The role of Varanasi in exalting Ganga’s identity

Varanasi: A timeless river of spiritual convergence, where every step echoes centuries of profound religious and cultural heritage
Shri Kashi Vishwanath Temple
Shri Kashi Vishwanath TempleWikimedia Commons

Elections may come and go, but the Ganga flows forever. I am strongly drawn to look again at this great river. Six headstreams, five sacred confluences, life-giver to the subcontinent’s northern plains, soul waters of ancient belief, play course of adventure-seekers. A celestial entity, the hard-won fruit of steadfast human penance in theology, an ecosystem that has degenerated into the cloaca maxima or big gutter of modern India.

Spread over 1.1 million sq km, the Ganga’s basin is home to a quarter of India’s population. It is an intricate web of tributaries, canals, waterways and run-offs.

The Ganga basin is described by the American architect Anthony Acciavatti, a Fulbright scholar who spent a decade plotting the region, as “the world’s most engineered river basin”, a veritable “water machine” and “a dynamic system, closely interconnected with the monsoon”. The river’s cultural depths are just as complex and layered, especially at Varanasi. It is Varanasi, or Kashi, that exalted Ganga’s identity across the Indic bandwidth to the extent that the mighty Mekong further east is named ‘Ma Ganga’, the mother river. A side note: Ganga water was the biggest kitchen expense of the Mughals since Akbar. There was a high-ranking officer who organised supply and storage of water pots from the river, reserved for the royal family.

Everyone we’ve grown up hearing of has come here: Shiva, Shakti, Nandi and Raja Harishchandra. Varanasi is the birthplace of four Jain Tirthankaras. The Buddha came here in the sixth century BCE and preached his first sermon to ‘the Five’ at Sarnath. Adi Shankara came arguably in the eighth century CE. It was Kabir’s hometown in the 15th century, and in the 16th century, Goswami Tulsidas composed the Ramcharitmanas and the Hanuman Chalisa here, changing the history of religion forever across north India. Carnatic eminence Muthuswami Dikshitar came here in his teens with his guru, learnt Hindustani ragas, and went on to become a pillar of Indian musical excellence. 

Kabir went to the Upanishads, to the earliest-known concept of a formless One who contained and pervaded all forms. The Upanishadic attempt to define the ‘unknown’ was expressed in many ways, and Kabir rearticulated this using phrases from the text in simple Hindi as ‘Jaise til mein tel hai, jyun chakmak mein aag/Tera Sain tujh mein hai, tu jaag sake toh jaag’ (Like oil in sesame seeds and fire in flint, so your Lord lies within you, awaken Him if you can).

The Sikh Gurus greatly cherished Varanasi. Guru Nanak came here in 1506, went to the then Kashi Vishwanath temple, met with pandits to discuss his views and collected verses of Kabir and other local saint-composers. The sixth Guru, Guru Hargobind, sent an emissary to spread his teachings. The ninth Guru, ‘Chadar-e-Hind’ Guru Tegh Bahadur, who gave his life in 1675 to protect religious freedom of Hindus, visited Kashi twice. His son, Gobind Rai, when barely six, came by with his mother on a journey across north India, and as Guru Gobind Singh, the Tenth Guru, sent five followers to learn Sanskrit and get higher learning before sending them as emissaries of the reformist Sikh faith.

In 1839, Maharaja Ranjit Singh covered the spire of the new Kashi Vishwanath temple with gold. This is the present structure, rebuilt in 1780 by Maharani Ahilyabai Holkar of Indore. The Maharajas of Nabha and Kapurthala donated towards the founding of a Sanskrit College in 1911 and Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya, founder of Banaras Hindu University, reportedly went in person to invite a greatly respected Sikh saint, Sant Attar Singh, to inaugurate it.

The Guru Granth Sahib includes verses composed by 15th century Saint Ramananda of Varanasi, an ardent follower of the inclusive Sri Vaishnava faith spread by Sri Ramanuja of Tamil Nadu. Ramananda himself was Kabir’s chosen spiritual preceptor; both Ramanandi and Kabir Panthi cults cut a wide swathe across north India.

Swami Dayanand Saraswati, founder of the Arya Samaj, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda showed up on Kashi’s ghats as a matter of course on their respective reformist missions in the 19th century. An intricate web of connections thus emanated from Kashi, weaving a warp and woof of spiritual sensibility over the Indian subcontinent across centuries and regions—a richly-textured weave of thought that included strands of both classical Hinduism and the reformist worldviews spun from deeply internalised values of Upanishadic philosophy.

While rejecting the ritualised classical approach to religion, such seminal Indian socio-cultural reformers upheld the inclusive philosophical core of Hinduism and its meditation, music and poetry. They honoured the centrality of Varanasi’s symbolic importance in the collective consciousness, in which the spiritual and temporal interfaced through the Ganga’s ghats. These physical steps to the physical water stayed the key metaphor for the journey of the soul towards its spiritual goal, in which ‘Hari’, ‘Shiva’, ‘Sain’ and ‘Tat’ (‘That’, the nameless and formless) often became interchangeable terms for the transcendental.

Varanasi was the cultural crucible for a spectacular range of ‘change within continuity’ and was both the place of and participant in these foundational narratives. These historical figures were drawn to Varanasi by millennia of mystique invested through the river of pilgrim life. That’s why almost every community and religious sect is represented in Kashi by its own temple, rest house and community hall. Every believer is supposed to make a pilgrimage to Kashi at least once and is likely to make their own emotional pact with this timeless river.

Renuka Narayanan

(Views are personal)


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