On the drive across into Kerala and up into the Western Ghats (in this case ghats are mountains, but in Varansi they are steps down into the ganges – go figure) we passed through several towns and villages in the far west of Tamil Nadu. In one we met a funeral procession – lots of loud bangers (fireworks) being let off and drums being banged. Almost at the end of the loud procession was a cart carrying the dead man. I know it was a man because the casket was open and almost upright. Everyone could have a good look as he passed by one last time… in the middle of the road.
In the West many people would be appalled to be so suddenly confronted by death, but I thought it was much more healthy than the way we do it. As a Pastor I have had the privilege of being with people just before and just after they have died. On many occasions the dead body is removed from sight almost immediately. The undertakers come with a black bag straight away and the corpse is never seen again. Especially for children. Children are usually whisked away to a disney film in the front room.
However these Indians were sending him off in style. I wonder if it helps with the grieving process. Of course, bereavement takes time to come to grips with and grief hits people in different ways. We never ‘get over’ losing a loved one. Yet in the UK we almost pretend it hasn’t happened, euphemisms abound in our attempts to deny the truth.
I don’t think that it is any coincidence that in parts of the world where they live ‘closer’ to death there is a greater hunger for spiritual experiences. Sociologists have described India as the most religious nation on the earth. (Since Sweden is known as the most secular, Peter Berger then characterised America as a nation of Indians ruled by Swedes, but that is another story!) Many hindus are currently preparing for Ganesh Chaturthi, a festival at the beginning of September where they will immerse Ganesha (the elephant headed god) into the sea. Every family will provide one, apartment blocks usually club together to have a huge one made and painted (I mean huge – the police have now had to limit the height and have cranes to load them into the sea). There are massive pollution issues connected with this (I was told in Mumbai in their city alone they estimate millions of statues EVERY year). Now the government urges the idols to be made biodegradable and organic paints be used.
Up in Varanasi the Christian hospital most commonly treats snake bite. They have on average two people a day coming in with a potentially fatal bite, usually from a krait… or sometimes a cobra. Imagine my joy when I read a large information board at the hospital about snake bites – stressing that August (monsoon) is when they have by far the most bites. When one of the villagers is bitten the first thing they do is go to the local witch doctor. Since many bites are not poisonous often they get better and so the popularity of the witch doctor continues. But if it gets worse they know to go straight to the Christian hospital. The lady I saw them treating had been bitten on her ear as she slept (probably outside) at night. She was almost in a coma but they were fairly confident that they could save her. It costs about 3000 rupees for the anti-venom treatment – a sum few villagers can afford. Therefore the hospital tends to charge what they can afford.
As such it is not surprising that the hospital is so well thought of in the area. “People rarely kill a doctor,” was a blunt response to a question about the political climate. In the minds of many the villagers the question is simple – which god can protect me from snakes? Nevertheless there is a spiritual openness there not so common in the UK.