At the beginning of this year, I did a tarot card reading for myself. A nine card reading, in the quiet of the room on an inauspicious Sunday afternoon, with a single candle burning (of the scent patchouli, I remember). I had meant it to be a three card reading, but with tarot (and with life), things do not usually go as planned. The fifth card that came to me, the middle card of my reading, was the famed Death card.
The Death card is the most feared and most misunderstood in a tarot deck (so misunderstood, in fact, that even I, of a stoic temperament, stared a moment too long at it). It is not an easy card to see; even in the gorgeously illustrated Rider Tarot Deck, the Death card shows Death himself riding on a white horse, holding a black and white flag. The whiteness of the horse indicates purity – after all, Death is the ultimate purifier. All members of the human race are depicted in this card, indicating that Death is the greatest indiscriminating force, just and fair in his arrival to all.
Most believe that the Death card indicates the loss of one’s own life, or the life of a beloved, a literal and often misinterpreted understanding. Instead, an upright Death card indicates a period of massive transformation where past patterns that cease to serve are released; where the shutting of doors mean that new doors are meant to open; where there is an emergence of a new direction after a period of tumult.
The Death card is, in essence, the representation of a new journey that is about to begin. And like all newness, it is to be embraced. This is a lesson that I learnt in retrospect, 12 months after I first encountered this card.
There is a particular spot along a crumbling wall in the Manikarnika Ghat, where one can sit, and watch flames lick and consume a dead body set upon a pyre. Sometimes, the wind changes direction and you find ash along the sides of your cheeks, in your mouth, caught between tendrils of your hair. After some time, the flames become hypnotic; when you close your eyes, swirls of orange and red dance across the black of your closed eyelids. And always, the smell of burning.
When Goddess Shakti sacrificed her life and immolated herself when her beloved was humiliated by her father, Daksh, Lord Shiva took her remains to Khailash and mourned her loss. Unable to bear the extent of his compatriot’s grief, Lord Vishnu used his divine chakra to cut the Goddess’s body into 51 pieces. Wherever parts of the Goddess fell on Earth, a revered and holy site was erected; the Manikarnika Ghat is said to be where her divine earrings landed.
And so, it is said that if your body is burnt on a pyre in Manikarnika Ghat, your soul receives instant moksha; you are released from the multiple cycles of rebirth that your soul was destined to experience. Death, in Varansi, is the final stop in this journey of life. It is not a terrifying thing.
At my grandfather’s funeral, my grandmother, with tears streaming down her face whispered “Wherever you are, I wish you the safest of passages”. The coffin was slowly carried away.