You Gotta Have Faith

Bathers in Varanasi

A Southern Baptist-raised traveler is adrift by the Ganges in the Holy City of the Hindus.

by Trevor C. Hale

The faithful stepped slowly into the river, hands clasped in prayer. Their faces were rapt with the joy of pure devotion as they sprinkled themselves with water.

A hundred yards down–river ashes of freshly cremated bodies were swept into the river in a solemn ceremony, as fresh wood was stacked for the next funeral pyre.

This cycle has gone uninterrupted here for 4,000 years. The fire from which cremations are lit, is protected under an eave and is said to have never gone out.

This is Varanasi—the oldest living city on the planet and one of the holiest places for Hindus. The mighty Ganges River, or “Mother Ganga,” roars by from its holy source high in the Himalayans.

It’s where Hindu faithful hope to die, to return their ashes to Mother Ganga, and it’s one of the few places where cremations take place day and night.

I’m in Delhi for work and reading William Dalrymple’s “Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.” I picked it up for the always-arduous travel required to get in and out of the subcontinent. He is one of the best writers on India, and his new book chronicles the lives and extreme faiths of nine souls. It’s a mind–blower and makes me think back to a visit in Varanasi.

While there, we took a boat ride at sunrise with a sadhu, a Hindu holy man, whose orange robes matched the sun’s reflection on Mother Ganga.


Among sadhus, there is a small sect called aghori, who make their homes near cremation ghats in places like Varanasi, where death is a daily ritual. To remind themselves of the fleeting nature of life and closeness to death, their faith includes eating the flesh of dead people.

The devout only eat meat cooked on a funeral pyre. They are naked and cover themselves with the ashes of the dead. They rarely come out during the day, are feared and held in awe, and famously drink from human skulls. Not surprisingly they stay stoned most of the time.

Dalrymple writes of an aghori woman who lives near the cremation ghats of Tarapith in Bengali, who after twenty years of performing daily goat sacrifices to the goddess Tara, has become renowned.  A Mumbai Bollywood filmmaker who is running for office visits and offers a sacrificial goat. He is convinced this sacrifice will give him victory in the polls.

Far too many US politicians shamelessly parade their faith for votes, but that’s a whole different monument, best left on the courthouse lawn. Or not.

Dalrymple meets a nun who practices the Jain faith, similar to Buddhism but harder core. Buddhists shave the hair from their heads. Jains pull it out. They carry a peacock feather to sweep the ground in front of them, lest they step on and kill any small animal. She has seen her best friend, also a Jain nun, slowly starve to death in a ritual to prepare her for reincarnation.

One of the faithful

In northern Kerala, he meets a dalit (from the “untouchable” lowest caste in India) who is a prison guard most of the year, but during the theyyam dancing season for two months, is transformed into a deity when he performs and is worshiped as a god.

In Jaipur he meets an illiterate goat-herder who is one of the last to be able to sing a four-thousand-line epic song during twelve-hour performances.

Having been raised Southern Baptist, the Eastern faiths, especially Hinduism, are exotic and mysterious. For Hindus, there is no prophet, like Jesus, Mohammed or Buddha, nor are there regular services. There are literally millions of Hindu gods for all kinds of topics.

Ganesh, the elephant-faced God, removes obstacles…like NCAA sanctions. Roll Tide.

When confronted with these ubiquitous idols, I always think of a pissed–off Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, coming off Mount Sinai, breaking up the Egyptian Idol after–party. You’ll have to pry these commandments from my cold, dead hands you damn, dirty apes!

Unlike some faiths, there is no proselytizing in most Eastern religions. Buddhists and Hindus say one can accept and appreciate parts of their beliefs, like karma, or not.  They don’t believe everyone else will burn for eternity.

That’s blasphemous for Baptists. But in some parts of the world, symbolically drinking the blood and eating the body of Christ on the anniversary of His resurrection, is seen as exotic. Not to mention speaking in tongues and handling snakes, both of which can be found close to the Ham….Succulent, delicious Easter ham.

Sadhu a Hindu holy man

Trevor C. Hale, a Cullman native, lives and works in

Shanghai, and gave up his willpower for Lent.

He can be reached at

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