Banaras is a strange city indeed. The visiting traveller soon finds himself swamped by a human mass denser even than in the other Indian cities. All types of animals wander at ease, without limits between their world and the world of men. Dirt, rubbish and disorder are omnipresent, incomprehensible to the organized and aseptic Westerner — to many Indians also — in the very narrow lanes that weave their labyrinthine way throughout the old part of the city. Banaras is a medieval city; dirty, bustling and disconcerting, where all extremes intermingle with no sense of shame. It is samsara, Becoming, in its barest expression.
When we finally manage to exit from the human swarm and reach the river, there is a complete change of scene. The Ganges, Mother Ganga that hugs the entire length of Banaras, seems to emanate a strange peace. Pilgrims from all corners of India make their ablutions and pray with a fervour that seems to have long disappeared from the West. The vision of Banaras from the river is fascinating and unforgettable, especially at dawn. If we have the time and sensitivity to absorb a little of this atmosphere, perhaps we will have an intuition of what the scriptures narrate, a glimpse of moksha, nirvana: eternity, the liberation of Time and becoming, the reabsorption into the Divinity that penetrates all.
Because this multicoloured and paradoxical city is, they say, Kashi, the most holy city in India, which has played a vast role in the history and development of Indian civilization. It is its religious and cultural capital, a city only comparable in importance to Rome, Jerusalem or Mecca. Banaras, like these other cities, symbolizes and embodies a whole civilization, the culture and aspirations of a people. From the genesis of known history, the name Kashi strikes a vibrant chord in the Hindu soul.
The Kashi Khanda (a portion of the Skanda Purana) exalts it as the most auspicious and holy place on Earth. Kashi: “the shinning one”, “the luminous one”. “Because that light, which is the inexpressible Shiva, shines here, let its name be Kashi”. Kashi is the only place before and after Creation, the point where it begins and ends. Kashi is not of this world. It is in the world, yet not limited by it. It is in the centre of the universe, yet forms no part of it. It is the resting place of the ashes of the whole Universe at the end of the cycle, when it is reabsorbed in the unmanifested God. In the first three yugas (phases of a cosmic cycle), Kashi was a city of light. In the Kali yuga, the time of spiritual decadence in which we find ourselves, we can perceive only an earthly city, but those with pure vision can see the real Kashi, the spiritual Kashi. When the great Bengali saint Ramakrishna, who had such a great influence over the rebirth of Hindu culture in the beginning of the 20th century, came on a pilgrimage to Banaras in 1868, approaching the city by boat, he had a vision of Kashi as a city of golden light radiant with spiritual vibrancy, as it is described in the scriptures. The real Banaras is the spiritual one, the external city is only its shadow.
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In all countries and epochs of time, there have been unique places, with a different “texture” to the rest, to which men have gathered to feel closer to sacredness. From the beginnings of its civilization, India was crisscrossed by a network of pilgrimage sites called tirthas (literally, fords). These countless peregrination sites have since remote antiquity interconnected the different peoples of India, helping to create a unity of civilization in a continent that has rarely experienced political unity, in the same way that pilgrimages to Santiago, Rome and other sites secured a sense of unity to Christianity in the Middle Ages. Originally on foot, nowadays generally by bus or train — which has considerably multiplied their numbers — pilgrims and sanyasis (renouncing monks) travel on the Indian roads to reach one tirtha or another. Amongst all these peregrination sites, seven cities stand out: Ayodhya, Mathura, Hardwar, Kashi, Ujjain, Dwarka and Kanchi. Amongst these seven holy cities, Kashi, Banaras, Varanasi has always been outstanding in its own light. In Kashi not only are all the gods present, but also all the other tirthas: Kashi is a microcosm where the entire universe is concentrated in a symbolic circle, a mandala.
The pilgrim who directs his steps towards a holy place is outwardly manifesting an interior journey. After great hardships and privations, he accomplishes at last to reach his destination, in the same way that the inner man, after an arduous journey, attains rest in the centre of his soul (atman). Kashi, as other places have done so in other civilizations, visibly symbolizes that invisible centre of man and the universe, a point without space and a moment without time which rests in the heart of the universe directing it from the inside without being part of it.
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Banaras is built in a half-moon shape on the left bank of the Ganges, where the river abruptly veers northwards. The right shore of the river is a sandbank that is submerged during the months of monsoon floods (July to September). This area is considered impure and remains empty, allowing the view to stretch to infinity and the sun to rise without obstruction directly in front of the city. With the entire city facing the rising sun and Mother Ganga, the goddess with a river body that cleanses the sins of men, Kashi symbolizes man’s aspiration to transcendence, the inner light of the human spirit, moksha. Whoever dies in Kashi, the city of Shiva, receives from him the knowledge which in turn converts him into Shiva, Absolute Consciousness. Because of this belief, to die in Kashi is a privilege. At all hours of day and night, the cremation grounds of Banaras function without respite. The smashana, the cremation field, a place that in any other Indian locality is considered highly impure and kept apart, is a pure place here, situated on the river’s edge for all to see. Death is ever-present in Banaras, totally integrated with everyday life. At any moment, it is possible to see a group of porters carrying a shrouded corpse on a stretcher, endlessly repeating: “Ram nam satya hai”: The name of God is Truth. On arriving at the cremation ground, and after a last bath in the waters of the Ganges, the deceased is laid upon a wood pyre that the eldest son will light, while the other male relatives contemplate as the material body of the deceased reverts to the five elements out of which it is composed. Supervising the smooth running of the cremation are the doms, members of a very low caste due to their daily contact with the dead, but that in Banaras enjoy a good economic position.
Throughout the length of the bank of Mother Ganga, the river that vitalizes and gives the city its raison d’être, great stone steps (ghats) provide access to the river. Throughout the day, on these ghats, we can see daily life carry on as it has been in India for millennia. At dawn, we can observe a devout crowd, amongst which are many pilgrims that have arrived from the remotest villages, taking a bath that will wash away their sins and performing their worship ceremonies (puja). Beside them, sitting under parasols to protect them from the sun, the pandas, low status priests, perform brief rituals and look after their clothes in exchange of a few coins. On some ghats, washermen vigorously slap their washing against stone slabs, and afterwards spread the multicoloured saris on the steps to dry. In other ghats, groups of buffalo flock, which will at dusk submerge in the river with obvious pleasure, leaving only their nostrils above water. The boatmen fish or gossip animatedly waiting for a customer, children run barefoot or play cricket while a barber shaves his client that like him is squatting on the ground. Strangely-dressed tourists go by photographing left, right and centre, often harassed by the locals offering all types of merchandise and services. Here and there sadhus (renouncers), wearing orange robes and shaven-headed or sporting long bears and tangled hair locks tied in a knot, stroll placidly or meditate by the riverbank. “Watching Banaras”, said the 18th-century traveller Samuel Johnson, “one can see all that India has to show”.
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Traditionally, education, from learning the first letters of the alphabet to the deepest spiritual knowledge, was carried out in India in small communities known as gurukuls or ashrams, which consisted of a group of students gathered round a guru (teacher). Kashi begun as a place where various ashrams were set up in which different teachers imparted their knowledge. Situated in an idyllic location, at the edge of the sacred River Ganga (Ganges), surrounded by forests and natural pools, it was then known as “anandavana” (forest of happiness). Very soon, it became a significant centre of teaching and peregrination. It is not by chance that Buddha, “the awakened”, gave his first talk — an event that Buddhists celebrate as the moment in which the wheel of Buddhism was set in motion — in Sarnath, on the outskirts of the city, probably even by then an important religious and commercial centre. The 5th-century Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fa-Hien mentions Banaras as a great centre of knowledge and teaching where Hindus, Buddhists and Jains lived side by side in harmony. Great teachers, amongst whom Shankaracharya and Ramanuja stand out, directed their steps towards Banaras to expose their interpretation of the scriptures here. Great philosophers and holy men somehow felt compelled to visit the city and discuss their doctrines and beliefs here. The majority of the great spiritual, cultural and even political figures that India has produced have been associated in a greater or lesser degree with Banaras. The city thus became a centre of attraction for saints, philosophers, scholars, and students. Even during the worst times of persecution and destruction of temples by fanatical Muslim leaders, teaching continued in people’s private homes. The highly decentralized nature of Hindu teachings assured its own survival. Banaras was the place by excellence for any student that wished to learn the traditional teachings and scriptures. Consequently, the Brahmins, a caste traditionally dedicated to the seeking of knowledge and teaching, constitute even today a much higher percentage of the population than in the rest of India. Banaras is a cosmopolitan city made up of people arriving from all corners of India, that congregate in different neighbourhoods according to their place of origin. In a religion without church or dogma such as Hinduism, the opinions of the pandits (Brahmin scholars that study the scriptures) of Banaras carry great weight even nowadays, and Varanasi continues to be an important teaching centre for Sanskrit, philosophy and music. Of course, not only the saintly and scholarly flocked and still flock to Banaras, far from it. This is also reflected in the scriptures: “For those who ignore the Veda and the sacred traditions, those lacking purity and good conduct, for those who have no other place in the world, Varanasi is their refuge”. From the earliest days, there is mention of bandits, courtesans and priests who abused people’s credulity. In a city depending largely on the continuous flow of pilgrims, their exploitation, cheating and plundering has a long tradition. In present times, this situation has not changed much, except that the numerous western tourists offer a new and ample source of business and plunder for the unemployed and hustlers that proliferate in the city.
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Nowadays, when English replaces Sanskrit as the teaching language and when the young much prefer to study computers rather than philosophy, pandits are getting rarer while the hotels multiply. However, Banaras continues to play an important part in the cultural and spiritual life of India. It has five Universities and many other institutions, and counts great musicians, writers, intellectuals and scholars amongst its population. The flow of pilgrims is incessant; all orders of monks (sanyasis) are represented in the city, where they continue to impart their knowledge from master to disciple. A city of light and darkness, virtue and corruption, peace and violence and huge contrasts, it seems to draw from these oppositions its energy, a subtle and strange influence that none who has lived some time in Banaras can help feeling.