Agehananda Bharati said that if you were to ask any Hindu which city they regarded as the holiest in India, they would not hesitate to name Banaras, just as a Muslim would not hesitiate to name Mecca (Hertel & Humes 1). Banaras is a very sacred Hindu city in Northern India which is dedicated to Siva, who in Hindu literature is responsible for the creation of the world, along with the other gods Visnu and Brahma (Bedi & Keay 1). Humans have inhabited Banaras since 1000 BCE, making it one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world (Singh & Rana 31). Banaras is located on the bank of the Ganges river which itself is considered to be the holiest of India’s rivers. There are over a million people tightly packed into the city and the buildings stand in such close proximity that there is barely even any room for the sun to shine (Bed & Keay 1). There are many reasons why Banaras is such a popular destination for pilgrims and tourists alike. Some prominent attractions include the Ganges river, the abundance of temples and lingas, and the belief that 330 million deities dwell in the city (Hertel & Humes 1). Although Banaras is revered for these things, it is important to note that it is the city of Banaras itself, which is said to predate even the gods, that renders the city sacred, not what is found within it (Hertel & Humes 1). Throughout history, Banaras has also been known also as Kasi (“The City of Light”), Avimukta (“The Never Forsaken”), and Varanasi.
Mythological sources state that Varanasi had been an Aryan settlement since the post-Vedic period (around 1500 BCE) (Singh & Rana 31). By the 2nd millennium BCE, Varanasi was not only known as a place of learning, but it was also famous for its industrial centre which manufactured fabrics, perfumes, sculptures, and more (Varanasi 2020). Kasiis the name of a Northern Indian Kingdom that Varanasi was the capital of during the 6th century BCE, which is when Buddha gave his first sermon nearby at Sarnath (Eck 2005: 778). During the three century long Muslim occupation beginning in 1194, Varanasi declined and many of the Hindu temples were subsequently destroyed (Varanasi 2020). Then under British rule in the 18th century, Varanasi became an independent kingdom (Varanasi 2020). For centuries Banaras was a forest which stretched beyond the urban centre or the “city”, and until the 12th century, the heart of modern-day urban Banaras was all forest with temples and shrines scattered throughout (Eck 2005: 778). The modern-day city is still considered a centre of Hindu learning as it was throughout the previous decades. There are many Brahmin scholars (pandits) who continue traditional learning, and the city has three universities, including the well-known Banaras Hindu University (Varanasi 2020). Banaras lacks authentic ancient buildings due to many of them having been destroyed over the years, namely during the Muslim period. These destroyed Hindu temples have been rebuilt multiple times – for example the Vishvanatha (Golden) Temple, one of the most famous temples dedicated to Siva, has been rebuilt 3 times. In fact most of the impressive places of worship in Banaras actually are Muslim mosques (Bedi & Keay 13).
The mythology of Banaras which describes Siva’s connection to the city, according to most texts, is that Banaras is where Siva’s pillar of light broke through the earth and pierced the sky, which gives rise to the name Kasi(“The City of Light”) (Eck 2005: 778). Another Hindu myth describes how Siva populated the city of Banaras with the whole pantheon of gods (Eck 2005: 779). The story describes how Siva wanted to settle in the city with his wife Paravati, so he sent down gods one-by-one to overthrow the king, but they all lost and yet were so infatuated with the city they stayed there. So, when Siva finally overthrew the king with the help of Visnu, all the gods including himself chose to inhabit the city permanently (Eck 2005: 779). Hindus believe that Siva lives in Banaras and protects it, and it is common for Banarsis to believe that Siva dwells in everything in the city, even the pebbles: “Kashi ke Kankara Shiva Shankara” (the very pebbles of Kasi are Siva) (Singh & Rana 30). It is also believed that those who live in Banaras are themselves a form of Siva (Singh & Rana 30). All over India Siva is worshipped in the form of lingas which are said to guide Hindus to nirvana (Bedi & Keay 6) .Yet in Banaras, the city itself is sometimes seen as one big linga because of Siva’s pillar of light (Bedi & Keay 6). Banaras is said to possess 100,000 lingas, andmany of them have been carefully described and enumerated (Bedi & Keay 6).
The city is also known as Avimukta because in the puranic literature Sivasaid “Because I never forsake it, nor let it go, this great place is therefore known as Avimukta (‘never forsaken’) (Singh & Rana 29). This name comes from the myths that the city was never abandoned, by humans and deities alike, even during cosmic dissolution (Singh & Rana 29). Many Hindus who were born in Banaras will identify as a Banarsi even if they had long since moved away (Hertel & Humes 1). Pilgrim’s who have visited the city once have been known to identify themselves as a citizen of the city, saying that they feel settled elsewhere (Hertel & Humes 1).
The Ganges river has a strong personal connection with Banaras due to the fact that it is said to have “fallen from heaven upon the head of Lord Siva, who tamed the goddess-river in his tangled ascetic’s hair before setting her loose to flow upon the plains of North India” (Eck 2005: 778). Hindus believe that the Ganga river purifies everything it touches (Peterson 3274), and in Banaras the smaller rivers called the Varanaand Asi merge with the Ganges, giving rise to the name Varanasi; there are also many kunds (sacred ponds) in the city (Hertel & Humes 3). The great stone steps are known as ghats which lead pilgrims from the city to the river to bathe, and on an auspicious day as many as 30,000 pilgrims may be up at dawn attempting to bathe in the Ganga (Bedi & Keay 7). Bathing in the Ganges in Banaras is said to be especially auspicious due to the fact that the water touches the bank of the holy city (Hertel & Humes 3).
Banaras welcomes more than a million pilgrims each year who go to experience a full range of rituals that are associated with daily, annual, and life cycles (Hertel & Humes 3). The Nitya Yatrais the daily pilgrimage which many devout Hindus perform, beginning with bathing in the Ganga in the morning, followed by worship at various temples (Singh & Rana 55). There is also a weekly pilgrimage, the Vara Yatra, and a monthly pilgrimage, the Masika Yatra, and a seasonal pilgrimage, the Ritu Yatra, and many more that range in duration and intensity (Singh & Rana 55). The most prominent rituals which take place in Banaras are the death rituals.
“Kashyam maranam muktih” – ‘Death in Kashi is liberation’ (Eck 1983: 325). Banaras is known to be an auspicious place to die, making death rituals very prominent in the city. Many elderly Hindus go to Banaras to die in special hospitals because it is believed that by doing so, they will receive the blessing from Siva which he gives to all who die in the sacred city (Hertel & Humes 3). According to most texts it is not death itself that grants liberation, instead it is Siva who whispers in the ear of the deceased the taraka mantra, which tells the secret of enlightenment (Bedi & Keay 12). This secret enables the newly deceased to cross over the waters of samsara to the far shore of nirvana, which is also why Banaras is known as a tirtha, or a crossing place (Bedi & Keay 12).There are two cremation ghats in Banaras, the Manikarnika and Harishchandra. Manikarnikais the more popular of the two, known as the sanctuary of death, which is at the centre of the city along the riverfront where the cremation fires are eternally burning (Eck 1983: 324). Hindus believe that the deceased will remain in heaven for as long as their ashes are kept pure in the Ganges river (Parry 24). The fact that the cremation ghats are within the city of Banaras differs from the rest of India where the cremation grounds are outside of city limits as it is seen as polluting, whereas dying and being cremated in Banaras is seen as a blessing (Eck 1983: 4). In these cremation ghats, more than 38,000 deceased Hindus are cremated per year (Singh & Rana 30). After the corpses are cremated, it is said that it takes twelve days for a soul to reach the distant shore of nirvana, which is an anxious time for the deceased family full of prayer with their Brahmin priest (Bedi & Keay 13).
The city of Banaras is known as the holiest city in India for a multitude of reasons. The mythology which describes Siva’s connection to the city and the rich history of the city itself shows that Banaras is an old and sacred place. Between the pantheon of gods who reside within, the bathing ghats at the Ganges river, and the temples and lingas, Banaras is a key destination for pilgrims. The rituals associated with daily, annual, and life cycles attract pilgrims and tourists alike to observe and partake in, notably the death rituals. Hindus flock from all over India to die in this city so at their time of death they will be instructed by Siva on how to reach liberation, taken across the rough waters of samsara to the “far shore” of nirvana.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER RECOMMENDED READING
Bedi, R., & Keay, J (1987) Banaras, city of shiva. New Delhi: Brijbasi Printers Private Limited.
Eck, Diana L. (2005) “Banaras.” Encyclopedia of Religion 2:778-779. Accessed January 28, 2020.
Eck, Diana L. (1983). Banaras: City of light. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.
Hertel, B. R., Humes, C. A., & Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (1998) Living banaras: Hindu religion in cultural context. New Delhi: Manohar.
Parry, J. P (1994) Death in banaras. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press.
Peterson, Indira Viswanathan (2005) “Ganges River.” Encyclopedia of Religion 5: 3274-3275. Accessed 1 Feb. 2020.
Singh, R. P. B., Rana, P. S., & Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2002) Banaras region: A spiritual & cultural guide. Varanasi, India: Indica Books.
“Varanasi”. Encyclopædia Britannica, s.v. Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020. https://academic-eb-com.ezproxy.uleth.ca/levels/collegiate/article/Varanasi/74835 (accessed January 28, 2020)
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Article written by: Michelle Karbashewski (February 2020) who is solely responsible for its content.