Religion in Varanasi, India

“Religions are different roads converging upon the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads, as long as we reach the same goal?”- Mahatma Gandhi.

One of the main reasons I chose to go on this trip was because of the religious aspect of it. I wanted to discover different religions and learn about the stories/logic behind them. As a practicing Muslim, I have only known Islam in details my whole life and wanted to learn about other religions as well because I was always fond of religions. India is one of the best places for me to learn about religion because there are so many religions being practiced such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. The first week of this trip, I spent time at the Central University of Tibetan Studies (CUTS) where we learned about Buddhism and how its philosophy. This was really interesting to me because technically its not a religion because there is no god and everyone is their own boss, but at the same time it is different than atheism because they have rituals to follow and prayers, nuns, books, etc. It was interesting to learn about the four noble truths in Buddhism and the role of Karma in our lives. One thing that I liked about Buddhism was the emphasis on impermanence. This explains that there are certain processes that no human being has control over certain things in their lives such as the process of growing old, dying, being sick etc. When learning about impermanence I was able to also find similarities within Islam and Christianity because they also believe that nothing in this life is permanent and that there is a hereafter. For example, in Islam when someone dies, its not the end for them, they would go to the hereafter which they are able to reunite with their loved ones again. And in Hinduism and Buddhism impermanence is very essential because they believe in reincarnations. Buddhists and Hindus live their lives well and stay away from evil/negativity in order to reduce their karma in the next life or have a better life in the future. We see the same concept with other religions. For example, Muslims and Christians live their lives well and try to stay away from sins in order to enter heaven. This brings me back to the quote that I mentioned above which talks about how we all want to be good in order to be rewarded in the future which is something common that I observed in many religions and practices here in India. Even though they might be very different from each other they are all working towards the same goal.

Something else that I observed was the different ways people practice the same religion. For example; in India the mosques are only for men and women are not allowed. In authentic Islam there are no distinguishment between men and women from worshiping god. And in many Muslim countries mosques always have a section for women which is why I was so surprised to hear that women in India were not allowed to inter mosques. Since this is being not justified by Islam by any means, I came to the conclusion that it had to do with cultural influences. Mixing culture and religion is something that is very common in many countries and it is not just with Islam but we also see it with Christianity and the American culture as well as in India with Hinduism. I had the option to visit a “secular university” that was public and was suppose to be non-religious but at the university (Banaras Hindu University) there were many Hindu Gods and Goddesses all over and when I asked about why there are religious affiliations at this public secular university I was told that its not by any means religion related and that its just a cultural thing to have Goddesses of learning and such. Here again is where we see another example of religion being mixed with cultural practices. We see this a lot in the world but in India I was able to spot it easily because of its rich culture and many religions.

Written By Rowaida Mohammed

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 Muslim Leader of the Weavers community in Varanasi. Photo By Rowaida Mohammed   
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Photo of a Hindu Pandit By Niko Sepanos 

Environmental Stewardship in Relation to Worldview

Author: Haliehana Stepetin
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Photo credit: Haliehana Stepetin. A view of the pollution of a small river flowing into the Ganges. 
​My first experience with pollution in India was in the metropolis of Kolkata. Excited to see everything the city had to offer, I went outside with expectations influenced by the only glimpse of India I had ever had: through the media. I imagined a beautiful spiritual place filled with people doing yoga in the streets, spiritual gurus, women decorated in beautiful clothing and make up (which is a reality), and babies on fancy pillows wearing cute little hats like in Aladdin. For the most part, my cultural assumptions were very far off. The scene I walked into was one of drastic contrast to the image I had in my mind. There was pollution everywhere. The streets are polluted with garbage, plastic, feces, alongside shanty homes, naked children playing, elderly people in the streets asking for money, lethargic cows laying around, all while economic transactions occurred and life went on, regardless of the environmental status. I stepped over a pile of garbage and dodged a cow pie to go into a shop to buy an ice cream cone to help me tolerate the miserable heat.
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Photo credit: Haliehana Stepetin. The view shows the sharp socioeconomic contrast everywhere in India. While I was enjoying the relatively cheap luxuries of my clean resort hotel, families lived just below us in heaps of garbage and shanty homes.
As an Alaska Native, with a worldview that incorporates a stewardship relationship with the environment, natural world, and humans, I found it overwhelming and alarming to see the huge amount of pollution everywhere. I was raised with the understanding that humans need animals and the natural world to survive, so we must treat them with the utmost respect and reverence. The way this relationship was illustrated to me as a child was that if humans were removed from the earth, all the animals and plants would thrive. On the other hand, if the animals and plants were removed from the earth, there is no way humans could survive. With this knowledge, we know the animals and plants sacrifice themselves for our survival. Living in stewardship with the world directly affects our survival. We believe that if we stop respecting the animals and environment, we will be punished. In following Buddhist philosophy, one could say Indigenous philosophy also believes in karma in this way. If we disrespect the environment or plants, it will turn against us in the form of natural disasters, climate change, and animal attacks. Disrespect of the natural world is blatantly inconsiderate to their survival. I wonder how the people in India view the natural world? I wonder why religion prevails, but respect and reverence for the environment does not?

When discovering that vegetarianism is practiced in Buddhism, and specifically after attending Dr. Tsering’s lecture on the Essence of Buddhist Practice, I asked a question regarding the geographic location of the formation of Buddhism. This connection intrigued me because India has an agricultural abundance of produce and different plants, making it easy for people to choose vegetarianism. However, in colder climates where vegetation may be limited most of the year, it is very difficult and inefficient to be vegetarian. In Alaska for example, there is no way I could live in my remote village and be a vegetarian. Regarding the Indigenous relationship, respect, and reverence for the animal world, I asked a question about eating meat for cultural subsistence purposes. Dr. Tsering, on the value of animals in Buddhist philosophy, says: “We consider that human life is more valuable compared to that of animals . . . ” (p. 3), which sparked my questions about vegetarianism and their hierarchical level of respect for animals and the natural world to humans. I wonder if there is a connection between the belief that animals are less valuable than humans and the indifferent treatment of Mother Earth that leads to the extremely visible pollution of her in India. If there is a hierarchy of value of life with humans at the top, it makes a little more sense to me that such disrespect to the environment can occur. However, it still makes me extremely uncomfortable and sad. Of course, I am projecting my animistic worldview and Indigenous perspective of stewardship with the environment upon my experience.

I realize that in the U.S., and all around the world for that matter, pollution is either extremely visible in more impoverished societies, or covertly present in “developed” societies. Pollution in a post-industrial society is seemingly inevitable, unless manageable on small-scale spectrums in cultures that respect and revere nature (my small rural village in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, for example). I wonder then, what leads societies to care more or less about the appearance of pollution? Does the Hindu and Buddhist religious practice lend itself to the indifference towards nature because it is expected that the gods have ultimate control? Or that karma is the ultimate determiner in fate, even if the fate of the environment is at stake? What would it take to make societal changes regarding the maintenance and preservation of the natural world, which ultimately sustains human life? If the masses devoutly follow a religion that informs the way they view nature or animals as hierarchically less valuable than humans, how can we and do we even have a place in developing more sustainable practices with the environment? Is it possible to create a future of environmental cleanliness and stability that learns from the faults our “developed” society has already experienced in relation to our industrial society dependent upon fossil fuels?

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Photo credit: Haliehana Stepetin. A beautiful path on the Central University of Tibetan Studies campus to show that not everywhere in India is polluted. In small, managed areas, plant life flourishes and is well maintained.

A Look at Infrastructure and Waste Management in Varanasi

As someone going into the field of environmental engineering, it’s impossible to overlook the lack of infrastructure here in Varanasi, India. Nita, one of the founders of NIRMAN schools, where we are staying, generalized the issue as being a result of engineers not trained in designing and building for the uncertainties of India. An example was workers right outside the Southpoint school rebuilding the sidewalk for the ‘umpteenth time,’ still with an uneven slope, bound to fail again in the near future. If they were to take the extra time today to level out the land, the sidewalk would last much longer, as it should. Walking the streets of this city, it appears that many things are done in this patchwork manner. Perhaps Nita is exactly right, that when engineers are educated abroad, their coursework is assuming that they are starting with a cleaner foundation, but the reality here in India is that the city’s surroundings are chaotic and disorganized. Gutters that should carry drainage downstream hold still water, accumulating the dust and garbage from the street above until what lines the road is a swampy, foul smelling moat. Men urinate publicly, against the wall or into these gutters. There is a lack of baseline sanitation standards. Furthermore, trash is littered everywhere. The photo I’ve attached shows the bank of a river that has the potential of being a serene haven from the chaos of the bustling city streets, but instead parallels a landfill. Even I, having been here a week, have a plastic bag in my luggage that I collect trash in, for it is often hard to find garbage cans about. The dumpsters that I have seen are either already overflowing, or ignored and the trash rather scattered next to them as they remain empty. Therefore various wrappers and cans line the streets, gradually becoming covered in dust until they blend into the road itself. I keep thinking that if items were wrapped in compostable materials, these really would disintegrate over time and add to the natural organic matter, but they aren’t and so the plastic and metal will remain. Being Americans, we are unused to this level of litter and at first, it is quite shocking. The worst part that I’ve seen, is citizens piling up the plastic, taking a burning candle, and lighting the pile on fire. This inevitably releases harsh chemicals into the air that not only negatively affect the lungs of others walking the street but also contribute to the larger problem of polluting the air and emitting greenhouse gases. To these people, burning the trash puts it out of sight and out of mind, leaving their homes garbage free, but education must be provided to teach the horrible effects that doing this routinely can impose on both the environment and human health. Those gutters that I mentioned, drain directly into the Ganges river, as does wastewater from homes, including raw sewage. There are two wastewater treatment plants near the river, but these do not process nearly all of the waste and problems arise when monsoons cause the streets to flood and the plants to cease their treatment. I know that this problem in infrastructure stems from something deeper than just a lack of personal respect for the environment. Political corruption leading to shortage in funds for projects, and a 30% illiteracy rate both contribute. Still, management of all of this waste should be prioritized in cities like Varanasi that are vibrant in the arts and culture, so that they are no longer dulled and de-romanticized by the ill sight of piles of garbage, crumbling streets, and improper facilities for processing waste.

Written by Victoria Mount

Comparison of My Old and New Self

This trip has open my eyes and made me re-experienced my days in Nepal. Two days flight without sleep was not part of my “to experience” list for India trip. I was exhausted when we reach the Varanasi airport. My thoughts were why did I even come and I was better at home, sleeping in my big bed. As I stepped out of the airport to the indie atmosphere, I couldn’t breathe.  Although it was raining the air was super hot and the climate was burning hot.  I didn’t think of anything besides I want to go back to Washington. We got in the van that was reserved for us. On our way to Central University of Tibetan Studies, I was looking outside from window. What I saw was not so different from what I have memories of Nepal. The house was similar, land area was similar, small and big shops were similar and even the way they display products on the shops was similar. When we got to the city area the traffic and the way vehicles were running the wait vehicles in Nepal. When I saw those it reminded me of my childhood. I felt like me I am in Nepal walking on the street and seeing this all. It made me feel like I am on my younger age feet. As I saw those kids walking and running near road fearlessly. I was terrified to see kids near vehicles. My hearts were racing see all that. Then I realized that I was like them in Nepali. But I had one question that I just can’t answer: In Nepal, was I fearless like those kids or fearful like I am right now? It’s been 8 days and I still fear walking on the street. In fact, can’t walk with just one friend, I have to have more than one friend walking with me. Rowaida my colleagues ask me if I wanted to go for walk. I told her to bring one more friend to go for walk.She has been to Egypt by herself, so she somehow convinces me to walk with her but eventually, I end up adding Emma. I have been here for a week and I still fear when vehicles go near me, I still get scared when people horn and I still can’t walk on my own on the street. I left half of my life in Nepal and half of my life in the US. Here I am still figuring out who am I?

Written by Dibbya Biswa

My Teaching Experience

I could feel the sweat drip down my temple as we drove down the bumpy dirt road. I was thinking about how easily the dust entering the van through the windows would stick to my skin. We were heading to the village for our second day of teaching the 4th and 5th graders at Nirman, our partner school. The first day didn’t go as well as we had hoped but we had a more solid plan going into day two. Luckily, it did end up going much better than the day before, and for the most part this trend continued for the rest of the week.

A large part of our study abroad was about designing and then integrating a lesson plan for some Indian students. Kaylah, Dibbya, and I were assigned to teach 4th and 5th graders about keyhole gardens that can be used for composting. We were surprised to discover that most if not all the students didn’t know what composting was. As someone who is interested in environmental issues, it was a privilege to be able to work with the students on this project.
Although we began with a lesson plan for each day of the week, we ended up having to do a lot of revising and improvising at the end of every day. We found that often times, we didn’t get to doing some of the things we had planned for the day because we had to spend more time than anticipated on classroom management. For example, after Monday we always split the class in half, having some students working outside and some working inside, which worked really well since there were three of us. Another key thing we discovered was that educational games as a learning tool worked really well for the age group we had. After doing a “what is compost and what’s not” game with much success on Tuesday, we decided to incorporate more activities like this into our lesson plan for the rest of the week.

Creating the garden was really fun for both us and the students. Our plan for this stayed the same for the most part, although we had to move some things back due to lack of time. Fortunately we were able to complete the garden with seedlings planted. There is work to be done with the garden still, but for going in with so many unknown factors I’m happy with how it turned out.

Being able to introduce kids in India to one sustainable practice was meaningful in the fact that kids learning about these kinds of things can make all the difference in the future of the health of our planet. I’m so grateful I had this opportunity. In the end, I think the kids may have taught us more than we taught them.

 

Written by Emma Hattori

My Homestay Experience

After dropping off two of our classmates at their homestay, Niko and I made way to ours. As our driver’s car weaved through the narrow alleys of Varanasi, dodging people and cows alike, I was filled with excitement and anxious to see what our living situation would be like. I remember Niko and I dreaming that we’ve lucked out, anticipating that we’d be staying in a place with AC, hot showers and room to roam. Those predictions quickly vanished as we were dropped off by side of the road and lead through a series of dark ally ways that eventually lead to the doorsteps of the home of our host family. Upon entering a narrow hallway, we were invited to set our bags down in a small living room with two arm chairs and a couch. We were greeted by the family’s son, who’s nickname is Golu, which means circle. He was around the same age as Niko and I and spoke very enthusiastically, especially when it came to the Tabla, a famous Indian instrument that consist of two drums. Golu’s father, Mr. Mishras is a renowned Tabla player in Varanasi, teaching at a local university called BHU. Golu was a also an aspiring Tabla player and a student at Banaras Hindu University, working towards a masters in Tabla. After our introductions, Golu asked if we would like to hear him play the Tabla, which Niko and I excitedly said yes to. The sound was nothing like I’ve ever heard before and it was evident that years of practice has gone into the level and skill that Golu was playing at.

I was starting to feel at ease in my new home when something started to catch my attention. It was very subtle at first, but eventually became something that I could no longer overlook. During our conversations with Golu, I noticed that he was making very little eye contact with me and much more eye contact with my classmate Niko, who was a white male. I thought to myself that maybe I was being too shy and needed to exert myself a little bit more. Occasionally, I would make a comment or ask a question and Golu would look at me but quickly returned his attention back to Niko. As the night went on I started to noticed that Golu seemed to only ask Niko questions, which lead me to wonder if he simply forgot my name. When it came time for us to go to bed, Golu got up from behind his Tabla and said “Niko, let me show you to your room”. He lead Niko to a room across the hall as I stayed a little further behind wondering if my room was to be somewhere else in the house. I peeked my head into the room, which consisted of a computer desk, a cabinet and a twin sized matt on the floor. Niko and I exchanged glances, waiting for Golu to show me to my room, but that moment never came. We both set our belongings down reluctantly as Golu asked if the room was ok. Not wanting to come off ungrateful, we both said the room was fine and asked for another mat for us to sleep on. Golu and his mother returned shortly later with a thin matt and laid it next to the one that was already there. As Golu was about to head upstairs to bed, he poked his head through the door and said “Niko, if you need anything at all, anything, let me know”. That night, as I was laying 4 inches away from Niko sideways on a twin sized mat, I was so perplexed at what I had just experienced. My mind was ruminating, trying to find some logical explanation of this foreign feeling I was experiencing. Was it some cultural formality to address someone first? Did I come off rude and unwelcoming? Did he simply not know my name? I was trying to find a reason, any reason that would make sense of what I had just experienced. As I started to rule out each explanation one by one, I had to ask myself the question I was reluctant to ask, was I experiencing racism?

The next morning, I had a talk with Kara and she suggested that I have a talk with Irfana ma’am, the director at the school we were working with. The conversation was unproductive as I danced around the issue, as inquiring if my host were racist is well…a very awkward conversation. The only issue fixed by that conversation was that by the time Niko and I returned home that night, there was a much more comfortable mat next to the old one. It wasn’t until my homestay experience was over that we all had a conversation about the issue, as another non-white student experienced something similar during her home stay. Although I wouldn’t want anyone to go through such an uncomfortable experience, a part of me was glad that someone else had the same experience. Her confession validated my feelings, I wasn’t crazy. Nita ma’am and Irfana ma’am as well as the rest of the group had a really good discussion about the issue. Nita ma’am explained that the concept of racism doesn’t even exist in India, that the possible reason that our host family treated our white classmates differently is because they viewed us, people of color, very similar to themselves. She reassured us that what we experienced is in fact not racism and not a common occurrence. We also discussed casts in India and how wealth fits into that system, and the associations of Caucasians with wealth. Although the explanations did make sense, a part of me still feels like I haven’t found a satisfactory answer. This experience has definitely given me plenty to think about and has made me more aware of how my identity plays different roles in different cultures. This experience made me realize how “racism” is subjective and can mean different things to different people. This experience also makes me wonder that if someone doesn’t view something as racist in their culture, does that invalidate the feelings of the individual who experiences it as such?

Written By Tam Hoang