By Swami Harshananda
Kāśi (‘that which shines [because of spiritual power]’)
A pilgrimage to Kāśī (also known as Vārāṇasī or Banaras, in the State of Uttar Pradesh), a ceremonial bath in the river Gañgā and a visit to the temple of Lord Viśvanātha, has always been a lifetime’s ambition for an average Hindu, right from the ancient times. To him Kāśī has been
synonymous with Hindu religion, culture, learning, arts and crafts; in fact, with every aspect of Hindu civilisation. It is the only city in the whole world that has kept up its halo of holiness for over three thousand (or even more number of) years.
It is one of the three most holy cities, the other two being Prayāga and Gayā.
The purāṇas and the dharmaśāstras as also the digests have devoted thousands of verses to expatiate upon the greatness of this holy city.
The antiquity of the city is established by the fact that it has been mentioned in the Brāhmaṇas and the Upaniṣads in several places.
It appears that Kāśī was a country and its capital, Vārāṇasī. In course of time, the capital too got the same name. Other names of Kāśī are: Ānandakānana, Avimukta, Mahāśmaśāna and Smaśāna.
‘Banaras’ is the anglicised form of Vārāṇasī.
It got the name Vārāṇasī since it was situated between two rivers Varaṇā and Asī. This is now the official name of the city.
It was established by Divodāsa, a human incarnation of the god Dhanvantari.
Kāśī is reputed to have had 1500 temples at one time. Most of the temples are in a dilapidated condition.
The most important temples and holy spots which a modern pilgrim normally visits are the following:
The Viśvanātha temple; the Anna-purṇā temple; the Bindu-Mādhava temple; the Durgiana temple; the temple of Surya (Sun-god) at Lolārka; the Daśāśvamedha-ghāṭ; the Maṇikarṇikā-ghāṭ; the Pañca-gaṅgā-ghāṭ.
Lord Viśvanātha is the tutelary deity of Kāśī and his temple is the centre of attraction. Every Hindu of Kāśi is expected to bathe in the river Gaṅgā and visit the temple of Viśvanātha every day.
The Viśvanātha temple has had a chequered history over the centuries. According to Hiuen Tsang (7th century A. D.) there was a copper image of Deva Maheśvara, almost 30 metres (100 ft.) in height, at Kāśī. Between A. D. 1194 and 1585 it was destroyed and rebuilt many times. Due to a saintly brāhmaṇa, Nārāyaṇa Bhatta, it was rebuilt with the help of Rājā Todarmal in A. D. 1585. However it was destroyed by Aurangzeb in A. D. 1669 and a mosque was built on its ruin, which is still to be seen. It was Ahalyābāī Holkar who built the present temple during the last quarter of the 18th century. This temple is situated in a lane, next to the river Gañgā. It has a tower covered with gold-plated copper sheets which was the contribution of Mahārājā Raṇajit Siṅgh (A. D. 1780-1839) and is 4.5 metres (50 ft.) high. Only Hindus without caste-distinctions, are permitted inside. Behind the temple is an ancient well called ‘JñānavāpF (well of knowledge) which was repaired in A. D. 1830.
The Viśvanātha temple is surrounded by several other temples like those of Annapurṇā, Durgā, Gaṇeśa, Sanaiścara and others.
The Bindu-Mādhava temple is situated in the Pañcagaṅgā-ghāṭ where five rivers—Kiraṇā, Dhutapāpā, Gañgā, Yamunā and Sarasvatī—meet and merge. However only the Gañgā is seen and the other four are supposed to join it from below the earth.
The Daśāśvamedha-ghāṭ has been famous for centuries. Brahmā, the creator, is said to have performed ten Aśvamedha sacrifices here.
The Maṇikarṇikā-ghāṭ is, practically, a cremation ground. Bodies of the dead are cremated here in the belief that Siva liberates their souls. The pool of water here is very small. Near it is the temple of Tārakeśvara-Śiva.
The temple of Lolārka (Sun-god) is situated at the confluence of the river Asī with Gaṅgā.
Since ages, the Hindus have believed that death at Kāśī automatically gives them liberation. Hence, the number of persons, especially the old ones, living here, awaiting death, is quite large.
Those who take a vow to live in Kāśī till death, are expected to observe the rules of dharma very strictly and avoid all types of sins.
A very important aspect of pilgrimage to Kāśī is the pañcakrośī-parikrama on foot. Starting from the Maṇikarṇikā-ghāṭ, the pilgrim has to walk about 80 kms. (50 miles), in a semicircle, coming back to the same point at the end. The journey is to be covered in six days, offering one’s worship at the temples on the way and also piṇḍas (obsequial offerings to the manes) at the village Kapiladhārā.
Kāśī is famous for the various seats of learning. The Banaras Hindu University (BHU) and the Kāśī Vidyāpīṭha are the two most well-known institutions of this type.
- The Concise Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Swami Harshananda, Ram Krishna Math, Bangalore