The Mighty Mississippi, "Ol' Man River," is about as close as we get in this country to the reverence that India's Hindu population feels for the Ganges River, but there's really no comparison. From its source in the Himalayas all the way to the Bay of Bengal, "Mother Ganga" flows through the plains of northern India and Bangladesh, her purity capable of purifying others. Immersion in the Ganges Ã?' "the holy dip" Ã?' will cleanse your soul, wash away your sins. And to have your ashes scattered in it, or even your body dumped in it, is to ascend straight to heaven, leaving the cycle of birth, death and rebirth behind. No longer will you have to worry about coming back as a bug.
Nor will you have to worry about various waterborne illnesses Ã?' hepatitis, amebic dysentery, typhoid, cholera Ã?' associated with the Ganges, which happens to have an extraordinarily high fecal-coliform count. Add to that the industrial waste that pours into the river on a daily basis, and it starts to seem like Mother Ganga is capable of ending as well as transcending one's life. But her millions upon millions of worshippers don't see it that way. And neither, apparently, does Gayle Ferraro, director and producer of a religious-travelogue documentary called Ganges: River to Heaven, which itself tries to transcend the brute facts of death.
In Varanasi, which is to Hindus what Mecca is to Muslims, we're introduced to four families that have taken up residence in a hospice. Each has a member who's about to die, and perhaps because Hindus don't have our squeamishness about the dying process and what comes after, we're given a front-row seat to a set of rituals that are nothing like our own. There's lots of chanting as the relatives escort their loved ones to the hereafter. And when the body expires, it's wrapped in shiny fabric, then carried through the streets on a wooden stretcher, finally arriving on the banks of the Ganges, where it's piled high with wood and set aflame, acrid smoke filling the air.
Maybe it's the sitars adding their amazing grace to the proceedings, but Ganges: River to Heaven does succeed in transporting us to a higher plane, even when it's rubbing our noses in some of the less spiritual aspects of its subject. You may flinch at the sight of a bluish corpse floating by, a bird dutifully pecking away at its backside. Or by that point you may have come to accept it as part of the process by which life and death flow into each other. Ferraro does touch on the pollution problem, but she doesn't dwell on it, her reverence for the river overcoming whatever concerns she might have. And so Mother Ganga flows on, teeming with life and death and beyond.