Why Varanasi is central to India’s Civilisational Ethos
The city’s many practicing religions, performing cultures, functioning society and self regulating economy, together create a cultural mosaic which embodies that old adage- unity in diversity.
May 30, 2020
Nesting peacefully on the banks of the Ganges, Kashi, more commonly known as Varanasi or Banaras, is a city that embraces death as equally as life. Because Hindus believe that dying in Kashi brings the soul’s liberation, Kashi is universally acknowledged as one of the nation’s holiest cities.
But there is so much more to Varanasi than the Ganga. After all, places are analogous with human beings. Each village, town and city has a definite past, a fluctuating present, and an uncertain future. Just like people, places also have a distinctive character, which its people forge out of their myriad lives. Varanasi’s weavers, wrestlers, pilgrims and the elderly all have endless stories that seamlessly weave into each other. Just as the weaver here spends days making a single saree — in a partially-lit room — the people and their shared spaces endlessly weave into a meta story.
That’s why Kashi is a shining mirror to India’s pluralism. As Diana Eck, the author of Banaras: City of Light says, “pluralism isn’t just diversity; it’s what we create out of it. Varanasi is one such microcosm of pluralism”.The city’s many practicing religions, performing cultures, functioning society and self regulating economy, together create a cultural mosaic which embodies that old adage- unity in diversity.
Consider this- While Kashi is widely acknowledged as the holiest of Hindu cities, it is also the place where Lord Gautama Buddha delivered his first sermon (dhamma chakkra parivartan) in 528 BC. It is also one of the holy cities of Jainism, given three Tirthankars of Jain religion were also born here. It is also one of the epicentres of the Bhakti movement (a religious-cultural movement similar to Sufism, dating back to Hindu medieval times). Guru Nanak Dev, founder of Sikhism, visited Varanasi in 1507 and was inspired by the city.
Varanasi is also the janm and karma bhoomi(birth and workplace) of Sant Kabir, Sant Raidas and Sen Nai, who opposed sectarian thinking, communalism and casteism. They were early pioneers of emphasising dignity of labour with spiritualism.
Varanasi is also famous for its Banarsi sari, which is the epitome of opulence and grandeur. Almost every Hindu woman yearns to wear a Banarasi sari at least once in her lifetime. Families make special pilgrimages, especially if there is a wedding in their family, to acquire a Banarsi. The superior quality of the cloth, its longevity, the fact that it is handwoven over months, the rich embroidery and that it originates in Kashi all make a heady mixture. A Banarsi is treated like a precious family heirloom, meant to be passed down over generations. It is a testament to India’s syncretic traditions that this world famous sari, that now has a Bollywood celebrity as its brand ambassador, was actually brought to Banaras by a Muslim- Maulana Alvi.
In fact, Muslims have contributed very substantially to Varanasi’s growth and prosperity. In the 16th century, Varanasi experienced a cultural revival under the Mughal emperor Akbar who invested in the city, and built two large temples dedicated to Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. Surprisingly, the Peshwa of Poona established the Annapurna mandir at the same time. Consequently, the earliest tourists began arriving in the city around this period. In 1665, the French traveller Jean Baptiste Tavernier described the architectural beauty of the temple alongside the Ganges. Subsequently, Emperor Sher Shah Suri invested heavily in improving the road infrastructure, extending it from Kolkata to Peshawar. During the British Raj, this same road was renamed to the now famous Grand Trunk Road.
These collective investments in Varanasi’s development contributed significantly in attracting India’s foremost writers, musicians, and socio-political activists. Munshi Premchand, an Indian writer famous for his Hindustani literature, Bhartendu Harishchandra, Jai Shankar Prasad, Dr Shyam Sunderdas and Acharya Ramchandra Shukla were all based in Banaras. Drawing from the city’s secular nature, each one of them created a symphony out of India’s many stories, that flowed like tributaries into the Ganga.
The city also boasts of four Bharat Ratnas (the highest civilian award of the Republic of India). Two of these are musicians- the Shehnai maestro Ustad Bismillah Khan, and Pt. Ravi Shankar, the renowned Sitar player. Like the authors of the city, every musician in Banaras incorporated the best traditions from across the world. It is a matter of great pride that the Banaras Gharana of music, which is dependent on Indian classical instruments and is largely in praise of Hindu deities, incorporates the Sarod from Afghanistan, as well as the Shehnai and the Sitar from Persian culture.
The other two Bharat Ratnas of Banaras include Lal Bahadur Shastri, the second prime minister of India and Bhagwan Das, an Indian Theosophist who was allied with the Hindustani Culture Society and who established the Kashi Vidyapeeth along with Mahatma Gandhi. Incidentally, Bhagwan Das vehemently advocated against rioting as a form of political activity, something which many affiliated to right wing regressive outfits in India would well to remember.
In fact, Annie Besant, the prominent British theosophist and supporter of Irish and Indian self-rule was drawn to Varanasi precisely because of these variables. In April 1911, Besant met Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya and they decided to unitedly work for a common Hindu University at Varanasi. The Banaras Hindu University started functioning in October 1917 with the Central Hindu College as its first constituent college.
Reconciling various philosophical tenets from Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Bahai, Jainism, Sikhism, Sufism, and the Jewish religion, Varanasi embraced them all, and fused them into something new. Banaras is the living embodiment of India’s civilisational heritage. Like India, this city is a melting pot of every religion, caste, ideology, philosophy, gender and region. It shows us every single minute it exists that people can live and co-exist together despite their differences.
The city’s and the Ganga’s purity (pavitrata) are not abstract concepts. They are the living embodiments of the notion that vasudhaiva kutumbukum (the whole world is one family). It is critical that we preserve and protect this most fundamental learning that India has to offer the world. It is critical that we protect Varanasi from the poison that is being injected in its soul by regressive forces who have dastardised Varanasi for their fascist agendas. This poison misuses Varanasi and the Ganga to divide instead of uniting people. It spreads hatred instead of love. It teaches cruelty instead of compassion. Frankly, this poison has made Ganga Jal (waters of the Ganga) into Ganda Jal (dirty waters of the Ganga).
Those who are committed to plural, secular and liberal values have surprisingly abandoned the defence of places and its stories. They have instead focused on exclusively protecting abstract values. This attitude is what has given a walk-over to regressive forces, who are free to misuse our heritage for their petty and divisive agendas. How long will we keep letting this happen? Do we think ordinary people are drawn to the defence of abstract values or things happening in their neighbourhood, that they can tangibly associate with?
It is therefore imperative that Varanasi be given the status of a living heritage city. What would this entail? Yes, on one hand, this would entail conserving the old city in Banaras, while developing the new city along the lines of Singapore. But it would mean giving the artisans of the city a sustainable means of livelihood. It means promoting weaving, zardoji, toy-making among other things. It would mean allowing Muslims in Varanasi to continue making the clothes for Hindu deities, something they have done for centuries. It would mean teaching pluralism and reconciliation in schools, so that our young reject sectarian thinking and focus on positive conflict resolution (that is a byproduct of the poison injected in the city). And most importantly, it means creating a new citizen, by borrowing liberally from what Varanasi has had to offer. Protecting Varanasi’s shraman culture (culture of inclusiveness) is the only way we can realise the values enshrined in India’s Constitution and protect India’s plural character. The survival of millions of people, their religio-cultural beliefs, their shared prosperity and indeed, India’s civilisation are linked to this.
Lenin Raghuvanshi is founder and CEO of People’s Vigilance Committee on Human Rights (PVCHR), a Varanasi-based NGO which works for the upliftment of the marginalized and Dalit rights. His work has been recognized with awards like Gwangju Human Rights Award (2007), the ACHA Star Peace award (2008) and the International Human Rights Prize of the city of Weimar (2010).