It was the third time a young man walked by my side trying to sell me hashish. He was wearing an unusual and inappropriate turtleneck so I ventured to say, “That of your neck looks really bad.” He hesitated as feeling exposed, and replied without the previous poise of a determined seller, “I burned myself with hot water.” I stopped and looked at him straight in his eyes, glazed, without light, and said with a serious voice, “Before the end of the year, you will be there,” pointing to one of the burning pyres by the river. His gesture betrayed him. After walking a few steps I turned and I was deeply moved to check he was still standing motionless on the same spot I left him. I think we both knew it could be true, and I want to think that somehow he needed that message, perhaps his last chance to change an obviously harmful lifestyle.

I sat on the ghats to watch for the last time Varanasi, the city Mark Twain said, “Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all that together.” I contemplated the mighty river and the white river beach extending ad infinitum at the opposite bank, and understood why the Buddha frequently mentioned the number of grains of sand in the Ganges River to refer to the concept of infinity.

On the banks of Ganges I felt, as never before, how the boundaries of time and space, life and death, the mundane and the spiritual, are blurred and relativized to turn everything into nothing, or nothing into all. At that moment I understood why that city and river had prompted so many people to intense spiritual quests.