Kathy Murphy, Ph.D.

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India on LSD – Varanasi

Varanasi is the most popular pilgrimage point in the universe for Hindus. And they come here by the thousands to pray, to worship, to wade in the water of the sacred Ganges River, and to die. I found myself walking around Varanasi wondering how in the world would I ever describe my experience in this most bizarre place. I kept saying over and over, as if in a trance, “this can’t be for real”. Then it came to me walking by the ghats on the banks of the Ganges and through the alleys and streets of this very old Indian city, I felt like I was having a psychedelic experience.  (Yes, I was around in the 60’s and 70’s!) Being in Varanasi is a physical, metaphysical, and supernatural trip.

A Ghat on the banks of the Ganges River

Holy Water

As I walked, I was seeing bodies being cremated on the river front (known as the burning ghats) while hundreds of people were doing their daily bathing and laundry in the same river at the same time. Being cremated here is every Hindu’s ultimate wish.  According to Hindu belief, the Ganges bridges the mortal and spiritual realms. To have one’s ashes released into the Ganges enables their souls to travel to the afterlife and be reborn to a better life. And if you actually die in Varanasi, one receives moksha– liberation from the cycles of life and death.

Family taking loved one’s ashes out to release into the Ganges

Everyone wants some of the holy water in the Ganges. The hawkers sell plastic containers so you can take some home. Throngs of pilgrims flock here to take a dip which is believed to absolve one from all sins. So, of course, some of the pilgrims in our group had to wash away some of their transgressions as well. We went up river a bit since the water around Varanasi is so trashy and polluted. Michael didn’t go into because of the gash on his leg and I didn’t because I was too scared. I don’t care how holy it is, it is the filthiest water I’ve ever seen.

Fellow Pilgrims wading in the Ganges River

Spirituality Galore

On the river bank and in the temples, people of many different spiritual sects are participating in a wide diversity of spiritual practices – preaching, praying, singing, chanting, and making offerings. There were pujas to the rising sun and lively sunset worship services. There are holy men everywhere, just hanging out, all day long.

                                                                    The Boys

It is believed that whatever act of generosity is given in Varanasi reaps benefits thousands times more than anywhere else. And beggars seem to know this. There were hoards of very poor children and crippled people begging incessantly. The most popular item being sold was the offering cups with a candle that could be lit and sent down the holy river. After lighting one for a couple of girlfriends and one for my mother, we took a boat out to the middle of the Ganges and lit seventy offerings for our teacher, Atum, as it was his birthday. We made wishes for his health and expressed gratitude for his life knowing he would be doubly blessed here.

Sending lit candles for blessings down the Ganges

The Streets of Varanasi

Cows, goats, monkeys, skinny dogs, even more cows, along with bicycle and auto tuk tuks rule the streets and the traffic . The real danger in the streets of Varanasi are aninals defecating at will, and often, anywhere and everywhere. I was told that to step in a pile of cow poop was considered to bring good luck.  I don’t think so.

A Typical Street Scene

Every five feet, interesting and pungent foods were being cooked and sold on the sidewalks to the masses, along with every possible trinket imaginable. There was a constant hawking of “Please come take a look”. We did our fair share of contributing to the economy. We bought trinkets, statues, and prayer beads, but my favorite purchase was a simple t-shirt.

Hindus have thousands of gods and goddesses that believers pray to for specific needs and requests. One prays to Ganesh, the elephant headed god, to remove all obstacles in their life. One prays to Lakshmi for wealth, wisdom, and fertility or Shiva for immortality and renewal. However, for empowerment, and in particular, feminine empowerment, one prays to the goddess, Kali. Kali is a fierce warrior. She helps us to battle our inner and outer unworthiness and to learn to stand up and say “No” to all that harms us. I intend to take Kali back to San Luis Obispo for the women I work with in the Women’s Shelter Program.

My fierce Kali t-shirt

From Michael’s Point of View

One of the highlights of our Varanasi time for me was a visit to the Kiran Society – a small, self-sustaining village that helps about 50 disabled children and 50 poor children. The families are involved and the children are taught educational and vocational skills that enable them to join the mainstream.  Those with disabilities are fitted with the proper medical devices that give them the ability to be an active part of the community. The children were enthusiastic and proud of what they had accomplished. We first felt this joy at The Hope Project in New Delhi and now here.  So many people working to make life better for those with so little. We rarely hear about these people in the news but there are many people doing this work and it gives me great hope.

Group of young girls at the Kiran Society

Varanasi is a very challenging place for most us from the industrial west. It is such a contrast to what we know and live. But as we travel the world, it becomes clear that Varanasi-like places are the norm for billions of people and our life, the life of the privileged, is the unusual. I leave Varanasi with incredible gratitude for being born into the lifestyle and opportunity of the US and I leave in awe of how so many people in the world not only survive with so little, but create a life with some joy and laughter.


Four days in Varanasi was intoxicating. It still feels a bit unreal to me. This is the most colorful, alive, poor, sacred, pushy, dirty, chaotic, and vibrant place I’ve ever seen. I’m kind of thankful it’s time to leave but I’m also so glad I came.

We boarded another overnight train to return to New Delhi. We arrived over five hours late after stopping at every possible crossing. It was quite maddening. We decided this was an opportunity to practice our Buddha nature. After a night in Delhi, we have loaded a bus to travel to Agra – the home of the Taj Mahal. Next time we will report on the most photographed building in the world.

Til then, with love, Kathy and Michael

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17 Responses to “India on LSD – Varanasi”

Kumar says:

Kathy, Mike – your descriptions are colorful and vivid. India is a country of contrast with so much diversity. I can’t wait for your take on the Taj Mahal and its history.

Kathy I can picture you in awe and bewilderment. I was thinking you would be brave and swim in the Ganges at Varanasi to achieve Moksha.

Dave Thum says:

I’ve heard many stories from awestruck visitors to Varanasi. Well played to save this for later in the trip after you’ve become acclimated to the bizarreness that is India.

Liz says:

Wow! What a unique and wonderful experience. I enjoy hearing about the spirituality of so many people. It’s beautiful to see people that may be poor in material goods, but have joy and love in their hearts, and are thankful for what they do have–spiritual love, family and friends. Thank You for the absolutely terrific descriptions of your time there. :)Liz

Ruth Latson says:

Thanks for sharing your travels and insights with us. I so enjoy the vibrant colors in all the photos you post and your lively narrative. I’m looking forward to meeting Kali in person. Ruth

Monica says:

Kathy, WOW want a journey! I’m still thinking of the quote on Gandhi’s grave, “Oh God”. It sent chills through me. The rest, I’ll have to live through your words.

Wren says:

I agree with Pat and Leyla…….sounds like you are eating well so would love to hear about some of the meals.

Jeannie says:

Sometimes you just have to use your own common sense. If the water is filthy, you just have to find your holiness somewhere else! Loved the pictures, your thoughts and the description of your experiences.
Safe travels home.

Karen Frost says:

Love how you relate your experiences! Seems like it truly is a journey from which you will evolve. Starting my own journey next week to Turkey and beyond! will try to remember some of your spiritual words when I see the unexpected.

Evy Cole says:

All I can say is thank you, Kathy and Michael. I’m re-living through you my parents visit to India last century. It took my father 15 years to convince my mother to go to India with him. I have their slides.

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