Rite or Ritual
Divine – Sacred – God – Spirit
With our words we sew a suit for it
but it always bursts the seams
no regard for blush or shame, it seems
so it’s fitting that this thing unnamed won’t stay cinched
in the western clothes we’ve carefully stitched
Toothy temple bracelet tiers,
Jama Mosjid’s twisted spires
ghat-descending funeral biers
and haunting red cremation fires –
All things meant to awaken or inspire
a newfound belief in a power, higher
But just as with every story or sword
there’s a second side, one not as heard:
the labor behind every mug poured
or the hours spent on a title word.
In this, religion cannot be ignored ––
it has its own unheard, where meanings are blurred and emotions stirred
a lesson we learned when a Sikh’s wrath we incurred.
Hot, heavy, and sudden – like a cloud, it came,
before you could blink, no time to think
covering all with a bittersweet stink
marked by traces of jaggery and shame.
We broke a rule never spelled out in ink,
but that doesn’t excuse us from taking the blame.
Shaved head, robed in red, prayer beads, back bent
He shoves me aside – this monk is intent,
nothing will dent his spiritual ascent,
too bent on finding enlightenment
to see the ones for whom the light was meant
And while the tourists on vacation –
just a few with constipation – sit to watch the celebration
the priests with adulation all recite their incantations
and the fathers and the brothers watch the flames of the cremation
the souls of their relations now released to incarnation
flame and spirit cycle ever-turning, no cessation
This enunciation is how the Hindus praise creation
But now their holy river sits in putrid desecration
The people choke the river and the water chokes the people
Bathe in it, it’s sacred, but drink of it, it’s evil
a river drowned in trash, the matter mostly fecal
and how about the dumping? Oh, that still happens – it’s legal
The human and the natural in embrace, locked and lethal
A deadly combination for the river and the people –
A mutual expiration by ash asphyxiation
Now trace the Gunga from this Varanasi ghat,
Away from the bodies beginning to rot
Down to Kolkata, where it’s humid and hot
and the water runs free in the streets a whole lot
But drinkable? No, definitely not –
or upriver now, to our whitewater spot,
where workers build roads and new vehicle lots
heedless of the noise and the trash that they brought.
Big changes – by whom, and for whom, are they wrought?
Just a little food for some thought.
Shiny new shopping malls
and plastic bag snack stalls
and unlimited calls
and traffic at a crawl,
How can we have the gall
to say this is progress?
We’re the last link in this long chain reaction,
a nuclear bomb that the Brits set in action,
a centuries-long ploy for power
that culminates here, now, in this hour –
“Please, sir, won’t you buy a flower?”
with a fifty-rupee cash transaction.
He’s smiling, I’m smiling, decisions are made,
but I feel like I’ve been played – “It’s handmade?”
“Smiling is universal,” they say,
but in this instance, as I pay,
it only colors our relationship gray,
a gray tinged with green
as the factor of cash seen
turns the space in between
from potential pal to money machine
The great prophet of capitalism, the invisible hand
the proselytes of progress, the Tata name brand,
and a government eager to give business a hand –
they’ve changed this land,
just as its religious forebears made their own stand.
What is sacred? What is profane?
Elephant rides or the truth of a train?
The rites of a ritual or the rights of the people?
Or are they the same?
and so I ask you again,
as mantras and dogmas begin now to blend
but in India the Gunga still flows to its end –
What is sacred? …it depends.
-Harrison Horst, India, Spring 2018