RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
India has been much talked about as a rising global power.
This week, we're exploring the impact of that on Indian society and religion. Most Indians are Hindus. NPR's Philip Reeves has been traveling the length of the Ganges River and his third stop is the ancient holy city of Varanasi.
PHILIP REEVES: According to its Constitution, India is a secular democracy -yet the Hindu religion remains at the nation's heart, shaping attitudes at every level. And at the heart of Hinduism lies the city of Varanasi.
(Soundbite of group singing in a foreign language)
REEVES: It's just after dawn. The rising sun casts a huge golden shaft across the brown expanse of the Ganges, now moving at a matronly pace across the plains of north India.
Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing in a foreign language)
REEVES: A woman stands knee-deep in water. She is running through her morning prayers as if in a trance. We've arrived in a place, which has been the religious capital of the Hindu faith since history began, a place believed to be as old as Babylon. And it owes its life to the Ganges, or Ganga, as everyone here calls it.
Hindus believe the river is a goddess whose waters cleanse the soul and deliver moksh released from the cycle of reincarnation. The devout aspire to bathe in the Ganges of Varanasi at least once in their lives.
Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking in a foreign language)
REEVES: This morning like every other day, thousands of pilgrims are fulfilling that ambition. They gather along the gats, the stone steps leading down to the river. Here, religion and domestic life comfortably coexist.
Unidentified Woman #3: (Speaking in a foreign language)
REEVES: A small, unhappy boy is getting a haircut. Yet just a few yards away, a group of half-dressed wandering Hindu holy men, sadhus, with wild, white beards and saffron colored sarongs, is deep in meditation. Look a little further along the banks and there are women in brilliantly colored saris washing clothes, men brushing their teeth in the river's grimy waters, and children splashing each other just for fun.
It's got to be one of the most amazing scenes in the world. There are people who've come here to pray and to meditate. One man's standing in the water, up to his shoulders, and he has his hand clasped to his eyes and he's got a cloth over his head, and he's been in that position for at least an hour.
And there are other people who - standing in the - with their arms outstretched on the banks of the river, worshipping the sun. And one or two others just sitting in the lotus position.
Mr. SHORAB SHAMA(ph) (Hindu Devout): (Speaking foreign language)
REEVES: Shorab Shama is paying his morning visit to the Ganges, to meditate and chant by the river. Non-Hindus never find it easy to grasp this complex religion with its rich methodology and multitude of gods. But Shama agrees to try to explain to an outsider what his daily visit to the Ganges means to him.
Mr. SHAMA: Nature has a lot of power. This is something anybody, anywhere in the world can see. You go to Yosemite. You go to the Grand Canyon. You go to the Amazon forest. You'll feel the power of nature. It's not really the Ganga, I mean, the Ganga is just one small example of it.
REEVES: Shama used to be in I.T. systems and finance, though, now he's retired. India remains an intensely religious country, and many Indians worry that moving towards a consumer society will eventually undermine the country's traditions and faith.
Shama takes a philosophical view.
Mr. SHAMA: Maybe I'll try to explain this to you a little again. You have certain money so you can do with money what money can do. But can it change your life? Now that's a Western belief - that money changes your life. That money is life.
(Soundbite of Hindu ritual)
REEVES: Crowds of tourists gather by the river for a puja serenade, a Hindu blessing ritual laid on for their benefit. Several million tourists visit India every year. Varanasi is one the chief attractions. And where there are tourists, there's money. And like everywhere in India, where there's money, there's always someone pecking at it.
NEYA: One, one, one, one...
PHANTANA: One, one (unintelligible)
REEVES: One, one, what?
PHANTANA: One, one (unintelligible)
REEVES: One what?
NEYA: Ganga. One, one (Hindu spoken), you put...
REEVES: These are two tiny girls - Neya(ph) and Phantana(ph). They say they're nine and 10, although they look half their age. They've been sent out by their families to sell candles to tourists for floating down the river. They say they make about 30 cents a day.
REEVES: It's good.
UNICEF, the U.N.'s children organization, says India still has at least 35 million child laborers, although, some estimates are higher. These girls are among them.
Hindus bathe in the Ganges at Varanasi because they believe her holy waters wash away their sins. But you don't have to travel far down the river before sin reasserts itself.
(Soundbite of train)
REEVES: We're moving east by a train to our next stop, the state of Bihar. If Varanasi is the citadel of spirituality, you could say these days, Bihar is its counterpoint - a citadel to crime, corruption and caste prejudice, and one of the poorest states in India.
Mr. RAI ATOL KHRISNA(ph) (Veteran Journalist, Bihar): The entire growth, you know, they have entirely bypassed Bihar.
REEVES: That's Rai Atol Khrisna, a veteran journalist from Bihar.
Mr. KHRISNA: The reason being that Bihar simply did not have the infrastructure to gain from easy interest rates and things like that. You gain from these things only if you have some kind of a basic infrastructure which can be built upon.
REEVES: The consequences of being out of the loop come in the form of crime. The state is plagued by gangs who extort and kidnap and kill to order. With the help of a few locals, we find some of these gang members, living rough in the woodlands, close to the banks of the Ganges, outside a lawless town called Mokama.
(Soundbite of howling)
REEVES: That's how the gang members communicate when they think the cops might be around. Half a dozen scrawny, feral-looking young men emerge from the trees. Only their eyes are visible, glittering defiantly through their facemasks. They look at us suspiciously. One of them has an axe. Then they agreed to talk, though not for long.
One of them is 21-year-old Rachif Gope(ph) who's reportedly wanted for murder.
Mr. RACHIF GOPE (21-year-old murder suspect; Gang Member): (Through Translator) In Bihar, to get a job, you have to pay money. Nothing works without money here. That is why I have chosen this path: a short but quick way to make money.
REEVES: Gope's seen the ads for luxury goods and cars, which flood India's TV channels, and he seems prepared to take any means necessary to secure his share.
Mr. GOPE: (Through Translator) Our crimes: we ask for money and if we don't get money, then we murder. And we will do anything for money.
REEVES: Gope even has a role model. Some of Bihar's criminal gangs are controlled by politicians. He'd like to be one of them.
Mr. GOPE: (Through Translator) People in this field who have taken drift are now powerful politicians in Bihar, and that's what I want. I want to make a lot of money.
REEVES: In that, at least, this young, alienated Indian has much in common with many of his countrymen who live within the law.
Philip Reeves, NPR News, by the Ganges River.
MONTAGNE: The Ganges journey continues. Tomorrow, we experience the intellectual, economic and political ferment of Calcutta. Philip Reeves' latest Reporter's Notebook is at npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.
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