June 14, 2004
by Jeremy Innis ’05
Jeremy Innis composed this essay based on his experiences during an overseas study program to India in fall 2003. Led by Dell Smith, then registrar of the College, the program focused on the history and culture of contemporary India. Innis, who grew up in Park City, Utah, is on track to graduate next May with a degree in music. He works as a resident assistant, performs in jazz band and choir, and serves as president of the Gaming Society (a club for students interested in role playing and board and computer games). Innis plans to attend graduate school to study music composition.
I came to India with a water purifier and an interest in Hinduism. I quickly abandoned my purifier in favor of bottled water, but my fascination with Hinduism grew swiftly. Every attempt I made to grasp this religion was like liquid through my fingers—there was nothing sure and solid. However, I did discover one thing common among Hindus: an obsession with water.
In India, there is one source of water that is so sacred that it shouts above all the rest: Ganga Ma, or “Mother Ganga,” as most Indians know her. Many Americans know her as the Ganges.
Indian poets since the time of the Vedas have praised her, every scholar and student of India or Hinduisum knows her well, and many love and worship her. She is at once a rushing of water from the mountains to the eastern sea and a goddess of abundance, of absolution.
She is symbolically the mother of Indian civilization, for she represents every river in India that has nurtured civilization. India’s economics, sacred literature, myths, and cultural identity revolve around Ganga.
Let me tell you how I met her. Our group spent a night in anashram (a religious retreat) in Haridwar on our way to Rishikesh. The ashram owner, a friend of one of our group leaders, insisted that we accompany him to the Ganges at 6 a.m. for “holy dip” at sunrise. We agreed and arrived the next morning at the city’s main ghat (a broad stairway leading down to the river), which was called Har-ki-Pairi, “the footsteps of God.” Around the ghat were many small red temples and shrines. Cows, beggars, self-appointed priests with homemade shrines, wrinkled sadhus (holy men) with staves, and merchants of all wares greeted our eyes, ears, and noses as we walked from the road to the river. Periodically, we heard devotees and temple priests ring bells and chant to the deities as the wide swollen river flowed past us under the newly risen sun.
Our host stripped to his undershorts, beckoned for us to do the same, and unhesitatingly stepped into the water. After only a moment’s caution, three of our group (including me) followed him in. The water was not unbearably cold, but it was pretty chilly.
The “holy dip” was simple, our host told us: just squat down after you get to a waist-deep step. He demonstrated, disappearing for a few seconds under the swift and silty current. His head emerged a few meters down river. He suggested we hang onto the chains attached to the steps at water level so we wouldn’t get caught in the current. I couldn’t see one near, so I held all my breath in my gut and dipped. The water was such a shock to my body that I lost my footing and sailed under the water a meter or two.
Upon emerging, I regained my footing and felt something tap my back. I turned around to see a leaf folded into a perfect bowl with rose petals and a lit candle inside—a floating offering to the river, as my host explained.
I felt surprisingly warm when I stepped back up to drier steps under the sun. I sat on the ghat and watched people place leaf offerings into the river. Others, bathing, cupped their hands full of water, raised them to the sun, and let the water drain and spill back into the river as they moved their lips quietly in prayer.
As we left, I heard one of the deepest, loudest bells I’d ever heard. It sounded from a shrine on the river, completely muffling the noise of the assembled throng of devotees. By the third toll, I was intensely aware of the present moment’s sensations: color, water, meaning, spirit all flooded in at once.
Looking back, I realize that bell intoned something I’d felt in the cold confusion of my holy dip: Om, the first sound of creation, establishing meaning from chaos. The Ganga had become the womb for my rebirth. There was inside me now an understanding of Hinduism that previously I had grasped only in the abstract: the importance of body to spirit, and a profound kinship with water.