Today’s investigation is on location from Varanasi, Benares, or at least three other names the place has been called over the centuries. This is the 2nd last stop during a pleasant holiday visit to India.
The city is built at the point the holy river Ganges pauses its south easterly direction to take a diversion north, making it the most auspicious part of the most auspicious river in India. Bathing here absolves one of sin. Dying here guarantees instant Moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth).
In the words of the Daily Express tagline, all human life is here. The tiny backstreets behind the Ghats (steps) down to the river are the Indian equivalent of a Victorian circus freak show with lepers, cripples, the accidentally-maimed (and some deliberate, either self-inflicted or by relatives looking for an income), Hirjas (transsexuals), more wandering cows than one can possibly imagine and all of their subsequent manure, piles of rubbish, human waste and pretty much anything else you can think of.
Most of the Ghats are used for bathing and offerings but several are “burning Ghats” where a constant activity continues to cremate those lucky enough to have died here. Everything is on show, nothing is left to the imagination.
Around 18km north of Benares is the smaller city of Sarnath, location of the Deer Park, where Gautam Buddha first preached to his followers after reaching enlightenment two and a half thousand years ago.
The location is also significant to Jainism, a religion with much in common with Buddhism and of a similar age, as one of their main prophets spent significant time here.
Buddhists from all over the world congregate here in temples built by Nepalese, Tibetan, Thai, Chinese and many other nationalities.
This is a holy place. In addition to to the Indians making their way to the Ghats, many westerners can be seen seeking enlightenment from the gurus. One can tell those seeking spiritual guidance from the tourists by their lack of hygiene and the fact that they dress even more embarrassingly than the overweight Americans in supermarket denim with elasticated waists.
In the main, the hippies are are just playing at this exotic religion thing though; beyond a silly haircut, mildly regrettable tattoo and several months of their life wasted on bhang (marijuana), they can still have a shave and a shower and go home to a corporate job and the comforts of modern life.
There are many more in the world and in history who make much greater commitments to their faith though, from the ascetics who perform bizarre physical feats such as keeping one arm aloft for decades or Simon Stylites sitting on top of a pillar for 37 years, acts of abstinence like vegetarians, celibate priests, teetotal muslims, acts of violence such as the Crusaders or Jihadists or simply routine drudgery like attending an Anglican Communion service every Sunday.
The question in the title stands; what if they are wrong? In addition to the three religions listed in Varanasi above, there are Christian and Muslim populations. Logically, at least four out of these five religions must be completely wrong about most of their dogma.
Back to the question; Seriously? All that effort, all those hours of contemplation and prayer, the money spent on donations for buildings, pilgrimages, tatty plastic icons (manufactured in poor conditions in Chinese factories), votive offerings, the offspring you indoctrinated?
Where’s the tangible evidence that any of it, not even the majority of it, but ANY of it was for a correct and truthful concept? Where’s the evidence that it made even the slightest positive difference (even as a placebo) to the human condition, even if it wasn’t yours?
If you’re reading this and feeling warmly smug and self-righteous about your atheism, let’s ask the question a different way; do you hold any beliefs to be true for which you cannot demonstrate incontrovertible supporting evidence?
Look deep, is there perhaps an underlying belief that, if only we’d implement the correct version of Socialism, abject poverty, corruption and tyranny wouldn’t eventually follow like it has all those countless times before?
Maybe you have no relevant qualifications or domain experience but you firmly believe that the world will warm to catastrophic levels and by simply pulling a lever and halting the economy, humans can prevent it?
Or perhaps somewhere inside your heart there’s a suspicion that the world can’t support any more people, despite the evidence to the contrary that millions upon millions of people are living healthier, longer lives than ever before and we are producing exponentially more food?
A few years after The Buddha died, Aristotle possibly said, “the life unexamined is not worth living“.
He also was one of the first philosophers to examine what is now known as empiricism, a search for truth by putting great reliance on that which can be observed.
Don’t waste your life, resources or emotion on that which cannot be proven to be correct. A working hypothesis is fine as long as we drop the idea once it has been proved incorrect or unlikely. Kill bad ideas quickly, it’s better to have a question mark than the wrong answer.