been proud but also embarrassed by the generous gesture in her honor.

Six months after her death, in January 2011, I still miss her all the time. Below is the text of my own comments delivered at the memorial event:

Hello, I’m Mescal’s granddaughter, Beth. I knew Mescal for 46 years – almost 47. I learned so much from my grandmother. I have so many wonderful memories of Mescal, but I will try to keep my remarks brief. Mescal was born in a world without television, or cell phones; the radio and the telephone were not used nearly as much as they are today. There were movie theaters in the world, but not in the rural community where she grew up. She had a fairly solitary childhood; except for her sister and cousins, there were no other children close by, except for the summer boarders at her grandparents’ boarding house. She read a lot, and was very close to her father, Fred Toms, and to her maternal grandfather, Mathias Burgher. Even at age 99, she would talk fondly of both of them, and her memories of her childhood were as vivid as if they had happened yesterday. She always told us stories of growing up in that far-off distant world, trying to teach us modern kids what it was like to live without electricity, or indoor plumbing; and to give us an appreciation for how hard her grandmother had worked to do things we take for granted, like doing laundry.

Despite – or maybe because of – growing up in this small community, Mescal was curious about the rest of the world. When I was around 15 or 16 years old she took me to the Tibetan Buddhist monastery for a kirtan – a ceremony of meditation and chanting. Afterwards we stayed to have a meal with the monks. It was a simple evening, really, but to me it meant and still means a lot. It was an experience of learning about people whose views and beliefs were different from ours, through the very simple act of watching and learning and absorbing the moment. It was an experience of accepting and respecting them, without judging their beliefs, AND of being accepted and respected by them. Mescal didn’t take me there as some kind of pedagogical exercise, or at least I didn’t experience it that way. Instead it was something that SHE wanted to do, and she was generous enough to include me. She went because she was curious, and I was curious too. I’ve always loved her curiosity and her sense of adventure. And it made me feel really good to be included in her life and the activities that she cared about. I often didn’t feel like her granddaughter; I felt like her friend.

Another important memory for me was that, as a young teenager, I was often brought along with my grandmother as she delivered Meals on Wheels. Mescal was one of the founders of this organization in the Woodstock area, and she worked hard as one of the volunteers who brought hot, healthy meals to shut-ins. I would accompany her to the kitchen in the Dutch Reformed Church where I met the people who prepared the meals. As we made our rounds, I met the people who received the meals. As a young person growing up, I only knew of my grandmother as someone who cared very much about helping other people. She believed in serving others, and she taught me this by her example.

She always wrote letters to the newspapers, and letters to her elected representatives, about the social issues that concerned her the most, both locally and nationally. She didn’t just talk about the issues she cared about, she acted on them.

Throughout my life, Mescal was an inspiration to me, and a role model. I was always SO proud of her, and proud to be related to such a remarkable lady. The letters she wrote to me were so interesting and impassioned that I would share them with my friends – her thoughts on universal health care, and other political issues. She was outspoken, opinionated, and passionate about the causes she believed in. She was also quite frank and open when talking about her political views, her religious views, and even sexuality and the body. She didn’t refrain from talking about a subject for fear of embarrassment or of offending someone. More than anything else, she wanted to have lively conversations and exchanges with people about things and ideas that really MATTERED.

Most of all she wanted to make the world a better place. When I was staying with her here in Woodstock last summer I noticed she was wearing a pair of pants that had lots of holes and tears in them; I wanted to buy her a new pair, but she wouldn’t let me. I wanted to sew up the seams where they were coming apart, but she said no, “it doesn’t matter.” What was important to her was instead giving the money to some organization that needed it because of all the good work they did in helping people. She didn’t believe in spending money on herself needlessly.

I want to stop and acknowledge, too, the unfailing support of her children and their spouses and partners, which helped facilitate Mescal’s generosity in the world. She was so grateful for your love and devotion. You always made sure she was taken care of, and that she had what she needed. She felt that she was not a good mother, and I believe it was very humbling for her to experience the love and generosity from you all that she didn’t feel she deserved. Through this, I think, she experienced grace, and she was always, in my view, living in a state of gratitude.

I always wanted to be just like my grandmother. Sometimes I think I am like her, at least personality-wise – with all of her flaws – but at other times I realize I don’t even come close to the generosity and the unselfishness that were so key to who she was. But I will keep trying to learn from her example. And when I am 99, I will still remember her like it was yesterday.

Mescal Hornbeck

My dearly beloved grandmother, Mescal Hornbeck, died on January 19, 2011, at the age of 99-1/2. I was very close to her, and her death was a major loss for me. I had seen her only about three weeks before she died, and she was in good health. Her death (from congestive heart failure) came as a shock to me, because somewhere in the back of my mind I really believed she would live forever. I was fortunate to spend two months with her in the summer of 2010, along with my son, Eli, and to have seen her frequently during 2010. I miss her so much.

One gesture of mourning that I made was to cut off my hair after she died. Sometimes Hindus shave their heads in mourning for a close family member, such as a parent or spouse. I did not go quite that far, but did cut it pretty short, as short as I could stand to. After not having cut it at all for 5 years, this was a radical change.

What was the point of cutting of my hair? It was a number of things. For one, it represents for me the major loss of one of the most important people in my life. For another, it represents my transformation. I can no longer in any way think of myself as a child, because I have no more living grandparents. At age 47, of course, and being a parent, I stopped being a child quite a long time ago, but something about having that amazing matriarch -- the wizened elder, the sage --made me feel like I was in some sense still sitting at her feet, at least figuratively. Now I am one generation older; the elders in my family are my parents and their generation.

I do feel that 47 is fairly old, but my grandmother was still more than twice my age. Therefore she was always right -- though she would listen to other people's point of view, at least most of the time. She was cantankerous and difficult to get along with sometimes, but she was also an amazing individual who made quite a contribution to the world.

We held a "celebration of her life" on June 18, in Woodstock, New York, where she had lived for the past 40 years. It was the day after what would have been her 100th birthday. This was a remarkable experience for me, and I will be reflecting on it for quite some time. Maybe some of my reflections will make it onto this blog, but most of them will remain private. Grieving is not really something you can do publicly, I have found.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Song of the Thirteen-Year Cicadas

A Poem for Valerie on Her Birthday

“Why don’t we do it in the road?”

My bicycle tire

Passes an inch

From a two-headed cicada,

As my son calls it.

Are they the rabbits of the insect world?

Multiplying by the billions,

Engaging in a month-long orgy

Of cicada love.

Then, fulfilling their destinies, they die.

Or are they the cows of the insect world,

Large, slow, gentle creatures,

Grazing for thirteen years,

On tree roots,

Providing food to fatten the moles?

Then, emerging, they are like babies,

No worldly experience to prepare them

To defend themselves from hungry birds.

Or curious humans.

Or hungry humans.

Cicada ice cream, emergence cookies,

Cicada pizza, spicy cicada stir fry,

Pesto cicada pasta,

Cicada-portobella quiche,

“El Chirper” tacos.

“They’re high in protein,” people say,

As if our normal diet were somehow deficient.

It’s best to gather the newly emerged “tenerals,”

They’re the softest.

Don’t eat the legs and wings.

Like dogs, they have

A thirteen-year life span;

One year for a human

Is like seven years for a cicada.

And they have well developed hearing.

I think of them more like teenagers, though,

At age thirteen they are just discovering the world

And other cicadas.

It’s a month-long frenzy; the droning hum we hear

Is the mating call of amorous males.

“I can’t get enough of your love,” he sings,

Determined to find a receptive female,

Coyly flicking her wings.

He defends against male interlopers

Through acoustic jamming.

They are so caught up in their teenage hormones –

Their relentless need for the love embrace –

That they are oblivious to

The brevity of

Their remaining days.

If these were seventeen-year cicadas

Would they be drinking and driving?

Begging to borrow the car keys?

“Even going so slowly you can’t fly without bumping into things;

Why on earth would I let you drive my car?”

I tend them like sheep,

Rescuing them from the car windshield,

The asphalt pavement,

The screened-in porch

Where they would be doomed.

Fly, cicadas! Mate!

Find your love!

Lay your eggs in safe places,

So we can enjoy your song again

In thirteen years.

by Elizabeth Hornbeck, 6/4/11

Friday, April 1, 2011

My Grandmother at Age 17

My beloved grandmother, Mescal Elizabeth Toms Hornbeck, died on January 19 at the age of 99. I have spent that past week (my spring break) at her house in Woodstock, New York, taking stock of the estate -- going through books, photographing the furnishings, and thinking about the disposal of her belongings. She had a lot of them, but she also has a lot of kids (4) and grandkids (7) and even great-grandchildren (2). Among the books I discovered her 1928 senior class high school yearbook, the Maroon, from Kingston High School (New York). Here's what the text says:

Mescal B. Toms [this is a typo, her middle initial was E.]
11 Lucas Avenue
Prospect: Elmira College.
Career: A.A., 1, 2, 3, 4; Interclass athletics, 1, 2, 3, 4; Captain hockey, 1; Captain baseball, 1; Prisma, 3, 4; President Prisma, 4; Hi-Y Auxiliary, 4; Mary Lyon, 4; Varsity debating team, 4; Bankers' Council, 2; Literary Editor MAROON.

Do you remember the Heritage of the Desert, in which Mescal plays so prominent a part? It wasn't our Mescal, but we are sure that she could have played the part to perfection. Both she and Bebe are dark, vivacious , and full of fun. Mescal acts well the part of an efficient executive too, for under her administration Prisma has enjoyed one of the most prosperous years since its organization.

Also printed in her senior class yearbook was this poem she wrote:

A Hermit

“For who would rob a hermit of his weeds,

His few books or his beads, or maple dish,

Or do his gray hairs any violence.”

–- Milton

A hermit sits in meditative bliss,

His thoughts removed from common things like this.

His mind is on the infinite

And spurns the signs of human fellowship.

His books, his beads, his weeds, and maple dish,

The only tokens of his lost kinship

With us, his fellow mortals here below.

But scorn him not! With noble strength and aim

He left this world of sordid sin and gain

To seek for wisdom and for Wisdom’s Source.

--Mescal E. Toms