To Die in Varanasi
The hope for liberation from rebirth has inspired a retirement community and a hospice industry
TIME WAS WHEN INDIA’S ELDERS LIVED out their lives secure in the comfort of the joint family home, lovingly cared for by their children and grandchildren, and many still do. Nowadays, however, married sons increasingly set up their own separate households. If these are too tiny to accommodate the aging parents, they may be left to fend for themselves. Fortunate are such abandoned elders who gain admittance to a home for the aged run by a temple or other charitable organization—especially here in Varanasi, where, they believe, dying will bring liberation from rebirth. During my stay, I visited two such homes and one hospice, where residents expected to live only a short time.
The Kashi Mumukshu Bhawan at Assi Ghat, established in 1920, is run by the Kashi Mumukshu Bhawan Sabha. Today it houses about 60 people, many of them married couples whose children are unable to care for them. The rooms are neat, clean and airy, and the home is on the campus of the Sabha’s Sanskrit college and gurukulam. Residents have access to ayurvedic and homeopathic dispensaries and free meals.
The Kashi Annapurna Annakshetra Trust runs a home for the aged in the Mishir Pokra area of Kashi, housing around 12 senior citizens. Many of those I saw were over 80 and had been abandoned by their family members and relatives. Though run in a relatively small compound, the old-age home was taking care of the residents in a dedicated and meticulous manner.
R.V. Vishwanathan, the 48-year-old manager, explained that the facility is open to anyone of any caste. “We have a committee who closely scrutinizes each case and admits the old people who are most needy and deserving.” Kamla Chakarvarty, 97, a resident and widow originally from Bangladesh, shared, “They are taking good care of me here. I’m ready to leave this world and pray to God to grant me liberation.”
Annapurna Temple’s head priest, Rameshwar Puri, amplified, “We not only take care of these old people while they are alive but also take care of their final rites at the Manikarnika Ghat when they leave this world. However, I must make it clear that while we definitely do our best to serve them in all possible ways, they very much miss the kind of love and intimacy they can get only from their own children and grandchildren.”
The trust has constructed ten rooms with attached bathrooms and kitchens. These are allotted to elderly couples through a lottery system. Winners of the lottery pay a one-time amount toward the cost of construction and can then live there free for the rest of their life, paying only for electrical and water usage.
At Manikarnika Ghat three elderly women were introduced to us by a shady looking character who, we were later told, offers his help to families who come to cremate a relative, as well as to tourists and photographers. Each of these women told us a pitiable story of how they were mistreated by their families and compelled to take shelter here at the ghat. We were so touched as to give each some money, but later realized part of that money would doubtless be claimed by the man who introduced them to us, as he appeared to be capitalizing on their plight.
Nearly all of the elderly people we met appeared in decent health, so would not be allowed admittance to Kashi Labh Mukti Bhawan, the hospice located half a kilometer from Manikarnika Ghat. This home is only for those who are expected to live no more than 15 days. Hospice care worldwide, after all, is only intended for those close to death, for whom any further medical intervention would be pointless. In the US, for instance, where the Medicare program insures older citizens’ medical costs, hospice admittance requires certification that your life expectancy is less than six months. If you outlast that time, you can only remain on hospice care if your physician once again certifies you are expected to die within six months.
Bhawan manager Bhairavnath Shukla explained the project was set up by Shri Vishnu Hari Dalmia in 1958 to offer a place for pilgrims to die peacefully in Kashi. The Dalmia family trust covers all expenses. About 250 people a year come through the gates here, but there were no residents when I visited. Shukla said this is not uncommon, given the brief remaining lifespan of each.
According to Shukla, “We offer all possible help to those who are sincerely interested in the attainment of moksha, liberation, which may be one in hundreds of thousands. We advise the family to not waste their time in worldly matters, nor in last-minute medical treatment, but to engage themselves in worship so their loved one moves toward liberation. People at this level of seeking liberation have a very committed set of relatives who are by their side at this critical time. Such is the spiritual charisma of these souls that even you and I will do whatever we can to help them. I get something from serving here that is difficult to express in words. Many seeking liberation had darshan of God and shared their vision and experiences with me.” This sharing of miraculous experiences—such as seeing into the next world—is so common to hospice workers of all religions that it has a name: “the gifts.”
“Please listen to my words carefully,” Shukla continued. “I have attended the deaths of 15,000 people who came here seeking liberation. This gives me the capacity to understand the person who is truly seeking liberation. Many people leave their body in Kashi, but because they are not free from attachments, they will be reborn. Rare is the seeker who has broken all attachments, who has no reason for coming back, and hence will not be reborn.”
Faithfully Awaiting One’s Grand Departure
ALL PHOTOS: DINODIA.COM/ARUN MISHRA
Seeking release within: B. Dhanlakshmi of Hyderabad in her room at Kashi Annapurana Bhavan; a woman named Somani at Manikarnika ghats
How Does Expiring in Kashi Ensure Liberation?
THE WELL-KNOWN SAYING, KASHYAM MARANAM MUKTIH, “DEATH in Kashi is liberation,” attributed to the Skanda Purana, has generated considerable debate among local experts. Dr. Ram Narain Dwivedi, head teacher of the Annapurna Temple Gurukulam, summarizes the issue and conclusions: “Kashyam maranam mukti is the popular saying. But the Upanishads tell us that without knowledge, liberation is not possible. These ideas contradict each other. The scholars of Kashi sat together and concluded that even in Kashi, liberation could not be achieved just by dying here. One must first attain knowledge. But, they reasoned, it is believed that after death Lord Siva takes each soul in His lap on Manikarnika Ghat and utters the Taraka (“that which helps one swim across”) Mantra in his/her ear, This mantra alone conveys the knowledge or grace necessary for liberation, hence it is correct to say that those who die in Kashi will be liberated.”
The Taraka Mantra is largely understood as being “Rang Ramaya Namaha,” (“I bow to Lord Rama who is inside Agni, the fire”). Some think of it simply as “Rama.”
ALL PHOTOS: DINODIA.COM/ARUN MISHRA
Seeking release within: Mukti Bhavan; Bhairavnath Shukla, Mukti Bhavan’s long-time managerClick here to continue reading about Varanasi