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Sweeping Air by Meera Subramanian

By Meera Subramanian

This article is cross-posted from The Revealer, a publication of The Center for Religion and Media at New York University


I am overly pragmatic. Each day seems so finite, and there is so much work to do. Big work, made out of endless little work. Schools to construct. Minds to make literate. Wells to dig and water to purify. Inoculations to give and hair to braid and food to feed growing bodies. So many streets to sweep and toilets to build.

Instead, it is time for aarti, the Hindu puja taking place this night, and every night, in hundreds of little temples like this one in Varanasi, India. Someone led me here to this place, tucked into the labyrinth of alleyways behind the Manakarnika Ghat, where bodies are burning. On the way, along the other ghats on the water’s edge, we passed a series of Ganga Aartis – floodlights! amplification! – that attract Indian and foreign tourists alike for the full pilgrimage experience. The masses were stacked on the steps that link city to water and packed into handmade wooden boats just offshore, cameras flashing.But the power went out moments after we passed and we found our way by flashlight to the temple building dimly lit with the inverter’s stored energy.

The Hindu priest is kind, allowing my camera and my curious eyes as I witness the rituals I have watched since I was young. Shiva is the focus here, the stone lingam – more breast than phallus – the centerpiece set in a square of silver embedded into the floor like a pious pit. The priest spends more time in careful preparation for the ritual than it will take to enact it, when three other priests join him and, together their hand bells thunder in unison in rhythm to their chants. As a child, the smell of flowers and fire and the hypnotic sound of the chants would transfix me. Now I can appreciate that this ritual incorporates the five elements into one seamless act. Always I have viscerally loved the moment when, at the end, I can place my cupped hands over the heat of the flame and bring them to my face, my eyes closed.

But I have grown old and I think too much. Now, each day is finite. Now, each and every thing of beauty has a cost. What did it take to bring this beauty here? I watch the meticulous preparations leading up to the aarti, and each object the priest touches whispers its past to me, a hidden history of labor diverted from other work that wouldn’t have been destined for fleeting flames. I think of the…

…seed that was sown that grew the plant that yielded the flower. The hands that plucked the flowers – orange marigold, pink rose, white jasmine, purple petunia, red carnation – and threaded each one onto a garland. The priest’s hands undoing the work as he places each blossom around the lingam. Someone mined the silver and mined the gold, and a boy with too-big jeans has been polishing the metals for an hour. It was likely a woman who gathered the fodder that fed the cow that made the milk that was churned into butter, who stoked the fire that transformed the butter into ghee. Perhaps a farmer in Punjab grew the cotton and a day laborer harvested the crop, which a man now twists into wicks for the oil lamps, fueled with the ghee. Did a child’s small fingers make the match that he strikes to make the flame? Who forged the bell that hangs overhead? Who harvested the sandalwood and ground it into the powder that made the paste daubed onto the lingam? Who grew the fruit set on the platter in offering? The priests took the time to learn the prayers, tongues wrapped around Sanskrit. The worshippers took the time to come to temple, winding through the footpath galis, between the cows and over the dung in the dark during a blackout so ordinary that a flashlight was already in hand. They reach up to ring the bell and bow their heads, calling to the gods. They bring sweets or a few rupee coins to leave on the priest’s rug, woven from wool that someone sheared from a sheep. When it is all done, the priest sweeps the air with tail hairs from a water buffalo, bundled together into a silver-handled broom.

I think too much. For the men who attend, and the few women who venture out in the night (most women come in for the daylight aartis), it was just a few minutes of their time, a few coins from their pocket as offering. A moment of respite and reverie, god-love and grace in a messy world. But multiply the moments. The bills and coins, stacked into a roll and folded deftly into the waistline folds of the priest’s dhoti. The temple visit, every day or even more than once, the minutes turned hours turned days of devotion. Imagine that energy harvested and turned to cleaning up and transforming a nation, for ridding the waterways of the waste that causes 1600 people to die each day in India from simply having the shits[1].

Others are thinking along the same lines. India’s former environment minister Jairam Ramesh caused a stir recently when he complained there were more temples than toilets in India. The Hindu right raised their hackles, blaming the government for their failed job of helping alleviate the fact that two-thirds of India’s citizens defecate in the open, and there are only so many temples, they said defensively, because Hindus have used their own resources to build them. Both sides have a point. The government’s Total Sanitation Campaign aims to have 125 million toilets across the country by 2017. Thirteen years into the effort, recent accounting shows that at least 35 million toilets seem to have already gone missing. I see an image of rolled coins, disappearing into cloth.

So the government can be blamed, but what of the private energy of this predominantly Hindu country? The founding fathers had a different vision. Gandhi had a simple but contained toiletwith a septic tank that led to the fields. He cleaned it himself, defying caste boundaries that relegated such work to the lowest in society.  ”Our Indian toilets bring our civilization into discredit,” he wrote in 1925, of the open defecation that was nearly as common then as it is today. “They violate the rules of hygiene.” Gandhi, I think, would have wanted more toilets than temples.

My days in Varanasi came at the end of a three-month breakdown in sanitation because of a contract dispute between the city and the private waste management company responsible for cleaning the streets. The settlement effect was immediate. One night, I stepped past the cow that stationed itself outside my guesthouse each night, and the piles of her once-chewed cud now turned into dung, over and through the layers of plastic bags, food peelings, and other debris of humanity. The next morning, the narrow Old City gali was swept clean, not just outside the guesthouse but everywhere I went. On the main roads and along the riverbanks, an army of workers gathered the detritus into piles. In the water, garbage seiners used wicker baskets to strain out the soggy garlands and aluminum bowls that carried glowing prayers through the holy and wholly polluted water the night before, looking so spectacular and romantic. The utter transformation made it evident what can be accomplished if given priority.

I was told there was a time when the entire community would come down to the riverbank for a two-day communal cleanup. Now, the duty falls to the government and when they contract out to companies who may or may not actually do the work, everything seems to break down in a corrupt quagmire.

Varanasi is a place of pilgrimage. India is a country of worship. And Varanasi, Banaras, is – in the words of scholar Diana Eck – a place where “the atmosphere of devotion is improbable in its strength.”

But what if, my inner pragmatist asks, just a fraction of the energy, money and time that went into building the temples, enacting the rituals, making the pilgrimages, and organizing the festivals, one after the other, was instead spent on improving the most basic elements of human necessity needed in this life? Can digging a latrine be an act of worship? Can placing the plastic bag in the garbage be as much of an offering as casting the flowers it held into the Ganga? Can setting the stones that cover the open sewers be as important as setting the stones for a temple? Isn’t it a blessing to give a child access to water that won’t make her sick?

Each day is finite and there is so much work to do in this life. There are so many streets to sweep. Instead we sweep air.


Meera Subramanian is an independent journalist who writes about culture, faith and the environment. Her work has appeared in national and international publications includingNatureVirginia Quarterly Review, the New York Times, Salon, Smithsonian, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, The Caravan and India Today. She is a senior editor at Killing the Buddha.

This article is cross-posted from The Revealer, a publication of The Center for Religion and Media at New York University

With support from the Henry R. Luce foundation.