May 1, 2022 / Kunika Trehan
My father always told me I’d grow to be religious. I am young yet; still some years away from the age he’d imagined when he told me I’d someday outgrow my cynicism, as he once had, this ponytailed playwright turned father of two. It was hard to believe my father, who insisted we sit down for a proper prayer before each of our travels and inhaled literature on meditation and well-being of the self, could ever have thought himself an atheist. Yet, he insisted it was true.
By the age of 10, I’d established myself a nonbeliever (if one can even make such a proclamation before entering the sixth grade). I was a preternaturally moody kid, having announced myself entirely uninterested in matters of the divine to my family and those surrounding. Religion had never held much appeal to me: the grand mythologies foundational to Hinduism struck me as far more fairytale-like than something I could imagine basing my own morals upon.
My indifference was never met with anger, or even disappointment. My father would only smile, eyes echoing what I’d already heard him say: with time, this would change. My mother would simply continue to pull me into her closet and begin her prayers, kneeling with her eyes closed, rhythmically producing the Sanskrit syllables I’d heard since birth. In those moments, I knelt, too, though to what end I was unsure.
The sun rises, as it eternally must, above the holy shores of the ancient Ganges river. The morning light has just begun to fade in, seeping from the shadows with its murky luminescence, but the day’s routines are well underfoot in Varanasi, flutists chirping and prayer bells echoing as hundreds of pilgrims wade into the shallow water, the holy water, meant to absolve them of all impurity.
The scene is certainly a timeless one — in the feeble light of dawn, the swaths of fabric trail behind the shivering bodies of women and men bathing in the river. The Ganges, polluted as it is now, still holds this power: bathing in its water cleanses one’s soul, freeing it from the burdening impurities that prevent it from moving to the next stage of samsara, or reincarnation.
The summer before sixth grade, my family paid a visit to India’s holy capital. We spent our first day in the city trekking all through its expansive streets, stopping at rickety carts to watch chaiwallahs pour hot, milky tea into paper cups for our already swelteringly hot hands to grasp. Wandering through market after market, we finally ended up at the weavery my father had been promised would be well worth our visit. A silk display room is exactly how you’d imagine it: sheets of feather-light fabric hang from each wall, overflow from each basket, a myriad of colors and intricate patterns, each hand-stitched to near perfection.
I walked out of the store holding a single scarf, the deepest shade of black I’d ever seen a fabric be. It was embroidered with the same deep black thread, forming an intricate pattern that only truly showed when it caught the light in just the right way. It really is quite strange that I chose that scarf. To remind you, I was ten years old. I’m pretty sure my outfit that day was some variation on plaid pink cargo shorts and a glittery graphic t-shirt from Justice. The idea of a “timeless piece” was far from my lexicon, and yet, I settled on black. It just felt right.
That same evening, we took a small rowboat out onto the Ganges as sunset approached: me, my family, and our guide, who’d spent the day regaling us with the history of each corner of the city we traversed. The sunset was beautiful: wide, open skies cascading into deep shades of orange and pink above the distant horizon. What we’d come to see, however, was the ritual performed at sunset, a ritual featuring blazing funeral pyres and prayer songs to honor the dead— the very dead whose ashes layered the river’s bottom, spread here to absorb the same forgiveness the river offered to the living.
As the sun sank deeper towards the horizon and the ceremony began, our guide began to tell the story, the same story I’d heard repeated to me countless times since birth. Reincarnation, karma— it was a familiar pattern. And maybe it was the jetlag, or the pleasant haze of the smoke floating out over the water, or just the fact that preadolescent me needed something to cling to more than she realized, but this time I listened, really, really listened. It was here that I learned the idea of moksha.
Hindus believe that when you die, your soul is reborn as a different corporeal form. This means the souls that we carry within ourselves are not unique to our human bodies. The physical form one is born into is dependent upon one’s previous life: our actions incur karma, which stays with our soul. A life of good karma means you move up along said hierarchy, while bad karma dooms one to repeat a miserable little life as a cockroach or rat or whatever other misfortunate creature the universe deems fit.
A Hindu’s ultimate goal, then, is to achieve moksha— the release which follows the seemingly endless cycle of rebirth propelled by karma. Moksha cannot exist without karma, for good karma is what pushes one up the hierarchy of living beings until every possible life has been lived, every duty is fulfilled, and one’s time as a living, breathing being on this Earth is finally done.
I listened to all our guide had to say intently, trying to call to mind some far-off memory from a life past lived. Eventually, his voice faded out, allowing us a beat of silence to absorb the weight of his words and the chants echoing around us. I tipped my head back, eyes swimming in the nighttime blacks of the water and buildings and expansive sky, each piece melting into one another to frame the ever-shifting light of the funeral pyres aflame. It seemed then as though the entirety of the world existed in the space just beyond my fingertips, shadows whispering by, telling tales of centuries past. There was such a timelessness to it all, I remember thinking: I am one of many, out on the water, as many have been before me, as many will be after me, the whole of us existing beyond any scope of time I can even begin to imagine. Those centuries-old waves lapped rhythmically against the edge of the boat as I unfocused my gaze, eyes roaming across the hazy, dark heavens, prayer chants ringing in my ears from the distant shores.
When the boat returned to shore and my family stepped out, one by one, legs shaking with the unfamiliarity of solid ground beneath us, it took me a moment to orient myself. The steadiness felt foreign; I’d grown accustomed to the rhythmic back-and-forth of that tiny boat out on the water.
Nothing supremely life-changing happened to me on that trip. It certainly wasn’t the catalyst that turned me religious. I returned home, still an atheist, still a ten-year-old, still prone to my moods and my angst. The black silk scarf I’d purchased in Varanasi sat idle for a long time.
Now, ten years and some change later, that scarf rests on a shelf in the closet of my bedroom. I wear it every now and then, draped across my arms at parties, tied in my hair on a night out. It might be the oldest thing I have in that closet, a strange truth since I rarely break it out for use. I like to know that it’s there, unassuming enough to resurface in my vision and my life from time to time, a reminder of the city I felt at once so large and so small in.
I still can’t say I believe I’ll become religious one day. And I still have a tendency to slip into moods from time to time, stretches of despair that blur at the edges. But when I blow out a candle, extinguishing its tiny, controlled flame, and watch the smoke curl upwards and disappear into the light; when I hear my mother in the closet, kneeling before her makeshift puja, praying softly for our safety and prosperity; when I catch a glimpse of that delicate black scarf in the far corner of my closet; I feel the part of me that is still on that tiny rowboat, swaying softly in the water. The part of me that knows: everything, good or bad, has an end. Every light must someday be extinguished, every story finds its resolution.
I think of it now, the way silence must sound when you truly hear it for the first time. The absence of sound. Peace beyond imagination. This is how I imagine the nothingness, the space beyond life— a weary head, laid to rest. An eternity left behind.■
By: Kunika Trehan
Layout: Elianna Panakis
Layout: Elianna Panakis
View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.