OR THE DAY I YELLED AT A PRIEST
When you’re planning a trip to India in a constrained window of time you realize pretty quickly that you’re not going to see one fifth of what you wanted to see.
This is for a few reasons:
- India stretches back in time so far it extends almost beyond it and so the expanse over which amazing things – both natural and manmade – have had a chance to dazzle the senses is higher than other places, and
- Traversing the subcontinent is not nearly as straightforward as Google Maps might make it seem.
And so you pick and choose, in a matter that feels almost unfairly matter-of-fact:
Temple or palace? River or desert? Ancestral village or modern city?
It was under these circumstances that we found ourselves on the banks of the Ganges River, in Haridwar and Rishikesh, two of Hinduism’s spiritual hubs, tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains.
Though there was no intentional pilgrimage thread running through our journey, going to India and not getting some taste of the rich, spiritual quintessence seemed irresponsible. What I’d not completely realized was that the rich, spiritual quintessence is closely guarded by a bevy of charlatans disguised as priests standing on the ready to exploit it.
Hindus believe Haridwar’s holiness traces back to the time before time began, when a drop of the nectar of immortality was spilled there. Geo-spiritually, it’s where the Ganges River first touches the plains of North India: bathing in the river here is equivalent to absolution.
The river itself is blue-green and cloudy, but not in an unclean way. Having just melted off a glacier, it’s also freezing. And it looks powerful and potent, like some kind of magical elixir you’d carry on horseback in a single vial. And, as if that’s not enough, every night at sunset the entire town gathers on the banks of the river and offers songful prayers to it, pushing small leaf baskets, filled with flowers and lit clay lamps into the river, till all you can see are small specks of yellow fire dancing on water amid pink and orange petals.
I saw these baskets and my inner-Hindu (not all that different from my outer-Hindu) was awakened; I wanted the full experience, and then I got it.
Minutes after I had the basket in hand, a FauxPriest summoned me to the banks of the river and led me through some super fast devotional in a language I didn’t understand. I didn’t realize that he was a private operator and momentarily forgot, in all the light and beauty and nature scape, that even if he hadn’t been, those affiliated with religious organizations tend to practice a spiritual commercialism designed to fleece the devotee up one side and down the other. FauxPriest finished, claimed that during the aforementioned devotional I promised (again, in a language I didn’t understand) to pay him 2,000 Indian Rupees, roughly $50 USD, for his services.
I refused. He got aggressive. My husband got more aggressive. I believe he invoked something called ‘The Law of Puja” which I’d never heard of before. And that calm that comes with doing something truly soothing was significantly rattled.
We went back to our hotel and fell asleep, exhausted, listening to current of the river pull itself ever forward.