Benares “city of light”

Posted in Blog

Benares “city of light”

Living in Benares (Varanasi), in these days, I’ve the pleasure to share the third chapter of our book Yoga based on authentic Indian traditions about this fascinating and controversial place.

Are there not many holy places on this earth?
Yet which of them would equal in the balance one speck
of Kāshī’s dust?
Are there not many rivers running to the sea?
Yet which of them is like the River of Heaven in Kāshī?
Are there not many fields of liberation on earth?
Yet not one equals the smallest part of the city never forsaken by
The Ganges, Shiva and Kāshī: Where this Trinity is watchful,
no wonder here is found the grace that leads one on
to perfect bliss.
(KKh 35. 7-10)

Since 2005 I’ve been living for the most part in Benares, in northern India, approximately half way between Delhi and Kolkata. I had the chance to develop some ideas about this city. I defined it, in one of my former books, «an holy and unhealthy place».

It is, in fact, a quite controversial dimension, very traditional, orthodox and still way behind from the material point of view (even if it is quickly developing, as the entire subcontinent). It is, nevertheless, very rich in history (it is considered the oldest living town in the world or, at least, one of the oldest) and culture, spirituality (in its main districts there are approximately 1500 Hindu temples and 300 mosques), music and poetry.

In general, it is a very exciting and intense town even if, not unusually, lacks a great reputation for its dark sides.

Benares — or Varnanasi or Kāshī — has been, since ancient times, related with death. It is the town of “good death”, the best place on the earth, for an Hindu, to die.

Therefore, it has always attracted many sick pilgrims and it is the place, in India, where it’s easier to meet death in public areas. Two main burning ghats and other places where corpses are burned are always intensely active and many people stay there as spectators, meditating on the temporariness of life.

A lot of time and energies are spent, in Benares, for religious practices, for pujas (offering celebrations to gods), religious festivals etc.

Practical aspects of life are less cared for that’s why Benares can be considered a both fascinating and uncomfortable place.

One of the best books about Benares is Diana Eck’s Banaras city of light.  

She presents the town, in its best aspects, with following words:

«Banāras is a magnificent city, rising from the western bank of the River Ganges, where the river takes a broad crescent sweep toward the north. There is little in the world to compare with the splendor of Banāras, seen from the river at dawn. The rays of the early morning sun spread across the river and strike the high-banked face of this city, which Hindus call Kāshi: the Luminous, the City of Light[1]. The temples and shrines, ashrams and pavilions that stretch along the river for over three miles are golden in the early morning. They rise majestic on the high riverbank and cast deep reflections into the waters of the Ganges. Long flights of one steps called ghāts, reaching like roots into the river, bring thousand of worshippers down to the river to bathe at dawn. In the narrow lanes at the top of these steps moves the unceasing earthly drama of life and death, which Hindus call samsāra. But here, from the perspective of the river, there is a vision of transcendence and liberation which Hindus call moksha».

The urban structure of Benares is compact. The most active places, as Diana Eck writes, are the ghāts ― «literally “landings” or “banks”» ― which develop along the river.

In Benares, on the Ganga ghāts, the reverberations of history and tradition are evident and it is the main reason for its charm.

Some foreigners are bewitched and spend short or long periods in the town, learning to play instruments like sitar or tabla, practicing yoga, learning Hindi or Sanskrit, doing volunteering jobs or trying to dig in esoteric, tantric traditions.

They sometimes become fanatics of Benares while for many other persons it proves to be a difficult visit.

Its strength and intensity, in fact, can also have an opposite effect and not unusually people suffer from the high levels of noise in the streets (everybody, driving all types of vehicle, horns continuously), the intrusiveness of some natives, the several inefficiencies (electric supply, for example, is still very unstable), the dramatic hygienic conditions etc.

Anyway, I think it is easy to affirm that, even if it is not a town for everybody, a short or long visit (according to the nature of the visitor) is highly recommended.


A brief history of Benares

The first centuries

From literary sources as well as the archaeological evidence of excavations uncovered in the northern area of the town (around the actual Rajghat) it is evident that the city had been an important trading centre, which later developed into an holy place.

Archaeologists concluded the earliest settlement is around the 8th century BC.

Some geographical characteristics of the area represented the reasons of the future prosperity of the town as a commercial centre.

The river bank, in the area of Rajghat Plateau, was high and stable and never flooded in the monsoon season. The location was also strategic: at the junction of Ganges and Varana (or Varanasi) river, one of its tributaries.

«Early literary evidence, which confirms the archaeological picture, is provided by Patanjali’s Mahābhāsya[2] [dated to the 2nd century B.C], in which the following sentences are given as examples of usages: “The merchants serve/venerate Varanasi, naming it Jivatrī (Vintrix)”, and “cloth of Kāśī and Mathurā differs in price”.

The Mahābhārata makes Varanasi the home of the renowned merchant […] Tulādhāra»[3].

Good conditions of life soon attracted the Buddhist order which settled near the area of Sarnath (where Buddha did his first speech, known as Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta ― “the speech to move the wheel of Dharma” ― in the deer’s park).

In the Dictionary of Pāli proper names there is a description of the town:

«Benares was an important centre of trade and industry. There was direct trade between there and Sāvatthi [Śravasti], and between there and Takkasilā [Taxila]…Even in the Buddha’s time the city of Benares was wealthy and prosperous and was included in the list of great cities suggested by Ānanda as suitable places for the Parinibbāna of the Buddha».

1700-2000 years old seals, found in the excavations in Rajghat and catalogued by A.S. Agrawala, reveal the existence of Hindu religion in the town can be dated to the end of the 3rd century of our era.

It is interesting to mention that, referring to the former period, many Indo-roman seals have been found «showing deities that have been identified as Nike, Athena, Heracles and Apollo, point to long distance trade».

After those appeared Shivaite emblems, «one portraying bull and trident and having the legend sahasya in Kusāna script» (Saha being one of the names of Shiva), another depicting «a linga [phallus] on a pedestal flanked by a triśūla-paraśū [trident] on the left and a vajra [lighting] on the right».

Gold coins of Gupta kings prove that Varanasi was included in the empire of the same name (between the beginning of the 4th century CE and the beginning of the 6th one) and that in Gupta period started the affirmation of the town as a sacred space.

The motifs of the seals became mostly religious. Several represent symbols as flask, rosary and serpent. In one case associated with an anthropomorphic deity or, in other cases, with names of gods. Rosary is the symbol of renouncement, the serpent of  death and rejuvenation and the flask «may be equivalent to the kalaśa, the vessel that holds the elixir of life (amrta) known from other early Śaiva images».

This complex of symbols can easily invite one to think about a worship of a god to get immortality after death (who take different names on different seals ― Yogeśvara, Bhrngeśvara and Devadevasvāmin ―).

In general, predominance of motifs related with Shiva, in old Benares, has been premonitory of a strong shaiva attitude of the town. In the course of the history, many devotees of Vishnu have been attracted there but, basically, Varanasi has always been “the town of Shiva”.

In one shaiva myth in fact Shiva created Kāshī, at the beginning of times, to have some earth under his feet.

The written sources

The oldest detailed puranic description of Benares is the Skanda Purāna, «probably composed in the 6th or, maybe, the first half of the 7th century».

Puranic literature contemplates eighteen Major Purāna (Maha Purāna) and eighteen Minor Purāna (Upa Purāna).

They are religious treatises, rich in historical and mythological elements (even if very often history vanishes in myth, in India) in which are presented the most important deities of Hindu Pantheon (or avatara, incarnations of some of them) as well as many rituals, festivities, pilgrimages, etc.

Purāna, as well as Itihāsa (“histories of the past”, the most important of which are two massive epics: Mahābhārata and Rāmāyana) and aphorisms (sūtra) ― followed by several śastra, authoritative texts relating to dharma (Dharmaśastra and Mānavadharmaśāstra) and the sphere of wealth and power (Arthaśāstra) ―,  belong to smriti: “tradition” or, using the literal translation, “memory”. The smriti, in Indian religion and philosophy, follows the śruti (revelation), peculiar of Vedic stage, to maintain alive its influx on society and to clarify its deep meanings.

Skanda Purāna is the largest Maha Purāna and is mostly devoted to the figure of Kartikeya (also called Skanda or Murugan), a son of Shiva and Parvati.

Skanda Purāna, available in distinct, sometimes fragmented parts, is very rich in legends of Shiva and his holy places. Kāshī Khanda is one of its sections, dealing with Shaiva tradition in Varanasi.

We find Varanasi Māhātmyas even in Matsya Purāna, Brahma Purāna and Linga Purāna. These different Purāna cover one large period (between AD 500 and 1100).

«The Māhātmya in the Skandapurana describes a holy field that can easily be connected with the situation in the Gupta period. [The deity] Avimukteśvara takes centre stage. Around it are twelve lingas of lesser importance, none of which is known from any seals. The town is, on the one hand, described as a meeting place of yogis, in particular the Pāśupata variety, on the other hand as a place where one should wish to die, as this promises immediate release. The text testifies to the establishment of a Pāśupata community of ascetics and ācāryas, who may well have been in charge of most of the sanctuaries described in the text».

They are devotees to “holy madness”, doing indecent gestures, repeating mantra, dancing and laughing and spreading ashes on their bodies.

There is also a Pāśupata Tantra preaching to commit any kind of sin “to deny the negation”. Goal of Pāśupata is to be despised by other people to overcome any trace of pride and ego.

Avimukta (from which Avimukteśvara, “the god of Avimukta”) is one of the several names of Benares, meaning the “never forsaken” (by Lord Shiva).

It has been used a lot in the past (as it is possible to deduce from its exclusive use in some purānic māhātmyas), before being replaced by more recent Kāshī and Varanasi.

In Dashakumāracharita, “The tale of ten princes” (a Sanskrit katha — story — written in the 6th or 7th century), «Avimukteshvara, the “Lord of Avimukta”, is mentioned as the reigning deity in Kāshī»[4].

The names of the same deity have even been found in Gupta times’seals which came out from excavations in Rajghat.

One important report, about Varanasi, has been written, approximately one century  after the end of Gupta’s period, by the famous Chinese traveler Hsiuen-tsang, a Buddhist monk who visited India, the actual southern area of Nepal and several places of actual Pakistan and Bangladesh. He sounded those lands for around 15 years, searching rare manuscripts which he later translated into Chinese.

When he came back to his own country he had 657 Sanskrit texts.

In the 630s he visited Varanasi, presenting it, in his memories, as a prosperous and holy place:

«[Varanasi] […] is densily populated. The families are very rich, and in the dwellings are objects of rare value. The disposition of the people is soft and humane, and they are earnestly given to study. They are mostly unbelievers [that is Hindus], a few reverence the law of the Buddha. The climate is soft, the crops abundant, the trees (fruit trees) flourishing, and the underwood thick in every place. […] They honour principally Maheśvara (Ta-tseu-tsaï). Some cut their hair off, others tie their hair in a knot, and go naked without clothes (Nirgranthas), they cover their bodies with ashes (Paśupatas), and by the practice of all sorts of austerities they seek to escape from birth and death.

In the capital there are twenty Dēva temples, the towers and halls of which are of sculptured stone and carved wood. The foliage of trees combine to shade (the sites), whilst pure streams of water encircle them. The statue of the Dēva Maheśvara, made of teou-shih (native copper), is somewhat less than 100 feet high. Its appearance is grave and majestic, and appears as though really living»

One or two centuries later, in Budhasvāmin’s Brhatkathāślokasamgraha, there appears another report. It is less “optimistic”, mentioning impostors, fake ascetics and high alcohol consumption.

Proceeding in a chronological way, according to what is possible to read in the quoted book of Bakker and Isaacson: «after modest beginnings in Gupta times, Varanasi flourished and developed into one of the most important places of pilgrimage in India during the early medieval period».

This growth is analyzed in consideration of some specific factors:

«A specific feature of Varanasi’s appeal from the beginning was its claim to yield the highest reward, whether this was thought to be heaven, union with God or merging into the absolute, as soon as man died within its precincts, a feature considered by the Māhātmya to be unique. This has been the outstanding characteristic of the Avimukta sanctuary from its inception. The cremation ground may therefore have had an unusually high profile from the fourth or fifth century onwards, although this was ignored in the earliest Māhātmya of the holy town. The Mārkandeyapurāna however, in choosing it to be the workplace of king Hariścandra, may reflect this historic fact. Its connection with death and the prominence of its cremation ground held a special attraction for the Śaiva, in particular the Pāśupata ascetics, who may have flocked to the town in great numbers»

King Hariścandra can be considered an equivalent figure of the biblical Job.

In the myth, king Hariścandra (the name literally means golden moonlight) was asked by the brahmin Vishvāmitra to pay a ritual fee.

He generously gave to him whatever he had. Once he was totally poor, he was still pressed by Vishvāmitra to pay his fee (in one version of this myth the brahmin was god Brahma who wanted to get a proof of the devotion’s strength of His worshipper). Together with his son and his wife, king Hariścandra fell into slavery starting to work as Dom[5] in the cremation grounds, in Varanasi.

One day the son of king Hariścandra died because of a snake bite and the wife carried his body to the husband without having even a blanket to cover him and Brahma, satisfied with the strength of character of His worshipper, restored his throne resuscitating the son.

Hariścandra Ghat is one of two burning ghats of the town and some people, mostly living close to it, believe is the oldest one (the other is Manikarnika Ghat, further north). Some Brahmins and pandits choose to be cremated on its soil.

We’ve not to forget that even the mentioned presence of Pāśupata orders greatly contributed « to Varanasi’s development as a holy city and a city of the holy»[6]. Living in the cremation ground, they became, for the pilgrims, «living examples of man’s ability to conquer death by ignoring its pollutive force». Therefore:

«The Śmaśāna [cremation ground] became the heart of Varanasi, in geographical and religious respects, and so the town developed its unique character, which appeal to all Hindus, no matter their persuasion, thus outstripping the other holy places of the subcontinent».


From eleventh century to the present day

Another interesting “external” contribute about Benares comes from the Persian Muslim scholar of the 11th century Al-Bīrūnī (973-1048), well versed in mathematics, astronomy, physics, geography, history, linguistic and natural sciences.

He has even been considered the founder of Indology. After he spent an abundant period in the Subcontinent, he wrote Kitab fi Tahqiq ma l’il-Hind (Researches on India).

His description of Benares must have been written between AD 1017 and 1030:

«The Hindus have some places which are venerated for reasons connected with their law and religion, e.g. Benares (Baranasi). For their anchorites wander to it and stay there for ever, as the dwellers of the Ka’ba stay for ever in Mekka. They want to live there to the end of their lives, that their reward after death should be the better for it. They say that a murderer is held responsible for his crime and punished with a punishment due to his guilt, except in case he enters the city of Benares, where he obtains pardon. Regarding the cause of the holiness of this asylum they relate the following story: “Brahman was in shape four headed. Now there happened some quarrel between him and Śamkara, i.e Mahādeva, and the succeeding fight had this result, that one of the heads of Brahman was torn off. At that time it was the custom that the victor took the head of the slain adversary in his hand and let it hang down from his hand as an act of ignominy to the dead and as a sign of his own bravery. Further, a bridle was put into the mouth (?). Thus the head of Brahman was dishonoured by the hand of  Mahādeva, who took it always with him wherever he went and whatever he did. He never once separated himself from it when he entered the towns, till at last he came to Benares the head dropped from his hand and disappeared».

After Al-Bīrūnī many other Muslims joined Benares but with different purposes. In 1206 Delhi became a sultanate and the entire Ganges valley remained in Muslim hands for more than five centuries.

During this period Hindu religious life became difficult and temples in the town were destroyed at least six times.

In the sixth century an exceptional peaceful period has been guaranteed by liberal Mughal Emperor Akbar «who not only permitted, but in some cases sponsored the rebuilding of temples».

Policy changed with Akbar’s grandson Shāh Jahān and, mostly, with his successor Aurangzeb who destroyed some very important temples, building mosques in their place.

Thinking to fight against idolatry, Aurangzeb even tried to change the name of the town in Muhammadabād but without success.

Benares survived the Muslim violence continuing to be a strongly active intellectual and religious place[7].

In the Muslim period two important poets of Hindi literature lived in Benares: Kabīr (in the fifteenth century) and Tūlsi Dās (who translated important books of sacred literature, for instance Rāmāyana, into Hindi) in the sixteenth.

There is a fascinating legend about Kabīr deserving to be mentioned:

«[ Kabīr] was born a Muslim and was a pupil of a Muslim pīr, said some. He was a Hindu, a Vaishnava, a pupil of the bhakta Rāmānanda, according to others. When he died, it is said that followers of both religious traditions bickered over his remains. But when the cloth covering his body was lifted, there was nothing there but a spray of flowers. This apocryphal legend captures the essence of Kabīr’s own message: he would not be classified by any religion. He ridiculed with equal vehemence the sacred books of the Muslims and Hindus, the Muslim mullās and the Hindu Brahmins, the Muslim Mecca and the Hindu Kāshī».

At the end of the seventeenth century, the Muslim empire disintegrated. After a while, under the jurisdiction of Hindu kings, Benares came under British (more tolerant) administration. The town was rebuilt and modernized. Governor-General, Warren Hastings approved the plan for a Sanskrit College which was built in 1853. Fifthy years later an important pandit, Madan Mohan Mālavīya, started promoting the creation of a modern Hindu university, to preserve Hindu philosophical and cultural traditions training students in the modern sciences.

In this work he was supported by British reformer Annie Besant, third president of Theosophical Society, who lived long time in the town.

In 1916 the Viceroy of India laid the foundation stone of Banāras Hindu University (BHU).

Few more words about Benares today

«Benares is changing every day and has plenty of internet points» I wrote in one of my former books. At the same time, Benares is a kind of changeless place, representing a living expression of “abolition of time”.

The daily life of Benares is, even today,  marked by simple and complex rituals in front of Ganga or dipped in its holy waters. Very attractive is the evening event of Aarti (ritual offering of light to Ganga deity) in Dashāshwamedha Ghat.

In the introduction to this chapter, I didn’t hide some critical aspects of this very ancient and holy city because I think it is important to not loose a realistic attitude (when we think about Benares it is important to distinguish reality from myth and this is sometimes difficult for people whose attitude, to quote again Mircea Eliade, is “to think in mythical terms”).

However, in 5 years of experience, I saw some important improvements and I hope the town will benefit of general economic growth of the country.

It is important to underline that this growth should be managed in the proper way and that, in my opinion, some western ideals of French revolution and European process of secularization (focusing on human beings more than God or “tradition”) could be very useful in the developing subcontinent while some aspects of its traditional culture could be very helpful to the West.

As I told in the former chapters, I think the cultural exchange as to be mutual; a valid intercultural dialogue between the wisdom of the East and some social conquest of the West represents, in my opinion, a great challenge for the following decades.

Focusing again on Benares, I think a kind of positive western cultural contagion could be desirable for its future development and the improvement of its quality of life. Probably more than a traditional, sometimes useless, caste’s pride, dramatically common, still today, in this “holy and unhealthy” place.

[1] About the name Kāshi an important scholar,  Rev. M.A. Sherring, offer another eymological explanation:

«Whence it arose history has long  forgotten; but conjecture may, possibly, unravel its etymology. Among the descendants of [king] Ayus was Kāśa, whose son is noticed under the patronyms of Kāśeya, Kāśiya and Kāśi. The regal successors of Kāśi, and equally their subjects, were called Kāśis». (In: Sherring Rev. M.A., Benares, the sacred city of the hindus in ancient and modern times, Rupa & Co, New Delhi, 2001, pp. XVIII-XIX).

[2] Māhātmyas is a category of ancient literary works representing a glorification of a sacred place, god or ritual.

[3] Bakker H.T.-Isaacson H., The Skandapurana, Vol. II, Egbert Forsten, Groningen (Netherlands), 2004, p. 19.

[4] Diana Eck, Banaras city of light,  op. cit., p. 130.

[5] Doms work in the cremation grounds, selling the woods, collecting a tax for each corpse and managing the ever-burning sacred fire used for pyres. In the myth concerning king Hariścandra, he was bought, as a slave, by a Dom to do that kind of work.

[6] Bakker H.T.-Isaacson H., The Skandapurana, Vol. II, Egbert Forsten, Groningen (Netherlands), 2004, p. 58.

[7] «There were great masters of philosophy, especially of the schools of Nyāya (Logic) and Advaita (Non-Dualism). And there were masters of Sanskrit grammatical science». (In: Diana Eck, Banaras, city of light, p. 85).