You get what you give in Varanasi India

7 minute read if you skip the bad stuff.

The Lonely Planet guide to India, the gold-standard of travel guides, a bible for budget backpackers, and usually a kind voice encouraging you to travel without judgement, said this about Varanasi India:

Brace yourself. You’re about to enter one of the most blindingly colorful, unrelentingly chaotic and unapologetically indiscreet places on earth. Varanasi takes no prisoners.

Varanasi tested my patience, humor, and immune system more than anywhere in the world, yet remains one of my favorite memories of a trip across Nepal and India.


Varanasi sits on the banks of the Ganges River. The World Health Organization found that Ganga water is polluted from:

  • Domestic and industrial wastes.
  • Animal carcasses and half-burned and unburned human corpses thrown into the river.
  • Defecation on the banks by the low-income people.
  • Mass bathing and ritualistic practices.

The protagonist of the novel White Tiger said this about the Ganga:

“I urge you not to dip in the Ganga, unless you want your mouth full of feces, straw, soggy parts of human bodies, buffalo carrion, and seven different kinds of industrial acids.”

I’m about to describe my experiences of poverty, death, and cow diarrhea in Varanasi. You may want to skip it, or at least scroll through the next few “bad” paragraphs to the “good” ones.

Judging something as bad or good is the opposite of my blog about nonjudgemental mindfulness, written about the week before my trip to Varanasi, but I wanted to paint a picture with words so that you’d understand the experience.

I’m glad I went. I met wonderful people and experienced things few people in the western world do. But there’s no denying the harsh realities of Varanasi, which concentrates the poverty of India into 1.4 million people and a lot of cows with diarrhea.

Thousands of years ago people in India realized that if you kill a cow you eat for a week but if allow a cow to live you continue receiving milk. Cows became sacred and are protected by laws; if you kill a cow you can go to jail. Today, cities have grown to have more concrete than grass and cows eat by rummaging through trash.

The cows develop diarrhea from eating trash. In Varanasi, they squirted streams of brown liquid, and that brown liquid would slowly and continuously drip down their legs and tails. When they swatted flies with their tails drops of diarrhea would sling through the air and land on anyone nearby. They seemed to swat flies every time I walked by.

Thousands of shop owners cleaned their steps by splashing water on the cow diarrhea, spreading it in a thin layer across streets. Over the next few days I would slip in that viscous brown water several times and watch brown footprints get tracked through cleaner streets where children sat to eat. The water made thick, brown waterfalls on steps leading to the river where people bathed.

Cows are more prevalent in Varanasi than other Indian cities, probably because of its history as a holy city. Poor people from all over India travel to Varanasi, partially because elderly rich people travel to Varanasi to have a peaceful transition to death and a more auspicious rebirth by becoming detached from money and material possessions. I oversimplified that for the sake of time; understand that there are many poor people in Varanasi competing with cows and dogs for scraps of food or attention from people.

Many of the beggars were left there by their families who believe this is how “the system” works; rich give to the poor in order to be born in a higher role, and everyone does their duty. This was especially true for disabled or mentally troubled people. Crippled beggars crawled towards me through streets covered in feces from cows, dogs, and people. Try to empathize with them, not with me.

Human feces is a major health concern in India, especially in Varanasi. Train toilets are simply holes leading to the train tracks, and 25 million people ride the trains each day. In cities, the few public toilets require a small amount of money. Many poor people defecate in the streets or alleys. Human poop contains bacteria and viruses that make us sick if ingested.

Poop isn’t restricted to trains. Defecation in open spaces is a challenge for 1.2 billion people. 300,000 children die from sanitation-related illness, and an untold number are held back from their full potential. UNICEF tracks this health hazard internationally and there’s a TED talk about the reasons why it’s so predominate in India.

I received food poisoning in Varanasi, which is a euphemism eating human poop, or at least bacteria from human poop carried by flies, water, or hands. I spent several days unable to leave my hotel room because any food or water ejected my body with extreme haste and what seemed like malicious intent. I didn’t always reach the toilet in time. I became dehydrated, which added to physical pain that I had been experiencing. But, I could come home. In poor countries, 525,000 children under five die each year from diarrhea; we know this and we choose to focus on other things that are often trivial in perspective.

But the worse part for me was the noise. I can’t describe the amount of noise that distracted me from feeling calm or focusing on positive things. It wasn’t necessarily loud, but it was constant and often directed at me. I tried to measure the longest time between when someone was in my face or on my arm demanding my attention; it never exceeded three minutes, and even that break was rare. I experienced a nonstop series of questions and pitches as I walked, often by multiple people simultaneously with one set of hands on my arms transitioning to the next set of hands while I processed whether or not their open sores were contagious.

There’s a correlation between noise and poverty even in the United States. Since then I’ve heard a constant ringing, known as tinnitus, but I was able to return home to my doctor and the tranquility of my home in San Diego, California. People in India are surrounded by health concerns that perpetuate poverty.  Kids are unable to change their situations, which perpetuates the problem. There aren’t enough education reformers reaching the right areas.

I stayed in Varanasi several times because planes were full and trains were delayed due to fog. On one train ride into Varanasi I saw someone pushed from a moving train, probably dying. I contributed to this. None of us did it intentionally, it was the result of an overloaded train in the cheaper general-admission section with few seats and broken doors. People crammed in after several days of trains being delayed by thick fog, which had hardship for people earning less than $2.50/day and relying on public transportation to get between work and home; they couldn’t afford to eat while waiting, and their families were loosing income each day.

When a train came we boarded the general admission boxcar, which was standing-only. At first I enjoyed getting to know people in tight quarters. There was a young couple and their three month old daughter, returning from a state-ran hospital because of her cleft palate. The parents were diminutive in size, with features of dwarfism, but were smiling and kind while sharing their story with us before the train became crowded. They could not afford corrective surgery and would spend the next few years adjusting how she ate, but they only spoke of the joy of having a daughter to love. At each train stop we became more and more cramped as people pushed onboard.

Soon I wasn’t able move my arms, much less take photos to convey how tightly were were packed. A few of us huddled around the baby and her parents to protect them as crowds packed us so tightly that people started standing above us, placing their feet on our shoulders or hunched backs, unable to go anywhere else.I’m 7 inches taller than an average Indian and probably stronger, and I decided to give us more room by forcing myself upright. From my perspective I saw deep inside the train as people shouted for more elbow room while people near us shouted to stop people from stepping on them. I saw people outside of the train clutching the door with fear in their eyes as people near them shouted and pushed crowds inward. Everyone pushed. I saw the man lose his grip and disappear out of my reach and into the fog. I processed that while continuing to prevent people from stepping on the diminutive couple and their daughter for the next two hours.

I was in more pain than I had been in years due to physical exertion on the train and my weakened immune system from food poisoning. For more than two weeks in Varanasi my spinal chord reacted to inflammation, and I was nauseous from headaches. Pain would radiate into my arm, and my back muscles would spasm all day and night, reducing sleep and aggravating my mental reactions to the pain.

My mental reaction to pain impacted my perception of Varanasi, but something more important was bothering me. I saw the train ride was a metaphor for our planet; some of us are wanting what’s best for ourselves without realizing the impact is has on others. I unknowingly contributed to this on the train, pushing to stand up as other people pushed to help the man clinging to the door. I was pushing for more comfort, he was pushing for survival. Some people were pushing for more elbow room, and in the higher-class cars people were probably pushing for more space to stretch their feet. Everyone was pushing, and we only helped the people we could see or with whom we could empathize, like the baby with a clef palate and her frightened parents.

Every day I’m unknowingly pushing people on our planet with my choices, such as when I choose to buy cheaper food or products rather than paying more for products that are regulated to encourage sustainability. There are 7.6 Billion people on Earth and there will be 10 billion by the year 2050. More than half of us will be poor, and all of us will be pushing for more comfort.

When I returned from India I started waiving my consulting fees for companies that contribute to equitable education and healthcare. I also started this blog as a marketing effort to reach executives with corporate social responsibility programs and philanthropists with compassion or religious convictions to serve the poor.

I’ve always been socially-minded. All of my clothing and most gear for this trip was bought in thrift stores. An exception was my underwear, socks, and a lightweight down jacket I used for at the beginning of this trip when I hiked over the Himalaya mountains. I bought the jacket from Patagonia, a benefit-corporation with products that cost more because they push less.

This isn’t about individual choices, it’s about global sustainability built into all products. I would like to live in a world where we’re all comfortable, no product pushed anyone, and some products pull people onto the train. In other words, I would like a world of abundance. To do this will require innovation, empathy, sustainable businesses, and possibly new forms of currency. Contact me to discuss more, or share this with people who could be interested.

Now let’s get to the good.

Welome to Varanasi, India.

This blog is a compilation of several trips to Varanasi over two weeks. The first time was with a friend, Iris, whom I met in a shared guest-house in Sarnath when we were practicing yoga one morning. Iris and I were in Sarnath for similar reasons, one of which was to see where Siddhartha Gautama gave his first sermon 2,600 years ago, after which he became known as the Buddha. Siddhartha went there because even 2,600 years ago the region around Varanasi was an ancient holy site where the wisest men taught and became ascetics, people who forgo worldly pleasures to focus on spiritual development.

This tradition continues today, and the ghats were lined with elderly men in simple clothes and a small bucket, sitting quietly and hoping for enough food to sustain their body as their minds prepare for death in a state of contemplative peace. The sooner we realize we’re dying the sooner we stop worrying about things that aren’t important and can be at peace with the world as it is.

Iris and I rented a motorcycle for the nine-mile trip to Varanasi and explored the Ganges River together. One of my fondest memories came after walking her back to her hotel then returning to the river to meditate in quiet, near an ascetic who was also meditating. We quietly sat cross-legged for about 30 minutes before he got up to leave.

Before he left, he dipped his hand into the Ganga and gestured towards the cardinal directions as water dripped from his fingers. He spoke words I did not understand, but I felt that he was expressing gratitude and wishing others well. I offered one of the two mangos in my backpack. He accepted it, smiled, bowed, and held it towards the cardinal directions while expressing gratitude and wishing others well before sitting beside me. We sat silently for ten minutes then he made the same symbol towards me that he had made towards the cardinal directions and walked into the fog.

Not all people in Varanasi are ascetics. Most are families no different than in the western world, performing rituals similar to Catholics gathering on Sunday for communion or to baptize a baby in water. Families would bathe in the Ganges river in a combination of devotion and playfulness, taking photos that they probably posted on Facebook.

During the daytime the ghats are covered in tourists, pilgrims, touts, people praying while bathing, and, surprisingly, people simply enjoying the river view or playing games with friends. River cruises are popular with families, and I met the sweetest groups of people who were able to see the good Varanasi, which is why they were happy in an area where it would be easy to focus on the bad.

I learned to visit ghats late at night or early in the morning, whenI could walk in peace while people collected trash or sat quietly gazing over the river. I took photos subtly, by pushing a button on my small camera without framing the photo or disrupting people’s moments.

When I zoomed in on one of the photos it became one of my favorite photos from India; they’re sharing a pipe of wild-grown marijuana, something many Hindus associate with the god Shiva and use for relaxation and meditation. But, it’s more than that. According to 3,000+ year old Hindu texts, the qualities of a good person are self-restraint, compassion, and charity.
(Bhagavad Gita 16:01-03 and the Upanishads)

Even someone who has very little can sharing what they have, which is the true lesson of sharing things that bring us health or happiness.

Sharing and charity are not unique to Hinduism. In Christianity, Jesus said that the faithful will be “given enough to share,” and “it’s better to give than to receive,” instructing a wealthy man to give his money to the poor, saying “It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.” (Mark 10:17-31) Similarly, one of the five pillars of Islam is charity, and the Koran specifically states giving to your family, orphans, and the poor, keeping enough for yourself to remain financially sound. (Quran 2:271, 2:276, 2:277) Jewish Tzedakah includes charity.

We seek the same things in different ways, including two guys getting high on the banks of the Ganges River.Local artists decorate ghats with symbolism. I’ve always appreciated well-done street art, especially as you realize the layers of thought put into it. I’ll share some of the more obvious, but trust me that this graffiti has more depth than much of the art people pay to see in museums.

In this street art, a mystic sits cross-legged, called the lotus position, with a lotus flower in one hand. For longer than we’ve had written languages, the lotus has symbolized purity, enlightenment, and detachment. As dirty water rolls off of a lotus pedal leaving no trace, so let unwholesome things roll off of yourself; the mystic is meditating in lotus position, observing and analyzing his thoughts, sensations, and perceptions.
Above the lotus flower is a symbol for death, reminding us that death is inevitable – live wholesomely. The man is offering marijuana in one hand, emphasizing the association between Shiva and detached charity. The peacock feather represents many things including compassion, tolerance, and wisdom. Above the feather is the trident of Shiva, the destroyer of evil and god of transformation; when you die you are transformed.

The red paint near his head is from an adjacent work of art, a personification of fire consuming a funeral pyre that is the perfect segue to funeral pyres along the Ganges River.

People are cremated along the Ganges and their ashes are poured into the Ganges. No photos of ceremonies are allowed – I took photos of temporarily unused pyres or wood burning late at night with Shiva’s iron trident glowing red-hot while the caste workers kept warm.

The lower castes in Varanasi earn their living cutting wood, explaining the ritual to tourists, or catering to the needs of the dying. I spoke with many of them and learned their perspectives. One day I’ll find the words to convey it to others, which is simplified as “death is inevitable for everyone.”Not all of my trip was on the Ganga river. I also explored modern Varanasi, including staying in a luxury hotel converted from a Nepali king’s palace for his visits to the Ganges River. I stayed there after the man was pushed off our train. I wanted a break and did something I rarely do while traveling: I used money to solve a problem.

Usually I try to empathize with people by living close to their means. In India I lived off of approximately $10 per day for rooms, food, and travel, but after the train ride my headache was more than I wanted to handle and my mind cringed at the idea of more food poisoning and noise from street vendors and honking horns. I relaxed in a hotel literally built for a king; the former palace for the King of Nepal to visit Varanasi. I can not express the bliss I felt from a hot shower and soft bed, nor can I convey how joyful I felt after my first solid bowel movement in weeks. Everything’s relative.

Like most cities, Varanasi has wealthy suburbs with western comforts. I was near a shopping mall with American icons like Starbucks and MacDonalds, where wealthy Indians usually found ways to eat Big Macs while checking their smart phones.

I investigated chartering an airplane to skip the fog and fly to a warmer region. I could afford it, and thought it could be an entrepreneurial opportunity. Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Records, formed Virgin Airlines after he responded to a canceled flight by chartering an airplane, asking people complaining about the cancelation if they’d like to buy space on his charter to the next airport.

My luxury hotel was full of wealthy tourists complaining about being stuck because of train delays, pushing hotel staff to solve their problems, but I declined chartering a plan and chose to solve my problem using the same resources available to a working-class Indian rather than a relatively wealthy tourists. But first I had an amazing meal, guilt-free, and cooked in the same kitchen that had fed the king of Nepal. A waiter brought me his favorite foods of northern India, including a brand of local beer called Kingfisher. I smiled and reflected on the kingfishers I saw flying in the jungles of Nepal and Kushinagar India.  I felt humility – I still had a lot to learn about maintaining perspective, even after meditating on the Buddha’s final words spoken in Kushinagar.

My favorite part of Varanasi was seeing Iris’s impact on people who met her as we explored the old city together. At night we’d walk along the ghats, where one night she lit a floating prayer candle made with flowers and released them into the Ganges, a ritual many people followed that created miniature parades of floating lights drifting down the dark Ganga waters.

After I took this photo I walked Iris to her hotel for the last time. I returned to the spot where she launched her flowered candle into the Ganga, which is when I met the Hindu ascetic and shared a mango. At that time I was reflecting on Iris and processing what would become my blog on meditating in Kushinagar, realizing that I had a lot more to learn and could learn it from Iris, who saw kingfishers where I saw turds.

It was her first time in India. She had been volunteering with a school in Sarnath after departing from her mom in a small town called Pushgar. Her mom had volunteered in Pushgar in her youth and traveled there with Iris before letting her develop her own experiences by traveling alone for the first time.

Pushgar is known for music, and Iris was a musician and artist. She brought small, locally made and inexpensive instruments from Pushgar and practiced whenever we paused, spreading her joy to me and everyone around us. We sought out an oasis in the old city, The Brown Bread Cafe, which caters to tourists but and uses proceeds to children education programs that promote hygiene and best-business practices. The cafe supports local artists and musicians who can supplement their income playing traditional Indian music. Plus, their food is wonderful! It’s everything I support in a sustainable social business.

Iris smiled constantly. It was hard not to smile with her when she was playing her music or seeking Indian sweet deserts. Store owners would stop me when she wasn’t around to inquire when she’d be back. Iris created joy among all with whom she interacted and she did not take this for granted. We discussed her thoughts on whether or not to follow a traditional path of marriage and a family or to share a positive influence with people who could use more joy, such as children in India. These were thoughts I had at her age, and it makes me happy every time I see people receive joy from helping others.

Varanasi represented the lowest part of my trip, not because of anything in the city but because I went from seeing both beauty and turds, to only seeing turds, to ruminating about past or future turds that weren’t there at the moment. I created what I experienced, just like Iris created her experiences. A Buddhist parable expresses this more eloquently; my paraphrasing is:

A wise man and his sons worked alongside a road when a traveler approached and asked what it was like in the next town. The wise man asked what is was like where the traveler was coming from, to which the traveler replied,”It’s horrible! The people are selfish and unkind, and the food is bland and expensive.” The wise man said, “You won’t like the next town, it’s the same as from whence you came.”

Later that day another traveler walked by and asked what it was like in the next town. The wise man asked what it was like where the traveler was coming from, to which the second traveler replied, “It’s wonderful! The people were generous and kind, and I discovered wonderful sites and foods.” The wise man said, “You’ll like the next town, it’s the same as from whence you came.”

The wise mans sons were confused because their father taught them to always be truthful, so they asked how we could tell two travelers two different things. Wouldn’t the wise man by lying once? The man replied, “I told both of them the truth; what they saw in one town would be what they saw in the next” At this revelation the sons became wiser.

Iris’s perception of Varanasi is an example of seeing what you believe and receiving what you give. One could argue that she was young and new to traveling, and that my 20+ more years of traveling reduced the novelty of Varanasi to me therefore I didn’t see wonder in each day. Or, that my pain led to an irritated mind that focused on the negative. Both excuses are the point of my blog on meditating in Kushinagar, that our mind’s attachments to what we want leads to our own suffering. It’s not easy to remove those attachments but it’s worth trying, if only to continue seeing beauty in any situation as our minds and bodies age.

Seeing beauty requires effort but it’s better than the alternative. Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner in Germany during WWII when the allies bombed Dresden, killing 135,000 people overnight. German guards held him at gunpoint while he cleared rubble and buried bodies, yet he became famous for writing novels filled with humor. He said,

“Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.”

I believe he would have found something funny to say about cows in Varanasi instead of focusing on bullshit.

Varanasi gave me a final lesson in humility when I left; I bought a bus ticket and showed up to find that the bus company had moved but not told the ticket agencies. As a last resort I caught an overnight bus ride in a modified cargo hold, cramming my 5’11” body into a 5’6″ box for a 14-hour overnight bumpy ride to the next destination. After Varanasi I was going wherever that bus was going. And, no bull, I was smiling about it.

My next travel blog will probably be Sarnath or Radjasthan. Check back for updates, follow on Linkedin for professional blogs in medical device healthcare and equitable education, or contact me to discuss the big picture.