A group of Brahmins who live by the sea do their meditations and ascetic practices each night on the shore. But each night demons come out of the sea and onto the shore and disturb these pious men; so the sage Agastya swallows the sea in order that the Brahmins be left in peace.

But now all of life, denied water, is in danger of perishing. But another sage, Bhagiratha by name, performs austerities, for he needs water to perform rites to honor his ancestors. He begs the god Brahma to let the Ganga (Sanskrit for the Ganges), who is in the Milky Way, fall to earth. Brahma counsels him to seek Lord Shiva’s help, for if the river were to fall directly onto the earth it would shatter the land in a great cataclysm, and only Shiva is powerful enough to break the river’s fall. read more

After Bhagiratha performs tapas (austerities) for countless years, Shiva finally allows Ganga to fall on his head and then run gently down the mountain slopes and fecundate the earth.

The mythic meaning of Ganga in prehistoric Banaras concerned process, cosmogony, continuous creative renewal, fertility. Ganga is a pre-Vedic, pre-Aryan deity. Long considered one of the ancient world’s four great rivers, Bernini’s fountain in the Piazza Navona in Rome has a statue of the Ganga (a bearded old man reclining beside a palm tree).

But in India she is both goddess and river. Both Vishnu and Shiva claim her as their consort, and in this she is unique among India’s goddesses. Her waters are liquid Shakti, divine female power, and sustaining immortal fluid, the mother’s milk of the cosmos.

Many tirthas — sacred crossings or fords — mark her course: Gangotri, her glacial source; Hardwar, where she breaks out of the Himalaya and flows onto the plains; Prayag (modern Allahabad), where she merges with another great river, the Yamuna; Kashi or Varanasi, where in a great arc she sweeps back to the north as if returning to her Himalayan source; and Ganga Sagara near Kolkata, where river meets sea at the Bay of Bengal.

Pilgrims bathe in her waters, cupping it in their hands and then returning it to the river as offerings to the ancestors and the gods. They present offerings of flowers to the river as they do to the deities in temples.

Chanting Ganga’s name relieves poverty, banishes bad dreams and protects one from falling crow dung. But also moksha (release from suffering) results from bathing in the river or being cremated on her banks. She is the Indian archetype of sacred water.

There are seven rivers of great sanctity in India: Ganga, Yamuna, Godavari, Saraswati, Narmada, Indus and Kaveri. But then every river is the Ganga, as is every stream, every body of moving water.

The river is not a symbol, but part of a living and sacred geography held in common by all Hindus. The universe is a living organism and each part is related to the life of the whole. In India there is no such thing as lifeless elements or inanimate matter; everything is part of a living whole. The cosmos is alive with interconnections and meanings.

On this view of things, a symbol is not something that stands for or points to something else, as does a sign; rather a symbol is the vehicle of movement from one level of meaning or one level of being to another. Symbols enable one to follow strands through the interrelatedness of the whole—up, down, back and forth, from heaven to earth and from place to place. The universe is woven on a loom by the maidens, Night and Day; if you follow any thread you will see it differently, and depending on where you are along its length, it will look to be part of various patterns and having different positions or functions in each. For example, along one thread: sun = fire = the right eye of the sacrificial horse = the human eye = Yamuna River = Pingala (a subtle channel within the human body that ends at the right nostril). Another thread: moon = soma (a heavenly plant) = earthly waters = human mind = Ganga = Ida (another subtle channel within the human body that ends at the left nostril).

Everything is a symbol because everything provides some entry into the web of relationships of which the cosmos is composed. But most important, on this view, the symbol does not point beyond itself to some other (greater?) reality, rather the symbol partakes of, is, that very reality in itself.

Microcosmically, India is pictured as an organic whole, a micro-universe with a full sacred geography. This living landscape is dense with significance: each and every village has its lord of place. But some places have particularly strong connections to the universe as a whole and they are called tirthas: fords, crossing places, in reality spiritual fords, places where it is relatively easy to cross from one dimension of reality to another; these are the great places of pilgrimage. These tirthas are places or parts of the earth that give ready access to the heavens; they are thresholds or doorways upward.

Tirthas and Avatars (that is, incarnations of gods come to earth) have similar etymologies: both imply a crossing over; both are doorways opened by hierophanies; they instrument the dynamics of movement up (tirthas) and down (avatars) along the threads of the loom-cosmos. The network of tirthas throughout India is the very bones of India as a cultural unit. There was little political unity in India’s history, but its unity was real nonetheless and was — indeed still is — constituted by its sacred geography: rivers, lakes, mountains, hills, forests, cities.

The life and movement of water have attracted devotees through the ages: motionless waters = the condition of pre-creation; but rivers, primarily the Ganga, are full of the energetic waters of life, and etymologically “Ganga” has the sense of going. In the Hindu view of things, running water is the chief agent of purification. To be touched by a breeze bearing but a tiny droplet of Ganga-jal will instantly erase the sins of many lifetimes.

After prying apart heaven and earth, establishing the sky between them and creating all the conditions for life, Indra fights with the serpent Vrtra who has coiled around the vault of the heavens and closed up the celestial waters. Victorious, the god sets the waters free to nourish the earth.

In taking three strides, Vamana, dwarf incarnation of Vishnu, takes back from the demons (the forces of chaos) the heavens, mid-regions and the earth for the gods. On the third stride his toe pierced the vault of the heavens and through this opening the Ganga (hitherto having flowed around inside a great cosmic egg) now flows into the heavens; she runs down the sky to the moon as the Milky Way and forms the calyx of the world-lotus; she splits into four parts and flows onto the lotus petal continents of the world. One part, the Alakananda, flows into India as the Ganga.

Because she descended to earth, she is also a place of ascent to the heavens — a tirtha. As she quickened the ashes of the sons of Sagara, she will quicken the ashes of all the dead. She is the flowing staircase to heaven.

Ganga is the god Shiva’s constant companion. She is continually falling from his locks to the earth and so her avatar-ship is a continuing process. Shiva’s bearing her fall is to involve himself in a relationship, not a one-time event. And Shiva’s wife, Parvati is jealous of her.

Ganga is an embodiment of Shiva’s Shakti, his active, creative female power. Shakti is Shiva-in-action. She bodies forth the living cosmos as the active creative principle. Without the power and energy of Shakti, Shiva is Shava, a corpse, for she embodies the vibrancies of both life and death. And Ganga = liquid Shakti. Pouring water on Shiva’s linga (his erect phallus, his masculinity, which is pure but unrealized potential) is to reiterate the descent of the Ganga to earth. The incandescence of the fiery linga is joined to the torrential energy of the celestial waters: male and female making love.

Ganga’s energy is benign, nourishing and peaceful; her destructive force is calmed and purified in Shiva’s hair. She accepts from Agni (the fire god) the burning seed of Shiva and becomes one of the mothers of Skanda, the war god. Ganga’s waters are the drink of life.

The most famous hymn to the Ganges was composed by a Brahmin who was outcasted for having had an affair with a Muslim woman. He went to Varanasi to try to restore his caste status but was not successful. So he sat with his beloved atop the 52 steps of Panchganga Ghat and as he composed a verse of poetry, the river rose one step; when he reached 52 verses the waters reached the couple and swept them away together in its purificatory embrace.

Varanasi Mind

Varanasi has many names: Kashi, The City of Light; Banaras, Full of the Juice of Life; Avimukta, the Place Never Forsaken (by the god Shiva); Anandavana, The Forest of Bliss.

Kashi, one of the many ancient and still current names of Varanasi means The Luminous, and so Varanasi is The City of Light. From the narrow lanes at the top of the ghats — the vast flights of steps leading down to the river’s edge all along its course through the city — the unceasing earthly drama of life and death (samsara) goes on, but from the river’s perspective there is a vision of transcendence and liberation (moksha).

Unlike other of the world’s ancient cities (Athens, Cairo, Jerusalem, Baghdad), Varanasi’s traditional history has continued uninterrupted since the 6 th century BC, moved by the same cultural ethos then as it is now.

Kashi is the whole world. All the world’s sacred places are here. Yet Kashi is also not of this earth. It is the still center, the hub, which anchors the incessant movement of time and space. Kashi is the permanent home of Shiva. And Kashi is light.

The name Varanasi names the two tributaries of the Ganga that lie on the northern and southern ends of the town, the Varuna and the Asi. They guard the city against the entry of evil: Asi = the sword; Varuna = the averter.

There is a saying that once Kashi is gained one should smash one’s feet with a stone so that one does not inadvertently or negligently lose this priceless treasure.

“My lingas are everywhere in Kashi, like little sprouts arisen out of sheer bliss,” says Shiva. Indeed the gods, once they have seen Kashi, feel dissatisfied with heaven.

Kashi transforms everything ordinary into the substance of Shiva. And Shiva is the god who challenges conventional distinctions between pure and impure and auspicious and inauspicious. So here in Varanasi, in Shiva’s home, the cremation ground is considered to be the most auspicious of places; and the cremation ghats, unlike anywhere else in India, are right in the center of the city. Living here is anticipatory participation in liberation.

In India, the singularity of things or events or places is not highly valued. Everything is part of larger interdependent wholes in which all the parts mirror one another in infinitely intricate patterns. So Kashi is important and supreme but it is not unique; and transposition of place for example is common. One place can be in many places. As symbols commonly condense the whole into the part, so that all the Vedas are contained in every single mantra, so all the universe is contained in a mandala or in a city.

Varanasi seems unfamiliar to us because unlike India’s and most of the world’s other major cities, which were built by foreigners (Westerners), Kashi was not. To visit Kashi is truly to be in another sort of place and in another era.

Varanasi has changed remarkably little in the past 2½ millennia. Rituals, caste status and dress are the same. The river is still the focus of the city’s life. Weavers use the same looms; the bullock carts, water wheels, farmers’ tools and earthenware vessels used in the nearby villages are today largely unchanged. It is said that if the Buddha were to visit Varanasi today, he would find it remarkably familiar, little changed from when he roamed the town 2500 years ago. The world has few places of which such a statement can be made.

There are more, and more varied, anthropomorphic deities now than then. But the hallucinatory power with which handicraft articles and textiles are displayed in the bazaars is the same — collective dreams; and here the eye becomes rapturous. Small shrines are transformed into magically illuminated grottoes at night. Banaras was then and is now a continuously streaming flow of dazzlement.

Sacred time is not time stopped, but another dimension of time in which time turns upon itself in circles, microcosmically. The sacrality of Varanasi is a synthesis of the fugitive and the timeless. Kashi’s glory and its paradox is that it makes the sacred dimensions of time fleetingly visible. Hindu thought is unique in that it begins with the premise that the so-called “real” world of perception and social convention is unreal and illusory and that behind it is a more real world that that illusion conceals. Kashi in its bedazzling power reveals other dimensions of time and is in this sense held to be immune from time.

Only the enlightened seer can truly see Kashi, balanced as it is in the Void on the tines of the god Shiva’s trident.

The pilgrims who come to Varanasi (and they come in droves) have the eyes of dreamers and look out at the world with curious inattention; but they attend to dimensions of reality which are overlooked by the scientific observer. Their true home lies in another world. Pilgrims and Banarsis both walk by day and sleep and dream by night in the company of their gods. This god-awareness is of extraordinarily relaxed fluidity, but rooted in a coherent metaphysics that operates at every level of reality from the most mundane to the most rarefied heights of speculation: “visions of truth in the depths of the mind when the eyes are closed” said Yeats, but Indians have the ability to see those same visions with their eyes wide open. In India intellectual understanding is nothing without spiritual practice and insight.

Kashi is a circular microcosm, a mandala, a diagram of a divine entity; it is the cosmos itself. For any manifestation of the sacred is everything, the whole of the sacred compressed into a single image. Ritual identifies individual and social destinies with cosmic forces. Kashi is a microcosm of the cosmos, of everything powerful and auspicious, and a microcosm of India too.

Man needs to find and locate himself at the center of the universe both easily, without any effort, and also with the greatest of efforts. The simple household altar puts the house and its inhabitants in the center of the universe easily; and so does circumambulating a temple or other sacred spot in a clockwise direction, for this is to identify the worshipper with the sun’s course around the earth and is regarded as life enhancing and bringing luck.

Pilgrimage accomplishes the same centering, but with relatively great difficulty. Without pilgrimage Kashi would be a decaying relic. It is the pilgrim who makes Kashi a living sacred reality. Varanasi is a city that ascribes sacred meaning to an organized space according to a sacred model (that is, pilgrimage routes and their associated shrines). The city has rarely been an important political center, and the rise and fall of kings has no importance in Kashi’s identity. It isn’t the events of its long history that make Kashi significant, rather it has such a long history because it is so spiritually significant.

During pilgrimage, caste distinctions are in abeyance. All join in the one caste of pilgrim, symbolized by shorn heads. Pilgrimage is an intentionally difficult journey of devotion. A pilgrim makes a journey to a tirtha to have darshan, a view of the sacred. Pilgrimage is metaphysical sightseeing. And there is no country in the world that is as busy as India in weaving profuse patterns of devotional mobility. Pilgrimage is moving out, away from home base. The transient pilgrim moves toward a relatively motionless goal, a state of being, the attainment of a numinous condition of motionlessness.

Kashi has five main pilgrimage routes in concentric circles, with highest potency at the center and diminishing towards the periphery

The Gyan Vapi, or well of wisdom, in the heart of the city is the center of the world.

Daily mundane life in Varanasi is like a myriad of sacred dramas being enacted, but they are inadvertently (unintentionally, unconsciously) sacred, and not performed for gaining merit or to be pious, but done wholeheartedly for the sake of themselves. And in this sense Kashi can be anywhere and indeed, Kashi is wherever you are.

The city has other than spiritual interests too: from the Buddha’s time it was a center of commerce, situated as it was on trade routes and about mid-way between the east coast and the northwestern plains at a fordable place on the Ganga. In the 5 th century BC it had a reputation as a center of learning and sophistication, relaxed urbanity, refinement, worldly accomplishment, business acumen, social finesse, humor and a cultivated sensuality; it was (and still is) known as well for its fine workmanship in textiles, bazaar guile and the cunning and chicanery of temple custodians, and also for its tolerance, flexibility and easy-going temperament.

The city was razed to the ground four times and four times rebuilt from scratch. It is rare in history that the architecture of a whole city concentrates itself, to the exclusion of other concerns, along the bank of a great river in a single unbroken, immense frontage as a salute to the Highest Powers. The crowds of pilgrims who are drawn to Varanasi are river-like formations: rivers and crowds — slow movers with inexhaustible impetus.

In Kashi, the river flows toward its source, backwards, back towards the origin of all, the most concentrated point of energy, the energy of creation preceding creation, pure potential. The energy of the outward flowing current gets progressively weaker as it moves away from the source. So Ganga, flowing here back towards potency, is extremely auspicious and powerful: destination is less powerful than origin; outward less powerful than inward; multiplicity less powerful than unity. Immersion in water symbolizes return to the primordial bliss of undifferentiated pre-existence, to integration with the All. And there is in Banaras an underlying perception of life as oneness, a cosmological sensibility of unity that leaves its imprint on the culture of the city. Everything is held together by a system of correspondences and likenesses: a sense of the relation between separated things, which cannot be explained. So the city strives not for perfection but for completeness, gathering together all the sacred places of India and making of them a single resemblance — Varanasi is India looking at itself. Without ever leaving Varanasi you can make a pilgrimage to all the sacred sites of India.

Varanasi is perhaps the world’s greatest example of a place where the occult is real, a place that has a form of organization where every component repeats on a smaller scale the same structure as that of the larger overall shape of the whole, as the structure of the veins of a leaf reiterate the root structure of the whole tree; or as every Indian temple is an image of the whole world. Every Indian temple seen from above is a mandala. And Varanasi too is a temple, a small-scale model of the cosmos.

Shiva says, “My lingas are visible everywhere in Varanasi, the Forest of Bliss [Anandavana], like buds bursting into life with blissful rapture.”

India’s genius, in comparison with most other cultures, is that it preserves and values that archaic element that continues to live in mythical time, the time before mundane time. Its citizens are continually acting in a sacred drama. Through re-enacting the myths, the exemplary deeds of the gods, cosmos emerges from chaos. Change yourself and you inhabit a renovated world.

Goddesses transform the abstract male principle into immediate, concrete experience. Ganga is liquefied Shakti or liquefied wisdom.

Waters are the reservoir of all the potentials of existence, virtual universes, preceding every form, sustaining every creation.

The origin of Varanasi: Seven men in search of a safe refuge where they can pursue their devotions appeal to Vishnu for help and he creates a mound of earth rising in the middle of the Ganga. First it is only one span in width, then it grows to five kroshas—the sacred circle of ancient Kashi.

The first Varanasi settlement was near the Varuna-Ganga confluence at the northern end of the city where there was an ancient ford, which predates even the arrival of the Aryan colonizers (1400-800 BC). There is evidence of Varanasi’s continuous habitation from 800 BC-1200 AD. The style of the mud huts of the fishermen and weavers of that earliest settlement dates back to neolithic times. This world of mud and water has changed little. The population has always huddled close to the river.

The height of Varanasi’s splendor was in the 11 th century AD. The main density lay to the north of the city’s present location, which was stately parkland full of hermitages and temples. Two great temples pierced the skyline: Bindu Madhava atop Panchganga Ghat and Vishveshvara set back from the river. The ancient Raj Ghat ford was a busy port with lots of cargo being loaded and unloaded. Camel caravansaries surrounded the edges of the city.

There are said to be 84 ghats for numerological reasons, but about 30 are identifiable. Today’s buildings date from after 1708 when the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb died. In 1738 Banaras became more or less independent under a Hindu raja. The temples were rebuilt and the ghats reconstructed. The rulers and the rich from all over India bought land and vied to build magnificent palaces along the river. The fine palace of Man Singh of Amber (Jaipur) with its beautiful balcony window (jharoka) still graces the ghats today.

Dasasvamedh Ghat lies at the busiest section of the river, named for the 10 horse sacrifices that were performed here by the Barashiva kings in the early centuries AD. Or perhaps they were performed by the king Divodasa on the order of the god Brahma, in the hope that he would commit an error in the complex rituals and spoil his flawless dharma, and so have to leave Kashi; in which event Shiva would be able to return to his beloved city, for the great and good king Divodasa ruled only on the condition that the mischief-making gods stay out of the Kashi.

Viewed from Asi Ghat — the southern-most ghat, where the river enters the city — at certain times of the day, the entire three-mile stretch of the city’s great arc seems to tremble, and specks of color seem to multiply, spread, condense and recede and Banaras takes on the sheen of a mass of glittering particles.

The rush and bamboo mushroom-shaped parasols “growing” out of the steps of the ghats are used by barbers when they shave pilgrims, but mostly by attendants who guard pilgrims’ belongings while they bathe.

Near Asi Ghat, at a deep water-filled tank, Lolarka Kund, an annual mela or festival celebrates the Sun dropping his semen at this place upon becoming excited or trembling (lol) when seeing a beautiful woman (or the beauty of Kashi). And here couples who have trouble conceiving a child come to ensure their fertility; for if the Sun found this place stimulating how could mortals not be similarly moved?

India intermingles religious and secular life at every turn, at every moment; Hinduism is not an otherworldly religion. It is a means of supporting and improving worldly existence. Moksha (spiritual liberation) and mysticism have never been of interest to or the concern of more than a very small minority. Religion is a system for the regulation of daily life in each and every one of its concrete specifics. The most commonplace act of daily life is a consecration.

And yet to live in the world of maya is to act in a masquerade and the idea is to transform all one’s acts into divine play (lila). Here even gods are approached with familial affection more than with awe.

The idea of Maya means that a Hindu sees the whole of the absurdity of human life — the comedy of existence including our most rarefied thoughts, greatest creations, heroic deeds, splendors and miseries — as residing in our own hands (a result of our freedom) and at the same time also as a phantom of our ignorance. It is the Hindus’ affection for the gods that makes belief in this antithesis — piety/skepticism — so poignant.

A Hindu temple is not a house of god; it IS the god: a crystallization of the god’s manifestation in architectural form. Every temple is planned and oriented to the four quarters using sophisticated mathematical systems. These rules facilitate the translation into stone (structural and sculptural) of metaphysics: permutations and combinations of squares, triangles and circles. Sculptors were often paid by the weight of the powder they chipped off the stone that day. A temple is in truth a monolith with a crystalline poem engraved upon it.

Sacred images are focusing points for the spirit — born in meditation and inner visualization, they should lead one back to that heightened state. As reflections of divine essences, they are doors between finite and infinite through which a devotee may pass.

The aim of temple arts, ceremonies and rituals is to transport the worshipper into a state of rapture, of heady intoxication. Devotees may become ecstatic.

Indian consciousness favors doses of sensory bombardment followed by doses of sensory deprivation: lights, music, perfumes, flowers, sudden noise, singing, rhythmical movement, surging crowds; and then fasting, yoga, meditation, reduced sleep, concentration on silent, solitary rites. In one context one is thrust into a maelstrom of noise, movement, color, and then in another, everything encourages one to turn inward.

This craving to lose oneself in uprushing rapture leads to a love of extravagantly fashioned images of the gods. But also these images adorn household altars, little suns around which domestic life revolves.

Even the yogi does not deny the sensuous, even sensory overload or sex, but attempts to transform it away from pleasure and procreation towards wisdom, freedom and bliss.

The linga (and the city of Varanasi is built around and exists because of a linga) is a sign, especially a sign of maleness. Shiva is the power of creativity; his seed is golden with the radiance of light, of the sun. In the cosmic day, Shiva is the pillar, the motionless monument of containment that rises upward like the phallus of the yogi, drawing in his seed. In the night Shiva presides over the periodical dissolution of the cosmos.

Anthropomorphic Shiva is not (except in a couple of temples) venerated as a central image in a sanctum, only his linga is worshipped in this way. And this is unique, for the other gods are worshipped in anthropomorphic form. Phallus and pillar are integrated in an upright aniconic column of fire. The jyoti linga is a stupendous image of the cosmic pillar, the axis mundi, joining the heavens, the earth and the underworld. The myth of the fiery linga begins and ends in Kashi. This is the place where light split the earth and where the skull fell —kapalamochana. Lat Bhairav, in the northern part of Varanasi, is the place where the jyoti linga erupted. Here a pillar has stood since at least the 3 rd century BC.

Shiva in anger and manifesting himself as Bhairav cuts off Brahma’s fifth head, the expression of his greed and lust for his own daughter. The decapitated head (as a skull) sticks to Bhairav’s left palm. Even death is afraid of Bhairav and he is rewarded with suzerainty over Kashi (the City Of Death) precisely for his transgressive act of brahminicide. But the murder of a Brahmin has to be expiated. Bhairav has to beg all over the world using Brahma’s palm-sticking skull as his alms bowl until his sin is atoned for, when the skull-bowl will fall from his palm. Having overcome death and being beyond time, Bhairav-Shiva is at the same time a murderer. Naked, howling and dancing, Bhairav reaches Kashi, and the skull (and the sin and guilt of which it is the manifestation) simply falls from his hand, breaking into a thousand pieces the second he set foot on the city’s hallowed ground. Here at Kapalamochana, Bhairav-Shiva will remain motionless in the form of the pillar of Lat Bhairav until the dissolution of the world. Kala-Bhairav is now the guardian and policeman of Kashi.

Bhairav’s penance is also the supreme religious discipline: the skull bearer is not only the model for the greatest transgressor but also for the most ambitious saint. And the ones freed from the worst transgressions devour those of others.

Ultimately, actions, failings and achievements do not have any metaphysical significance, being only the play of maya. Still, on the human plane actions do have consequences which only liberation, or mukti, can remove. But in Kashi where death is initiatic death, actions have no consequences. To die here is to be liberated from consequences, from karma. After dying in Varanasi, one only needs to endure bhairavi-yatana, a brief, intense, painful high-potency punishment that Bhairav homeopathically dispenses. The otherwise all-Indian god of death, Yama, the god who hands out the consequences of this life in the next, is not allowed in Kashi.

It is the transgressive sacrality of the wild demons — Shiva, Bhairav, Kali — that the local population of Banaras prefers to the more benign gods and goddesses; and this preference has a profound effect on the city’s temper. After all, Bhairav, the great sinner is in the end rewarded for his transgression.

Bhairav is also a guardian of Kashi’s boundaries, along with the gods Ganesh (Lord of Obstacles) and Dandapani (stick holder). Though the Muslims destroyed the temple where Lat Bhairav stood they didn’t (perhaps couldn’t bring themselves to) destroy the pillar. Qutb-ud-din Aibak sacked Banaras in 1194, two years after he began building his own pillar in Delhi, the Qutb Minar. Qutb means staff or axis, that which gives light or supports the sun, so there is a connection between Lat Bhairav, the Qutb Minar, the Ashokan pillars, Buddhist stupas and the even earlier Indra pillars — which kept the middle space (the earth) separated from the heavens and the netherworld — and Kashi’s linga of light. When new territories were settled, it was the Aryan custom to erect a sacrificial pillar (yupa) and a fire altar. All of Kashi is a great linga of light. And perhaps even India’s Muslim rulers in preserving the pillar of Lat Bhairav and in building the Qutb Minar were trying to harness the magical powers of the axis mundi, the linga of light.

Microcosm is not so much an image of the universe as an image of the creation of the universe — a dynamic not a static image, not a plan or formula but a process. The lanes of Kashi are like rivulets down which funeral processions flow toward the river, toward liberation from time.

Manikarnika is the 5 th of the five major Ghats. Asi, Dasasvamedh, Panchganga and Adi Keshava are the other four. The fifth is the center, the fifth direction; space, the fifth element,. Here the earth was created and will be destroyed. Here is the well that Vishnu dug at the beginning of time and the cremation ground where the cosmos will burn along with order at the end of time, the end of this cosmic cycle. Manikarnika is home to the waters of creation and the fires of destruction. Pilgrims bathe in the Ganges just next to the disposal of the dead on the burning ghat.

Vishnu carved out Manikarnika Kund with his discus at the beginning of time and filled it with the sweat of his austerities. He created Manikarnika, the world’s first pool dug at a time when Kashi was the only solid ground in the universe. Vishnu is the first laboring ascetic, and here he encountered Shiva.

When desire stirred the formless absolute, Brahman, it needed to create a second, and so it took the form of Shiva-Shakti, Spirit-Matter, bliss incarnate, and they took delight in this place. They created Vishnu, epitome of good qualities, to do the work of creating the world, so they could enjoy their bliss untroubled, and concern themselves only with granting liberation. Vishnu sat at his first creation, Manikarnika Kund and practiced austerities for 500,000 years. Upon seeing his devotion Shiva trembled with delight and his jeweled-earring fell into the kund. He granted Vishnu a boon. And all he wished for was to be in Shiva’s presence for all eternity.

Manikarnika is the tirtha’s tirtha, where all the other tirthas come to bathe.

Manikarnika burning ghat is the site of liberation for which Kashi is so famous. On Manikarnika Ghat is Tarakeshwar Temple — Taraka, the death mantra, the ferryboat mantra, the mantra of crossing over, whispered in the ear of the dying by Shiva himself, releasing the dying from further rebirth.

The corpse is dipped in the river before being hoisted onto the pyre. The eldest son, tonsured and dressed in a seamless white garment, circumambulates the pyre (but counterclockwise — for everything is backward at the time of death: even the sacred thread now is reversed and hangs from the right instead of the usual left shoulder) and lights it. The dead is now offered to Agni, for fire conveys the offering to heaven. The cremation is also sacrifice.

There is no mourning or wailing, which is said to be bad luck and anyway tears pain the dead; rather, there is an atmosphere of casual solemnity. When the corpse is almost completely burned, the eldest son takes a long bamboo stick and cracks the skull, which is necessary to release the soul from its entrapment in the body. After the body has been consumed the chief mourner throws a clay pot of water over his shoulder to douse the embers and walks away without looking back. The living have turned back and are separated from the dead, it is said. And they go forward for dancing, for laughter and for firmly establishing their long life.

Death is not the opposite of life for Hindus; it is the opposite of birth; it is a reentering into the world of pre-creation from which one emerged at birth.

The Doms, an untouchable caste, supervise the ghat. They sell the wood, collect a corpse tax and tend the sacred, eternal fire. They rake up the ashes and sift them for valuables before consigning them to the river. And here where individual life ends, the world is also destroyed. “Having become Time itself, I destroy the world here.”

Indian social order is based on the hierarchical interdependence of castes; the cosmic order is based on the web or weave made of the three qualities: ascending luminous sattva (Vishnu), rajas (Brahma), twisting and red with passion, and tamas, the darkness and dissolution of Shiva, which sets its stamp on Varanasi without diminishing its light. One can feel overwhelmed by Kashi’s tamasik darkness: the physical decay, the craftiness and cunning of those who prey on the pilgrim trade. Decay contributes to a sinking fear of all familiar structures breaking down, of order becoming chaos. Yet also there is richness and tranquility here; and confidence and certainty, in part due to the city’s sheer beauty and also to the presence and weight of nature, which you do not find anywhere else.

In Banaras, the body becomes smoke, which becomes sky. The ashes become water, a continuation of body matter in greater matter. As it dissolves life, Banaras has a power that is capable of dissolving mental structures too in very subtle ways.

Pure and impure are not ethical categories of antagonism for the Hindu but a religious polarity. Observing purificatory rules involves adhering to a strict and disciplined regime, sacrificing both comfort and convenience. Creating beauty amid circumstances both shoddy and full of privation is especially exciting.

Varanasi is a fortress of orthodoxy and yet breaks all the rules; Shiva is a transgressor. The symbiosis of the two arch gods, Shiva and Vishnu, at the well of Manikarnika, for example: Vishnu dug it and filled it with his own sweat. Shiva’s body trembled with excitement on seeing the well’s beauty and his jewel fell into the well. Granted a boon, Vishnu asked to behold Shiva and Parvati forever and that Kashi remain always in the Satya Yuga, the purest eon of creation when there was no decay, no downward, outward spiraling time. In Kashi both duration and the repercussions of conduct are denied. And this throws into doubt the very values of brahmanical tradition, since ritual in Kashi is irrelevant to salvation. And this also challenges the idea and institutions of renunciation. Liberation is no longer incompatible with the sexual and material pursuits of the householder. As India is the navel of the world, Manikarnika is the navel of Kashi. The human body is Kashi in microcosm: Asi = head; Varuna = feet; Manikarnika = navel. Manikarnika is the place both where the universe is created by Vishnu’s austerities, but also where it is destroyed at the end of each cosmic cycle. Then Kashi’s position on the tines of Shiva’s trident renders it immune from the convulsions of cosmic destruction, the great cremation of the macrocosm.

In Banaras, individual death is part of the process of cosmic creation. Cremation in Kashi is a prelude to being restored to life. Cremation is a sacrifice, a prelude to creation, a cosmogonic act. Humans’ last rites contribute to the rejuvenation of the cosmos. Cosmic regeneration is kept ongoing by the ceaseless cremations at Manikarnika. And this is the reason why the fire at Manikarnika must never be allowed to go out.

While Tantra favors amoral paradox, it is not immoral. It tries to pass beyond the play of opposites and is intensely religious, neither moral nor immoral: sexual meditation among the corpses. Traditional yoga eschews the senses for asceticism, but Tantra harnesses and enhances them for meditation.

Because of the absence of acts’ consequences in Kashi, for both virtue and vice equally turn to ash, Banarsis’ temperament is mixture of joie de vivre and bohemianism and unconventionality. This is overlaid with a persona of sheer traditional rectitude. Always room, even in the most serious religious matters, for humor: genial tolerance. Corpses may be stood up against a wall while the pallbearers stop to smoke a bidi. A streak of indolence allows the citizens to turn a blind eye to their city’s decay.

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Very early on Kashi became a center for the practice of yoga. And yoga was identified not only with spiritual liberation but also with the power of vanquishing death.

Yoga – 1) restoration and improvement of bodily and psychic health; 2) arresting the flow of time by the rhythmicization of breathing; 3) transcending the human condition through a reorganization of psycho-mental life to transform the yogi into a cosmos, a mystical body that, like Kashi, becomes a microcosm. The yogi employs the human body to transmute time into eternity.

The chakras — envisaged as flower-forms of lotus shape — are energy plexuses, which are junctions between cosmic and inner reality. Like the city of Kashi, our bodies too are sacred geographies, and one of the chakras, the one at the very top of the head, the so-called door of the sun or the thousand-petalled chakra, is called Kashi-puri, the city of Kashi, and is located at the apex of the human microcosm.

So there is a homology between the self, the city, the micro- and the macrocosm. And as the Ganga in Kashi flows back toward its source so the yogi redirects his own energy toward its source to recover the Unity of Being, to merge his self with the Absolute. In this his body becomes a sacrificial altar on which his ego, his self-identity, is burned up. Yoga finds a microcosm of the universe within the human body.

In the 1 st century AD Varanasi became part of the Kushan Empire, centered in Afghanistan. The contact between the artists of India and the naturalism of Gandhara resulted in the Sarnath school of sculpture. Then with the Guptas, India’s cultural life flourished. And at this time also Buddhism was Hinduized. Its Mahayana form stressed veneration and grace and compassion (karuna) and brought a plethora of gods back into what was originally a godless religion.

As the world is woven by the gods and Vedic hymns are webs stretched between heaven and earth, so Kashi has always been a city of weavers. Kashi was a cotton-growing region, famous for its fine threads of cotton, silk, and wool too. The patterns on the Sarnath stupa were transferred from textiles of the Gupta period but are probably older than that.

Though India is the world’s most strictly hierarchical society, still the outcaste = the godhead. Ultimately the sacred is indivisible: “filth and sandalpaste are one.” And yet at the same time India instinctively always withdraws from attempts at premature crystallization and takes refuge in the ideal of “infinitely polymorphous plasticity” (Hesse).

In the 7 th century AD the days of ancient abundance were over and a large group of landless peasants arose. India was not a country wrapped in lofty spiritual bemusement; the social and religious climate of Banaras was more like that of a pressure cooker.

This was when Bhakti developed. A dualistic devotional cult, in Bhakti the devotee’s soul does not unite with or become god, rather it becomes LIKE god. Bhakti tried without success to break down caste barriers, and this for social and political as well as for religious reasons.

Whereas bhakti loves what is nearest (soft, delightful, easy, but in the end nothing but full of sorrow), Buddhism loves what is remotest (a continual emptying and slaying of self — beyond good and evil, unconditional freedom). But both Buddhism and Bhakti, unlike Vedism and Tantra, emphasized the responsibility of the individual self

Just before the Muslim onslaught the cities of India, including Banaras, were prosperous and handsome, richly endowed with temples and tanks, palaces and parks bursting with vitality. From the 11 th century under Ghadavalas, Banaras enjoyed a period of great prosperity, another golden age. Still, it was a myopic time. The Ghadavalas skirmished with the Chauhans of Delhi and the mutual weakening this caused lay the country open to the Muslim invasions.

Very little of ancient Varanasi survived the Muslim invasions; virtually all of north India was left in ruins. Though it repulsed one early invasion, Banaras suffered others which it was impotent to resist. Qutb-ud-din Aibak attacked Varanasi in 1194 and systematically looted the city. 1000 temples were razed and 1400 camels were required to carry away the booty. Hardly a single shrine survived. Varanasi would be ruled by Muslims for 525 years. Aurangzeb even tried to rename the city Muhammedabad. And no major religious site in the city predates his rule. But the continuity of sacred sites and sacred geography was preserved, for the idol is the center of worship, the concentrated sacrality, and many were hidden away and preserved.

And Islamic culture had its riches too, architectural and intellectual and artistic. And it could be tolerant too: many of the temples were rebuilt under Akbar, though only to be systematically destroyed again under Aurangzeb in the 17 th century. It was the Marathas who rebuilt Varanasi after the Muslim centuries of destruction.

India — richly imagistic, tangibly spiritual; Islam (religion of the desert) — unadorned places of worship, simple ritual, absence of polytheism. Still, Bhakti and Sufism intermingled and brought about a spiritual intimacy of sorts between the two religions. And while living in Varanasi, Dara Shikoh, the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan’s son, translated the Upanishads into Persian with the aid of local pandits.

Islam had a lasting effect on Varanasi in the style and elegance of decorative arts and crafts. And this was counterbalanced by the folklorist, emotive, imagistic, visual sensibility of the Hindus.

In Varanasi a Hindu prince, Balwant Singh, proclaimed himself Raja in 1738 and built Ramnagar fort across the Ganga a mile upstream of the city. But from 1765 the Company began to assume control of Kashi. The British East India Company’s role in India was as if a multinational corporation ran a continent. The country was ruled from above by a stuffy class of white supremacists with no understanding of the country or their subjects.

The ruler at this time, Chet Singh, was pressured by the British Governor, Warren Hastings, to pay massive arrears in the rent on his estates. Unable to pay, Chet was forced to revolt. But first he went to Hastings, placed his turban in the Governor’s lap to conciliate him, but to no avail. His arrest was ordered and sepoys were dispatched to the Raja’s palace; but they had to march through a city that was hostile to them and they were unarmed. All 200 of them were massacred. The Raja managed to escape the city to the fort at Ramnagar by lowering himself from the palace to the river on a cord fashioned from turbans tied together. Hastings brought in reinforcements, but they too were massacred in attempting to take Ramnagar. But a few weeks later with more reinforcements the British drove Chet Singh out of Varanasi and the city came under British control.

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Varanasi is a city of holy men. To associate with a saint is like sitting near the perfume seller; though the seller sell you naught, yet you enjoy the scent of his perfume.

Kashi is the city of Shiva. It is the world’s original place created by Shiva and Parvati at the beginning of time when no other place existed. It is the place where creation came forth in the beginning and where it will return at the end of time. Kashi is the place where Shiva’s linga of light first pierced the earth.

A drought tormented the world and threatened the existence of the earth. Brahma saw that only Divodasa, a sage king, would be capable of reestablishing order. Divodasa stipulated one condition for him to accept kingship: all the gods must retire from the earth. This meant that Shiva would have to leave Kashi. The gods plotted Divodasa’s downfall for his just rule was threatening their power as their offerings and worship by humans had ceased. The gods decided to withdraw their cooperation with the powers of nature. Agni withdrew fire; Vayu, the wind; Indra, the rain. But Divodasa, through the power generated by his tapas, created his own fire, wind and rain.

Shiva suffered in exile on Mt. Mandara, a lover separated from his beloved. He and Parvati sought a way to create a flaw in the king’s dharma so he would fall from power. They sent yoginis to tempt the king. The yoginis infiltrated the city in many guises but for all their deceits were unable to create trouble. Still, they stayed in Kashi and never left. Then Shiva called the sun and sent him to Kashi to find some fault with the king. But after a year the sun found the king and his city to be flawless. Like the yoginis the sun too took refuge in Kashi. Shiva then sent Brahma who took the form of a brahmin and went to Divodasa to ask for his aid in the performance of ten simultaneous horse sacrifices. They would require the performance of incredibly complicated and exacting rituals. And if the king made a mistake, his perfect dharma would become flawed. Divodasa agreed to do the sacrifices and flawlessly performed them. Brahma, finding no fault with the king, did not return to Mt. Mandara but stayed on in Kashi.

Now Shiva was very disturbed. None of his emissaries had returned. Why should one ever leave Kashi where liberation is in the very palm of one’s hand? Shiva smiled to himself. He knew that Kashi would captivate anyone he might send there. But he sent all his ganas knowing that they too would not return. Shiva called Ganesh and sent him to Kashi too. And then finally Shiva called Vishnu who transformed himself into a Buddhist monk and preached throughout the city spreading the Buddhist message that samsara is not the work of a creator but appears and is dissolved of its own accord: there are no gods, preached the Buddha/Vishnu. Embracing these teachings contrary to dharma, the citizens went astray. The Buddhists succeeded in cracking the dharma of the kingdom. Divodasa’s power faded and the people’s dissatisfaction with him increased. Vishnu appeared at his court and said that Divodasa’s only sin was expelling Shiva from the city. Establish a linga for Shiva here and a chariot will take you to the highest heaven. Which Divodasa did, and then he was flown in a chariot to heaven. Shiva returned to Kashi in a chariot of which the Ganges and Yamuna rivers were the shafts, the two winds and morning and evening were the wheels, the sky was the umbrella, the stars were the nails that held the chariot together, the ritual gift was the axle, the mystical syllable was the seat, the Vedic chant was the footrest, and Mt. Meru, the flagpole.

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Shiva summoned the gana Nikhumba and ordered him to go to Kashi and empty the city. Nikhumba appeared in a dream to a barber and told him to set up a shrine to him at the edge of the city and worship him. He granted boons and fulfilled the desires of the citizens. Now King Divodasa’s wife worshipped him in order to get a son, but the wish was not granted and the king in anger ordered the shrine to be destroyed. Nikhumba cursed the town, and said it would empty of its inhabitants. Then Shiva arrived and took up residence, his ruse having succeeded.

Shiva is a many-sided god: wielding weapons and bestowing blessings; he is a yogi, an outsider, living in the Himalayan fastness; at the same time he is erotic, a city dweller. He cares not for purity or auspiciousness. He does not disdain the polluted and has no reverence for family, lineage or status, which are valued by Hindus. He wanders naked or is clothed in the bloody skin of a slain elephant or tiger. In the city he lives in the cremation ground and anoints his body with the ashes of the dead. He wears snakes for ornaments. He presents himself as inauspicious, yet his name, Shiva, means auspicious. Repulsive and attractive, both male and female or neither, he destroys yet creates, wounds yet heals. The sacred transcends conventional distinctions. And his city, Kashi, is both Anandavana and Mahashmashana: forest of bliss and cremation ground at the same time.

The god of destruction is a yogi for yoga is a kind of destruction, reversing as it does the very process of creation in a return to undifferentiated oneness.

Hushed silence is not a Hindu mode of reverence. To the Hindu, sights, sounds, smells, excited chanting, the clanging of bells the surging and jostling of crowds all contribute to an aura of sanctity. The Hindu appreciates the intensity of devotion brought to a place by crowds of worshippers: the pilgrim makes the tirtha.

The Gyan Vapi, well of wisdom was created in the beginning, before there was water on earth, by Shiva himself in order to cool the fiery linga. This is the world’s first pure water. And drinking here causes a linga to burst forth in the devotee’s heart.

Kedara Mandir — When Aurangzeb’s troops were destroying temples in Kashi (17 th century), they were met by a Muslim holy man who warned them not to touch Kedara. But they would not listen, and the commander entered the temple and slashed with his sword at the statue of Nandi, Shiva’s bull vehicle. And real blood flowed from the bull’s neck and the Muslims backed off in awe and fear.

The city with its gods is a mandala — a sacred circle that represents the entire universe, its powers, its interrelations, its grounding center. Its borders are guarded by fearsome protective deities.

While to a stranger the city may appear as a jumble — a disordered and crowded mass of temples and shrines — to the knowledgeable the city is an ordered whole, a structured universe.

Copyright © Martin Noval 2006