Thick fog, which filled the air that morning, brought upon the city a strange dreariness, an uncanny darkness that called upon thoughts of great melancholy. Far in the corner a bonfire glared, fighting off the frigidity that possessed the air, and surrounding it were few men, clothed in thick, rugged shawls, their hands clinging onto the warmth that emanated from the crackling fire.
Across the labyrinth of narrow alleys, lay one of the most sacred temples of the Hindus—the Vishnupad temple. It stood tall, overlooking the dry riverbed of Phalgu—a river considered to be the embodiment of Lord Vishnu himself.
I walked into the temple precinct, barefoot as mandated and wandered through the narrow lanes until I reached the banks of the great Phalgu. There on the cold morning sand were groups of people seated in circles—each headed by a priest who performed what the Hindus call pindadan—religious service seeking salvation for the dead from the cycle of rebirth!
Belief has it that the soul of a deceased wanders after death until pindadan is offered on the banks of Phalgu, usually during the auspicious time of Pitrapaksha (the 15 days of the waning moon during the Hindu Month of Ashwin). It is mandatory for the Hindu devotee offering pindadan (usually the eldest son) to shave their head (A tradition of tonsure observed by hindus following last rite) and take a holy dip in the river. (As per some Hindu traditions, Tonsure (shaving off the head) is usually the part of three rites of passages in the life of the individual. The first is called Chudakarana or mundana and marks the child’s first haircut. The second rite of passage that involves tonsure is at the Upanayana marking a child’s entry into school. Third rite of passage where tonsure is practiced by Hindus is after the death and completing the last rites of an immediate family member, that is father, mother, brother, sister, spouse or child. Until a few decades ago, many Hindu communities, especially the upper castes, forced widows to undergo the ritual of tonsure and shun good clothes and ornaments, in order to make them unattractive to men.)
Pali texts mentions the river Phalgu as ‘Niranjana’, and it is believed that Lord Buddha after gaining enlightenment had his first bath in this river ! Therefore, the river is as sacred to Buddhists as it is to the Hindus.
P.S. Hinduism is perhaps one of the most misunderstood philosophy. Broadly there are two schools of Hinduism – Astika (Believing in Vedas/God) and Nastika (Not believing in Vedas/God). Beliefs such as Samakhya, Mimansa, Vedanta etc.. belong to the Astika branch while those such as Carvaka, Ajivika, Buddhism, Jainism etc… belong to the naskika branch of Hinduism. There are no surviving texts of philosophies like Carava (which preached philosophical skepticism and denied Vedic Ritualism and Supernaturalism) and Ajivika (which preached absolute determinism and denied free will) , which is unfortunate because their proliferation would have shaped India differently (in a more scientific way). Personally, I follow the school of Buddhism which denies the existence of God or Soul, and offers more of a ‘middle path’ between extreme spirituality (self-mortification) and extreme hedonism (pleasure seeking) to living life. The beauty of Hinduism lies in the fact that you don’t have to a believer, rather, a seeker, who is always curious to discover new truths. There have been many Hindu reform movements through out the centuries, where sages and mystics have given their own interpretations of Hinduism. One such interpretation has been given by Swami Dayanana Saraswati, who founded the Arya Samaj (Society of the Nobles). The followers of Arya Samaj believe in one God (Monotheistic) and shun idol worship, and consider Vedas to be an infallible authority. Hinduism is a vast discipline, and most of most of what you see in the name of Hinduism today is a politically motivated pseudo Hinduism created for the purpose of convenience. Logically, ‘Hindu’ is a geographical identity for anyone born in the land of ‘hind’ (Indus), and has nothing to do with his religion.