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By Swami Varishthananda

Varanasi: The city of Light

Once, some of us monks were taking a boat ride on the Ganga in Varanasi. Kashi’s son was our boatman. Kashi is the head of the family whose members have traditionally been the boatmen for the monks and devotees of the Ramakrishna Mission. Like the average Banarasi, he too is a great storyteller. Ours was primarily a non-Hindi-speaking group. But Kashi was not to be intimidated by this. As soon as the boat was free from its moorings, he started briefing us in his broken English: ‘Varanasi is famous for three things—learning, burning, and turning.’ Even as we were all intrigued by the ‘turning’, he went on to elaborate—with a great sense of drama— how Varanasi has been famous throughout its history for ‘learning’ and ‘burning’! He then asked us what it was that struck us as so very evident in Varanasi—this city of learning and burning? Before we could venture a reply, he added philosophically: ‘Squalor and dirt! And why is this so? The reason is that every time a senior officer decides to change the situation in Varanasi, he is transferred—that’s the “turning” part of Varanasi!’

Yes, this is the story of Varanasi, the city of ethereal holiness and sanctity. Situated on the western bank of the Ganga as it takes a northward turn in eastern Uttar Pradesh, it is bounded by the small tributaries Varuna and Asi which give it its name. This is the story of Kashi, the city of light and liberation, which name is derived from the same Sanskrit root as prakāśa, which means light—kāśayati prakāśayati iti kāśi. This is the story of the eternal abode of Baba Vishwanatha, the Lord of the Universe, the presiding deity of the city, the raison d’être of this ‘holiest of holy’ cities of the Hindus— a place of pilgrimage not only for Hindus, but also for Buddhists, Jains, and Muslims. This is the story of Benares, the corrupted English form of the original Pali ‘Baranasi’—the city of sannyasins and sages, of savants and scholars, of statesmen and stars, of saints and sinners. Finally, this is the story of the city which gave to the world the modern incarnation of Shiva—Vireshwara Shiva, Biley, Swami Vivekananda—who made the city the home of the Ramakrishna Mission Home of Service—the embodiment of his philosophy of shiva jnane jiva seva, service of God manifest in humans!

The Holy City of Vishwanatha

Once Swami Bhuteshananda, the twelfth president of the Ramakrishna Order, was reminiscing about his days with Mahapurush Maharaj, Swami Shivananda, the second president of the Order. Having gladly given his assent to Swami Bhuteshananda’s ardent desire to lead a life of austerity in solitude, Mahapurush Maharaj told him: ‘You go to Kashi; Kashi, the abode of Vishwanatha, is a place especially favourable for austerities’. This is the quintessence of Varanasi: its vibrant spiritual atmosphere. Hindu mythology asserts that this eternal city of Lord Shiva, which does not get destroyed during pralaya, is resting on the trishul of Shiva. Topographically, the three main Shivas—Omkareshwara, Vishweshwara (Vishwanatha), and Kedareshwara are indeed situated on top of three hills which constitute Varanasi. Even today when one enters the shrine of Baba Vishwanatha, as the Lord of the Universe is lovingly called by his votaries, after having taken a dip in the purifying waters of Mother Ganga and having wound one’s way through the reassuringly familiar Vishwanatha Gali (lane), and having paid one’s obeisance to Dhundhiraja Ganesha, in the midst of much hustle and bustle with sounds of ringing bells and chants of ‘Hara, Hara, Mahadeva’ reverberating all around, this dense spiritual atmosphere is palpable; it envelops perceptive devotees and raises their consciousness to the feet of the Lord, where it remains effortlessly held.

Entrance to Annapurna temple

The atmosphere of holy spirituality is undoubtedly densest within the precincts of the shrine of Vishwanatha, especially in the sanctum sanctorum; yet the whole atmosphere of Varanasi is spiritually surcharged and is especially conducive to religious and scholastic pursuits and spiritual growth. No wonder then that this city of celestials is home to all gods and goddesses, and attracts monastics and lay persons from all the various sects, denominations, and sub-sects of Hinduism.

golden spires of Vishwanatha temple

Across the lane that leads to the golden-spired shrine of Baba Vishwanatha, is the temple of Ma Annapurna. These two temples symbolize the essence of Indian culture, eloquently articulated in this well-known couplet:

Mātā me pārvatī devī pitā devo maheśvara;
Bāndhavāḥ śiva-bhaktāśca svadeśo bhuvana-trayam.

My mother is Devi Parvati; my father Lord Maheshwara,
my relatives are Shiva’s devotees, and
my home all the three worlds.

Even today, it is a treat to watch two Banarasis meeting within the precincts of these temples and joyously greeting each other with ‘Hara, Hara, Mahadeva, Hara, Hara, Hara!’

Both these temples have a number of smaller shrines within their precincts. Mother Annapurna’s is a ‘golden’ image with a bowl and spoon in hand—she feeds the entire universe with anna (food). Besides the image in which she is available for daily darshan, there is one made of solid gold which is unveiled for darshan only on the three days of Diwali. Devotees consider the darshan of the golden Annapurna to be especially efficacious for obtaining life-sustaining anna! On the last day of this darshan, the Annakuta (mountain of food) festival is observed in the temples of both Mother Annapurna and Baba Vishwanatha. The one prayer which all her devotees have in their hearts and on their lips is: Annapūrṇe sadāpūrṇe śaṅkara-prāṇa-vallabhe; Jnāna-vairāgya-siddhyarthaṁ bhikṣāṁ dehi ca pārvati. O Annapurna, who art ever-full! O beloved of Shankara! O Parvati! Grant us alms that we be firmly established in knowledge and renunciation.

Though the shrines of Baba Vishwanatha and Ma Annapurna are the principal temples of Kashi, Tirtharaja Kashi has numerous other shrines, including those corresponding to other important shrines of India—from that of Kedaranatha in the north to Rameshwaram in south India. In fact, there is a popular Hindi saying: ‘Kashi ke kankar sab shiv shankar; even the pebbles of Kashi are all Shiva!’ However, among the numerous shrines in this city of temples—each with its own uniqueness and glory—the important ones include the temples of Sankata Mochana, Durga Kunda, Kedaranatha, Kala-Bhairava, Vireshwara Shiva, Bindu Madhava, Tila-bhandeshwara, Bharata Mata, and Vishwanatha (at BHU).

The medieval poet-saint Tulsidas was one of Kashi’s famous residents. It was his daily practice to pour some water at the foot of a certain tree. A ghost who happened to live on this tree—and ghosts are known to be particularly thirsty creatures— was highly pleased with this service of Tulsidas’s and decided to grant him a boon. The devotee that he was, Tulsidas asked the ghost for a vision of Sri Rama. The ghost directed Tulsidas to a place where a discourse on the Ramayana was in progress and which Hanuman was attending in the guise of an old Brahmana afflicted with leprosy. Tulsidas went to the designated spot, recognized Hanuman, and was directed to go to Ayodhya for the darshan of Sri Rama. Tulsidas, in turn, requested Hanuman to remain in Kashi for the good of the world. Later on, digging deep at that very spot, Tulsidas discovered an image of Hanuman. This he consecrated as Sankata Mochana—the remover of perils. Hanuman or Mahavira is Rudravatara—the incarnation of Rudra-Shiva. He is a great devotee of Sri Rama. The temple of Sankata Mochana is an important place of religious worship and cultural festivities.

Next to Sankata Mochana is the famous temple of Divine Mother Durga—popularly known as Durga Kunda because it is situated beside a big tank with the same name. The Devi Mahatmya reminds us that people worship Mother Durga because—

Durge smṛtā harasi bhītim-aśeṣa-jantoḥ
svasthaiḥ smṛtā matim-atīva śubhāṁ dadāsi; 
Dāridrya-duḥkha-bhaya-hāriṇi kā tvadanyā
Sarvopakāra-karaṇāya sadārdracittā.

Remembered in distress you remove the fears of all beings, remembered in happier times you bestow the most beneficent 
of intellects; who other than you—whose heart bleeds for all—can remove poverty, unhappiness, and fear?

The shrine of Bindu Madhava

Varanasi has the unique distinction of having separate temples dedicated to all the nine forms of Mother Durga: Shailaputri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushmanda, Skandamata, Katyayani, Kalaratri, Mahagauri, and Siddhidatri, as well as to all the nine manifestations of Gauri. This is but natural, for Varanasi is the abode of all the gods and goddesses in their myriad forms.

Not only the gods, but all the tīrthas too reside in Varanasi. One of the most famous of these tīrthas is Kedareshwara. Situated on the banks of the Ganga, a steep flight of steps leads up to this temple with red and white vertical stripes painted on its outer walls in the fashion of South Indian temples. This linga of Shiva is svayaṁbhū, ‘self-manifest’. During her visit to this temple, Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi also confirmed the scriptural assertion that this self-manifest Kedara is the same as the Kedaranatha seated in the Garhwal Himalayas and that one gets the same religious benefits on darshan of either of these Kedara lingas. However, the location of this tīrtha in Kashi endows the entire Kedara kṣetra (territory) with power to directly liberate all persons who die within its territory, without even having to suffer at the hands of Kala Bhairava, the master of time. Incidentally, the Ramakrishna Mission Home of Service is located in this kṣetra of Kedara—the great liberator!

Another important kṣetra is the Siddha Kshetra, the ‘Field of Fulfilment’. Here, above the Scindia Ghat, is the temple of Vireshwara, or ‘Lord of Heroes’. It is said that the sage Vishwanara, yearning for a son, did tapasya here and was blessed with a son, Vaishwanara, through Shiva’s boon. Even to this day Vireshwara Shiva is propitiated by couples who wish to have a son. Swami Vivekananda’s birth too followed such tapasya by his mother.

Immediately south of Scindia Ghat is Manikarnika Ghat, famous throughout India as the cremation ground where Shiva and Parvati confer liberation upon departed souls. It is this Manikarnika Ghat, along with the Harishchandra Ghat, named after the famous king whose name is synonymous with truth and generosity, that makes Kashi famous as the place of liberation through death. This mukti is sought after by numerous devout Hindus, especially in their old age—and this was the ‘burning’ part of our boatman’s story!

To the north of Scindia Ghat is the famous temple of Bindu Madhava, the deity whom Holy Mother found to be jāgrata, awakened. Holy Mother also found Tila-bhandeshwara—the Shivalinga that keeps growing every day the size of a sesame seed, til—to be particularly awakened. The story of Kashi temples and of pilgrimage to Kashi remains incomplete without a visit to the Kala Bhairava temple, the guardian angel of Kashi. Kala Bhairava has dogs for his mount, and this makes us, the residents of Kashi, wary of harming even stray dogs within the precincts of the city.

Finally we have the modern Kashi Vishwanatha temple on the Banaras Hindu University campus. The uniqueness of this modern two-storeyed temple is that it has shrines dedicated to each of the five important deities of the Hindu pantheon—Shiva, Vishnu, Durga, Ganesha, and Surya—with the sun shining outside the temple! But that is not all; adorning the walls of this temple are murals depicting the best of Indian tradition, not just Indian religions—from health, through history, to harmony of religions. It is a rare treat to spend a few hours in this temple with a knowledgeable guide, to be educated about the best elements in Indian culture—grammar, chemistry, statecraft, language, and architecture; the spiritual tradition of the Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavata, and Durga-saptashati; the inspiring lives of saints and sages; family life and world peace; as well as Sankhya and Yoga. It also has the entire Bhagavadgita inscribed on its walls.

Kashi Vishwanatha Temple at BHU

Like the temple it houses, Banares Hindu University or BHU is also unique. Apart from being reckoned the largest residential university campus in Asia—its two campuses are spread over 1,300 and 2,700 acres respectively—it is a seat of learning for virtually every important occidental and oriental branch of knowledge. The 3 institutes with 15 faculties and 127 departments of the university provide residential educational facilities in a host of disciplines—from Sanskrit studies and theology to rocket, missile, and ceramic engineering—to tens of thousands of students on a single campus. The education is subsidized and places little economic burden on the students. The university also has a museum, Bharat Kala Bhawan, with nearly a lakh exhibits including a rich collection of Indian miniature paintings, sculptures, a rare philatelic and numismatic collection, unique textiles, and galleries dedicated to Alice Bonner, Nicholas Roerich, M K Gupta, and Pandit Madan Mohan Malviya, the founder of BHU.

There are two other universities in Varanasi— the Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapith and Sampurnanand Sanskrit University. Besides, the city is also home to two deemed universities—the Safia Islamia and the Central Institute of Higher Tibetan Studies, as also two autonomous colleges: Udai Pratap College and Agrasen Girls Postgraduate College. Apart from these institutes of higher learning, Varanasi has numerous schools and colleges as well as many trusts and private institutes committed to good education. But it is the pundits of Varanasi that are especially famous throughout the length and breadth of the country, not only for their depth of scholarship, but also for not accepting money to impart knowledge. This is true of both monastic scholars as well as householder pundits. It is remarkable that in these days of globalization and commercialization Kashi still has great householder-scholars painstakingly imparting knowledge even to pupils of great means without accepting any monetary remuneration.

Manikarnika Ghat: the moksa-ksetra

It was at Sarnath near Kashi that Bhagavan Buddha set in motion the ‘wheel of Dharma’ with his first sermon following enlightenment. Sarnath had a huge Buddhist monastery as well as three stupas and an Ashokan pillar with a lion capital on top. The Sarnath museum is renowned for its pre-Gupta and Gupta period sculptures, of which the meditative Buddha and the Ashokan Lion Capital are the most famous. Saranath is also home to the Mahabodhi Society, which was started by Angarika Dharmapala on his return from the World Parliament of Religions—where he had been one of Swami Vivekananda’s codelegates. With its many Buddhist and Jain temples, Sarnath is an important tourist and pilgrimage place for Buddhists and Jains alike. Varanasi and the neighbouring district of Jaunpur are also famous seats of Islamic studies. No wonder, this ancient city—‘older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and [which] looks twice as old as all of them put together’, as Mark Twain put it—has been described by Sir Edwin Arnold as ‘the Oxford and Canterbury of India in one’! So much for the boatman’s ‘learning’.

Varanasi: The City of Saints, Sages, and Savanths

Banaras, the city of Baba Vishwanatha, is unique in more than one way. Much of its history is yet to be written. It has rarely been an important political centre, and the rise and fall of its rulers throughout its long history has had little impact on the story of the city’s sanctity. What makes it special in comparison to such other ancient cities as Jerusalem, Beijing, and Athens is the fact that while the latter are moved today by an ethos very different from that which moved them in ancient times, Kashi, to a large extent, as maintained an age-old and hoary living tradition right up to the present day, and is therefore the cumulative face of the Hindu tradition.

The City of Shiva

Varanasi is the city of Bhagavan Shiva: Shiva, the Mahayogi, the lord of yogis; Shiva, the Nataraja, the lord of dance and music; Shiva, the jyotirlinga, the Light Supreme, Knowledge Supreme! Varanasi is truly the city of enlightenment, of illumination, of light.

Legend has it that when Bhagavan Shiva, the mountain ascetic, descended from the realm of perpetual meditation and married Parvati, daughter of the Himalayas, he chose the city of Varanasi, a beautiful place spanning a radius of fivekrośas (ten miles), as their home; a move that played a major role in the ascendancy of Shaivism in north India. Over the centuries, Kashi’s connection with Shiva became so firm that by the time of the Kashi Khanda, this city came to be seen as the ‘original ground’ created by Shiva and Parvati, upon which they stood at the beginning of time; a place from which the whole of creation came forth in the beginning, and to which it will all return in the fiery pralaya at the end of time. The legendary king Divodasa had once managed to occupy Kashi and evict Shiva and other deities on the strength of his virtue, dharma. After numerous efforts by the gods to induce Divodasa to err from dharma had failed, Shiva sent one of his attendants (gaṇas), Nikumbha, to empty the city for him. Nikumbha appeared in a dream to a barber, telling him to establish and worship the image of Nikumbha gaṇa (Ganesha) at the edge of the city. The barber did this, and Nikumbha Ganesha, the ‘lord of gaṇas’, became popular with the citizens of Kashi for granting boons to those who propitiated him. Now, King Divodasa’s wife, Suyasha, was childless. She worshipped Nikumbha on several occasions to get a son, but her prayers were not answered. Enraged, Divodasa ordered the shrine of Nikumbha Ganesha destroyed. This provided Nikumbha the opportunity to pronounce a curse on the king and have the city emptied of all its inhabitants. When the city was vacated, Shiva arrived and re-established his residence there. Apparently Parvati was not fond of the city at first, but Shiva said to her, ‘I will not leave my home, for this home of mine is “Never-forsaken; Avimukta”.’ Such is Shiva’s attachment to Kashi, the Avimuktapuri.

City of Saints

The legend of King Harishchandra is often narrated as the benchmark of an ideal life. He was known to always keep his word and never utter a lie. These twin qualities were tested heavily through various circumstances that led him to penury and separation from his family; but he never flinched from his principles. The sage Vishwamitra once approached him at Ayodhya and, reminding him of an earlier promise he had made, asked Harishchandra to give him his entire kingdom. Harishchandra immediately made good his word and started walking away with his wife and son, sans property, to Banaras. But the sage then demanded an additional amount as dakṣiṇā (honorarium). To pay this, Harishchandra, with no money at hand, had to sell his wife Chandramati and son Rohita to a brahmana family, and himself to a guard in charge of collecting taxes for the bodies to be cremated at the local cremation ground. Sometime later, Rohita was bitten by a snake and died. Chandramati took him to the cremation ground. Seeing her with the dead child, Harishchandra was stung by pangs of agony. But, duty-bound as he was, he asked for the taxes required for cremation. Chandramati offered him the only dress she had, the sari she was wearing, as tax. When she proceeded to remove her dress, the devas along with Vishwamitra appeared on the scene and, pleased with the unassailable character of the king, brought his son back to life, and offered a heavenly abode to the king, the queen, and all their subjects. This moving story is known to have particularly affected Mahatma Gandhi, who, after having watched a play on Harishchandra as a child, became deeply influenced by the virtue of truthfulness.

In keeping with this tradition, many great saints and sages made Banaras either their home or their workplace. Maharshi Veda Vyasa, credited with writing the Puranas and the Mahabharata, is reputed to have spent his life working in Kashi. He composed his Brahma Sutra in this very city. Sri Shankaracharya too came to Kashi and made it his workplace for quite some time—arguing that this especially sacred land would give him the zeal and energy to work in a more devoted manner. Many of his works were composed here in Kashi. In modern times, Swami Vishwarupananda also composed his Bengali magnum opus VedantaDarshan in Varanasi at the Ramakrishna Advaita Ashrama under very trying conditions.

The Bhakti Movement

jait pa~it pUDe n kae$, hir kae Éje sae hirka hae$.

Let no one ask a person’s caste or with whom one eats; devoted to Hari, one becomes Hari’s own.

This was declared by Ramananda (c.1400–c.1470), the pioneer of the medieval bhakti movement in north India. He belonged to the lineage of Ramanuja [this fact, though, has been contested by many Ramanandis] and lived a life of self-surrender and dedication. Once he went on a pilgrimage to south India. On his return, his companions refused to admit him into their fold, arguing that he might not have adhered to strict rules regarding food and other rituals during his long absence. This was a rude shock to him. He came out of the fold and became a liberal advocate of bhakti, and practised severe austerities at the Panchaganga Ghat in Banaras. According to him, Sri Rama was the Supreme Spirit and humanity was one big family.

Kabir: unconventional poet and mystic

Kabir (1440–1518) • The adopted son of a poor Muslim weaver couple, Kabir was not bound by strict rituals or religious discipline, which made him an unconventional poet and mystic. His life centred on Kashi. He could not formally claim anyone as guru because of his humble origin, but was drawn to Ramananda’s teachings. One day while Ramananda was going down the ghat for a bath in the Ganga, his foot touched a human body in the darkness. Startled, he exclaimed, ‘Ram, Ram.’ Immediately, Kabir got up and with folded hands announced that, since he had given him the Ram-mantra, Ramananda had made him his śiṣya—regardless of his religion. He also told him about his yearning to reach God. A pleased Ramananda accepted him as disciple.

Kabir was a saint of the masses. His simple compositions—dohas, couplets, and chaupais, quatrains—go straight to the heart, are easy to remember, and have remained immensely popular, enabling people to grasp the essentials of a simple and profound life in the spirit. His admonitions remain equally popular:

mala tae kr me< i)rE, jIÉ i)rE muo mahI—, mnva tae c÷~ idsI i)rE, yh tae suimrn nahI—. The rosary keeps moving in the hand, the tongue in the mouth, and the mind in all four directions; this surely is not remembrance.

Guru Ravidas (c.1398–c.1448) • Born in the cobbler community, Guru Ravidas (popularly known as Raidas) was a firm believer in karma. He did not worship any particular deity, believing in the one and only omniscient and omnipresent God:

k«:[ krIm ram hir ra"v jb lg @k n peoa,
bed kbed k…ran puratn shj @k nhI leoa,
jae$ jae$ pUijye sae$ sae$ kacI,
khE< rEdas mE< ta#k… pUju~ jake Qa~v na~v nhI< kae$.
Krishna, Karim, Ram, Hari, and Raghav—when none of them have been found near; and the old Vedas, rules of conduct,  
and Quran are none written in easy style; then whoever one worships turns out to be frail. So, says Raidas, I worship that 
which has neither any location, nor a name.

As news of this self-taught seer began to spread, people started thronging his humble abode seeking solace and advice. Conservative brahmanas of Kashi could not stand the popularity of this ‘untouchable saint’, and a complaint was lodged against him to the king on the grounds that he was working against age-old social norms. But when the king called Raidas to his court amidst an assembly of learned men, no one could match his spiritual knowledge and insights.

One legend describes Raidas as Mirabai’s guru. One of her compositions dedicated to Raidas lends credence to this belief.

Tulsidas (1543–1623) • The legend of Tulsidas’s passionate attachment to his wife Ratnavali (Buddhimati) is well known. Once when she went to her father’s place, Tulsidas followed her. Ratnavali felt shamed by his inordinate attachment and admonished him: ‘You have such fondness for this body of mine which is but skin and bones; if only you had the same devotion to Rama, you would not have had the fear of samsara.’ These words struck gold. Tulsidas abandoned home and became an ascetic. Not only was he able to redirect his attachment and convert it into bhakti, he could reach a state where he could say with the fullness of conviction:

sIya rammy sb jg jain,
kr%~ ànam jaeir jug panI.
Knowing the entire world to be permeated by Sita and Rama, I join my palms and offer pranams.

The literary excellence and popularity of his Ram-charit-manas, the Hindi rendition of the Ramayana, led Nabha, the author of Bhaktamal, to suggest that Tulsidas was Valmiki reincarnated. Tulsidas’s devotion to Rama found further expression in nearly a dozen works, including Vinay-patrika, Dohavali, Kavitavali, and Gitavali.

He spent a good portion of his life in Varanasi, where he passed away at Asighat.

Saints of Modern Times

Trailanga Swami image in front of Devi Mangala Kali, Trailanga Swami Math

Trailanga Swami (c.1607–1887), famed for his yogic powers, is easily the most well-known of modern saints who lived at Kashi. Having met him at Manikarnika Ghat, Sri Ramakrishna described him thus: ‘I saw that the universal Lord Himself was using his body as a vehicle for manifestation. He was in an exalted state of knowledge. There was no body-consciousness in him. Sand there became so hot in the sun that no one could set foot on it. But he lay comfortably on it.’ He is reputed to have lived for nearly 280 years, over half of which he spent at Kashi. He freely roamed the streets, living sometimes at Asi Ghat or Dashashwamedha Ghat, at other times at the Vedavyasa Ashrama at Hanuman Ghat, and finally on a huge block of stone in the open courtyard of Mangal Das Bhatta’s small home at Panchaganga Ghat. He could read people’s minds like books, and drank poisonous liquids by the bowlful without dying. Once he was put in jail for violating city laws. Soon he was found walking on the jail roof. The truths of the scriptures about God-realized souls were clearly manifest in his being.

Swami Bhaskarananda
Swami Bhaskarananda's Samadhi Mandir

Swami Bhaskarananda Saraswati (1833–1899) was also reputed for his austerity and saintly character. Getting deeply interested in spiritual life when he was only eighteen, he travelled all over India as a wandering monk for many years. But, ‘even though I practiced such austerities, I gained very little; ignorance and sorrow were as deep as ever. Finally, [in 1868], I sat down here in this garden [Anandabag,near Durga Mandir] and resolved, “May God be realized or may this body die.” Now, you see, I get a little abiding bliss.’ He too was reputed to have yogic powers, and had foreseen his own death. Though his influence spanned all sections of society, the transformation of character of several notorious pandas wrought by his influence is especially worth mentioning.

Swami Karpatriji (1907–1982) is a more recent figure who, renouncing family and all material luxuries, set out on his quest of the Unknown at the age of seventeen. Later he became a preacher of religion and did pioneering work in safeguarding the Indian tradition, having established the Dharma Sangha in Kashi for this purpose in 1940. He also published a Hindi daily Sanmarg, which reflected his religious and political views, and composed various books in Hindi, including Vichar-piyush and Ramayan Mimamsa. Karpatriji truly was knowledge, action, and devotion personified.

The Literary Tradition

Bhartendu Harishchandra (1849–1882) is known as the father of modern Hindi literature. A poet, dramatist, journalist, and critic, he successfully brought about the transition of Hindi from the medieval tradition (rīti) to the modern era. His writings are marked by remarkable realism and capture ‘the agonies of India: unrest of the middle-class, hopes and aspirations of the youth, and urge for progress and removal of injustice’. He was also a social and religious activist, an accomplished actor, polemicist, and wit. The Kavi-vachan-sudha started by him in 1867 was the first journal published in the Hindi language. He followed it up with the Harishchandra Magazine (later called Harishchandra Patrika), and the Balbodhini Patrika. He was conferred the title ‘Bharatendu, moon of India’ by his fellow Banarasis for his remarkable achievements.

Jaishankar Prasad (1889–1937) is credited with initiating the chhayavada movement in modern Hindi literature, characterized by romanticism, mysticism, and symbolism. Prasad is especially known for his prose writings, though Kamayani, an allegorical epic poem on Manu, is regarded by many as his best work. Apart from being a poet, he was also a philosopher, historian, and sculptor. His writings are an exquisite blend of art, philosophy, and history.

Munshi Premchand (1880–1936) is the penname of Dhanpat Rai, one of the greatest literary figures of modern Hindi and Urdu literature. Having lost his parents at a very young age, he faced poverty and struggle early in life, and these remained with him till death. His stories and novels reflect the harsh realities of life.

Premchand inaugurated the genre of fiction and made the short story a legitimate literary form in Hindi literature. His stories make a moral point or convey deep psychological truths. He was also active in the Swadeshi movement. In fact his very first collection of stories, Soz-e-Watan (Dirge of the Nation), was labelled seditious and destroyed. The first story of this anthology was ‘Duniya Ka Sabse Anmol Ratan, The Most Precious Jewel in the World’; and this was ‘the last drop of bloodshed in the cause of the country’s freedom’.

Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya (1861–1946) was a great patriot, eminent educationist, renowned journalist, prominent social and religious reformer, erudite scholar, able parliamentarian, and eloquent speaker. A giant among men, Pandit Malaviya not only helped lay the solid foundation of Indian nationalism, but also worked tirelessly, year after year, to build—brick by brick and stone by stone—the noble edifice of India’s freedom. He was one of the few individuals to become the president of the Indian National Congress thrice: at Lahore (1909), Delhi (1918), and Calcutta (1933). Among his many achievements, the Banaras Hindu University stands out as a lasting legacy. The university came to be known as the ‘capital of knowledge’ even in his lifetime. He chose Banaras as the site for this university ‘because of the centuries-old tradition of learning, wisdom, and spirituality inherent to the place. His vision was to blend the best of Indian education culled from the ancient centres of learning—Takshashila and Nalanda and other hallowed institutions—with the best tradition of modern universities of the West.’ And in this he was remarkably successful.

The Tradition of Music

In the words of Swami Vivekananda, ‘Music is the highest art and, to those who understand, is the highest worship.’ Banaras has its own rich and unique history and tradition of music. Shiva is the presiding deity of Varanasi; and he is the master of dance and music. According to legend, apsaras, gandharvas, and kinnaras have lived in Varanasi and contributed to its rich musical tradition.

The Buddhist Jatakas have many examples of highly talented courtesans with special talent in music and the arts. This tradition of music continued right down to the modern-day kathaks (hereditary musicians) and tawaifs (courtesans). The medieval Bhakti movement contributed greatly to the development and popular dissemination of religious singing and music. The bhajans of the medieval saints remain immensely popular.

(The Banarasi culture held a special meaning, especially for those who were nurtured by it. It symbolized a way of life, 
characterized by the twin features of mauj [enjoyment, conviviality, festivity] and masti [contentment, serenity, 
buoyancy, heartiness, and even recklessness]. … There was yet a third aspect that had a balancing effect on this mauj and 
masti that we shall call anasakti, or a detached outlook. Thus, while sipping honey from the flower of the jovial and ever-
festive City, it  was not unusual for Banarasis to withdraw from their gay environs and become otherworldly. In fact, this 
other-worldliness is so strong, so palpable, so nearly tangible in the ethos of the City, that it may have been almost 
impossible for Banarasis to remain insensitive to this underlying spirit of the place, and consequently, get lost in worldly 
                            —Varanasi at  the Crossroads, 718–9."

Many reputed gharanas or schools of music developed in Banaras over the last few centuries. These included the Senia (from the lineage of the illustrious Tansen) and Mishra (Prasaddhu-Manohar) gharanas in vocal music, Ramsahay gharana in tabla, Badal Mishra gharana in sarangi, and the gharanas of Mian Vilatu and Nandalal in shahnai. The nawabs of Awadh, the rajas of Kashi, and many other rajas and nobles who settled down in Kashi patronized music and the arts. Many musical styles— Dhrupad, Khayal, Dhamar, Dadra, Hori, and Kajri, among others— flourished in the rich environment of Banaras.

Traditional scriptural study at Kathiya Baba Ashrama

Banaras has produced a galaxy of great musicians who are revered as legends in their own right. Ustad Bismillah Khan, Pandit Kishan Maharaj, and Girija Devi are three famous names of recent times.

Ustad Bismillah Khan

Qamaruddin, famous as Bismillah Khan (1916–2006), spent his childhood in Varanasi, where his uncle was the official shahnai player in the Vishwanatha temple. He not only introduced the shahnai to the concert stage with his recital at the All India Music Conference at Calcutta in 1937, but also single-handedly took it to world renown. He received honorary doctorates from Banaras Hindu University and Vishwa Bharati University and in 2001 became only the third classical musician to be awarded the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian honour in India. Despite receiving such acclaim, he always remained his simple self. He believed that ‘musicians are supposed to be heard not seen’. In his last days he turned down requests from the central and state governments for treatment elsewhere, as he would not leave his favourite Banaras.

Padma Vibhushan Pandit Kishan Maharaj (b.1923) is one of the most renowned, respected, and admired tabla players of our times. Trained by his father, Pandit Hari Maharaj, and his uncle, the famous Pandit Kanthe Maharaj, he has dominated the world of Indian classical percussion in a career spanning more than fifty years, evolving his own style with its highly skilled layakari (perfect timing). He has been a versatile accompanist to a variety of genres of classical music and dance. He is also known for his talent for improvisation during performances, introducing the most complex tālas (beats) with odd numbers of matras (notes).

Girija Devi (b.1929) was born in a music-loving family of Varanasi and was initiated into music at the tender age of five. Known as the leading exponent of the Banaras gharana of thumri, Girija Devi has an amazing proficiency in a wide range of Hindustani vocal music: khayal, thumri, dadra, tappa, kajri, hori, chaiti, and bhajan. A recipient of the Padmabhushan and Sangeet Natak Akademi awards, her care for students is reflected in her successful career as a guru for over a decade at the ITC Sangeet Research Academy, Kolkata.

Swami Vivekananda once said, ‘Art, science, and religion are but three different ways of expressing a single truth.’ The saints, sages, and savants of Varanasi verily express that single truth in their own inimitable style. The resultant melody is vibrant Varanasi, the city of Shiva.

Varanasi: The Home of Ramakrishna Mission Home of Service

Varanasi holds a unique place in the Indian religious consciousness. In the Sanatana Dharma, all principles and practices which lead the human soul from its predominantly animal consciousness through human consciousness to divine consciousness have been accepted as valid and true. However, from time to time great saints, sages, and savants have come to propagate yuga dharma—that particular part of philosophy and practice especially conducive to spiritual growth in a particular time. Varanasi is the crucible in which such teachings must be tried and tested before they can be accepted by the world at large. This is an age-old tradition, known since the days of Maharshi Veda Vyasa and Bhagavan Buddha, who promulgated Vedanta and Buddhism from here, and continued in medieval times by Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya, and Vallabhacharya, who carried out philosophical disputations in Varanasi, establishing as valid their points of view, and writing their treatises. In modern times too, Swami Dayananda Saraswati and others did the same in this city of Varanasi. The Ramakrishna movement is no exception, and that the Ramakrishna Mission Home of Service—which has played a pioneering role in working out the spirit of this movement—has its home in Varanasi is no accident.

Origin of the Philosophy of Service

But to begin from the beginning, let us narrate a very pertinent incident from the life of Sri Ramakrishna. At the time of his pilgrimage to Kashi with Mathur Babu, when passing through a village near Vaidyanath, Sri Ramakrishna was struck by the poverty and misery of the villagers. He told Mathur, ‘You are but a manager of the Mother’s estate. Give these people sufficient oil to cool their heads and each a piece of cloth to wear and feed them to their fill once.’ At first Mathur was a little hesitant and said, ‘Father, the pilgrimage will require much money, and the poor are too many. I may later be in want of money if I begin to do all that. What do you advise under these circumstances?’ To this the all-knowing and all-loving Master replied, ‘You rascal, I will not go to your Kashi. I will remain here with them; they have none to call their own; I will not leave them behind and go.’ True to his words, he went and sat in their midst. Mathur relented; he ordered cloth from Calcutta and did as the Master bade him. Beside himself with joy to see the villagers happy, the Master bade goodbye to them and gladly resumed his journey to Kashi with Mathur. In this way Sri Ramakrishna corroborated and reiterated the teachings of the Bhagavata:

Lakshmi Nivas:Holy Mother stayed here from 5 November 1912 to 16 January 1913

यो मां सर्वेषु भूतेषु संतमत्मनमिश्वरं ।

हित्वार्चं भजते मौदयान्द्रस्मन्येव जुहोति स: ॥

If one disregards Me present in all as their soul and Lord but ignorantly offers worship only to images, such worship is as ineffective as sacrificial offerings made in ashes.

अथ मां सर्वभूतेषु भूतात्मानं कृतालयं ।

अर्हयेद्यानमानाभ्यं मैत्रयाभिन्नेन चक्षुषा ॥

Therefore, (overcoming the separativeness of a self-centred life) one should worship all beings with gifts, honour, and love, recognizing that such service is really being rendered to Me who resides in all beings as their innermost soul.

True to this spirit of worship of God in human beings, Sri Ramakrishna, like a kalpataru or wish-fulfilling tree, got Mathur to fulfil the needs of those who came to him!

On his visit to Varanasi, Sri Ramakrishna discovered the ‘how’ of the age-old Hindu belief that death in Varanasi gives liberation. The pilgrims took a boat ride on the Ganga. As the boat neared the Manikarnika Ghat, Sri Ramakrishna went into samadhi and saw Lord Vishwanatha himself whispering the supreme taraka mantra in the ear of the jivas from one side of the funeral pyre, and the Mother of the Universe removing the bondages of the soul and freeing it from the cycle of transmigratory existence from the other side. In modern times, the discovery of the ‘how’ of things has been the pursuit of science—and Sri Ramakrishna was a spiritual scientist without parallel.

Though not much is known of Sri Ramakrishna’s first visit to Varanasi, the year of his visit is very significant: it was in 1863, the year in which Biley—Vireshwara, Narendra—the Shiva-avatara Swami Vivekananda was born! Sri Ramakrishna himself narrated that he had brought Naren from the realm beyond the junction of the divisible and indivisible. Both he and Swami Vivekananda were born from that Indivisible Spirit for the good of the world in this age—one a form without a voice, the other a voice without a form! Again, Swami Vivekananda’s mother Bhuvaneshwari Devi propitiated Vireshwara Shiva in Varanasi for a son, through an aunt. Many were her prayers and fasts … and then she was blessed with the vision of Lord Shiva, rousing himself from meditation and taking the form of a male child who was to be born to her.

Swami Vivekananda and Varanasi

Swami Vivekananda had a deep and ardent devotion to Vishwanatha and to Varanasi, which is revealed in his numerous utterances and writings on as well as his few visits to Varanasi. Swamiji’s visits to Varanasi are particularly memorable. Here occurred that famous incident, between Sankata Mochana and Durga Kunda: Swamiji was being chased by a group of monkeys, but was unable to escape from them, when an old monk called out to him, ‘Face the brutes!’ Swamiji did just that, and the monkeys beat a hasty retreat, revealing to him the life-long lesson of boldly facing the brute. It was to Sri Pramadadas Mitra, the reputed scholar of Kashi, that Swamiji looked for answers to various scriptural questions during his Baranagar monastery days in the 1880s. He also shared with him his Master’s teachings and hoped that Pramadadas Babu would help him acquire funds for his Master’s memorial in Bengal. Unfortunately, Pramadadas Babu did not approve of Swamiji’s efforts. Subsequently, on his penultimate visit to Varanasi in 1890, Swamiji famously declared, ‘I am now leaving Kashi, and shall not return until I have burst on society like a bomb-shell; and it will follow me like a dog.’

Swamiji last visited Varanasi in 1902, after his second visit to the West. In that second visit to the West, Swamiji—the voice without a form—gave his message with no holds barred: a message of the glory of the Spirit! Human glory! ‘Tomorrow night I shall lecture on “The Mind: Its Powers and Possibilities”,’ he would announce, ‘Come to hear me. I have something to say to you, I shall do a little bomb-throwing. … Come on! It will do you good.’ And what bombshells: ‘You are the Personal God. Just now I am worshipping you. This is the greatest prayer. Worship the whole world in that sense—by serving it.’ While Swamiji was delivering his uncompromising message in the West, a group of youngsters inspired by his poem ‘To a Friend’ started the Poor Men’s Relief Association—a medical institution to serve the sick and the afflicted, especially the socio-economically disadvantaged—in Varanasi.

When Swamiji visited Varanasi in 1902, he was very pleased to see that these youngsters, inspired by his life and message, had started serving the sick in the true spirit, in right earnest. However, when he heard the name they had given their association—Poor Men’s Relief Association—he told them, ‘Let service and not compassion be your guiding principle. Transform your work into worship by looking upon all beings as manifestations of the Divine. No one but God can relieve the miseries of jivas. Who are you to conduct poor men’s relief ? … Name your organization The Home of Service—Sevashrama.’ In doing so, Swamiji was reiterating his Master’s words: ‘Who are you to show compassion? No, it cannot be. Not compassion for others, but rather the service of man, recognizing him to be a veritable manifestation of God.’ Later, when the institution became affiliated with the Ramakrishna Mission it came to be called the Ramakrishna Mission Home of Service. In renaming this institution—which enshrined his message— Swamiji clearly enunciated his philosophy and ethos.

Sri Sarada Devi

Ramakrishna Mission Home of Service, Varanasi, in 1936

The final stamp of approval on this legacy of Ramakrishna-Vivekananda, on this yuga dharma, came as usual from Holy Mother Sri Sarada Devi. Holy Mother visited Varanasi thrice. She visited first in September 1886, on her way to Vrindavan, like any other Hindu widow of her time, to assuage her grief at her separation from Sri Ramakrishna. One day, during the evening services of Vishwanatha, ‘her spiritual fervour was so highly kindled that unconscious what she was doing she walked to her dwelling place with unusually heavy steps. Questioned about it she exclaimed, “The Master had led me by hand from the temple.”’ Some devotees believe that during her second visit in 1895, she experienced first-hand that Sri Ramakrishna was none other than Baba Vishwanatha.

Holy Mother last visited Varanasi in November 1912, staying two months. Swami Gambhirananda describes that visit: The very next day Mother went to visit the deities Vishwanatha and Annapurna in a palanquin. On the day following the worship of Kali (i.e., November 9), she visited the Ramakrishna Mission Home of Service, where Swamis Brahmananda, Shivananda, and Turiyananda, Charu Babu (Swami Shubhananda), Dr Kanjilal, and others were present. Kedar-baba (Swami Achalananda) accompanied her palanquin and showed her round. When she had seen every department, she sat down and in the course of a conversation with Kedar-baba expressed great delight at all the houses, gardens, etc., she had seen, and the good management she had noticed. She further added, ‘The Master himself is present here and Mother Lakshmi is here in all her majesty.’ Then she wanted to know how the institution took shape and with whom the idea first originated. After hearing and seeing all about the institution she remarked, ‘The place is so fine that I feel like staying on in Banaras.’ Soon after she had reached her residence, somebody came with a ten-rupee note and handing it over to the head said, ‘Kindly accept these ten rupees as the Mother’s donation to the Sevashrama.’ That note is still treasured there as an invaluable asset. That day a devotee asked the Mother at her residence, ‘Mother, how did you find the Sevashrama?’ She said calmly, ‘I saw the Master himself present there, and that is why this work goes on here. These are all his work.’

Armed with this view of the Mother, Swami Brahmananda, when he saw Master Mahashaya (M, the recorder of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna) coming that way, sent some devotees and brahmacharins to ask him, ‘Mother has said that the Sevashrama is the Master’s work, and that the Master himself is present there. Now what do you say to that?’ Though Master Mahashaya was known to believe that it was contrary to Sri Ramakrishna’s teachings to engage in social service without first realizing God through spiritual disciplines like japa, meditation, and austerity, he smiled broadly and said, ‘It can no longer be denied.’ The sangha janani—the Mother of the sangha, of the whole Ramakrishna movement— thus put her stamp of authority on this yuga dharma.

Swami Brahmananda

Swami Brahmananda, who took over the reins of the Ramakrishna Mission from Swamiji, also loved Varanasi and the Home of Service and took personal interest in the construction of permanent buildings at the sevashrama. This work of construction was entrusted by him to another direct disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Vijnanananda.

An incident revealing his wonderful leadership may be mentioned here. At one time, there was some trouble among the monastic brothers of the two ashramas in Varanasi, especially in the sevashrama. Swami Saradananda, the general secretary of the Order, after personally investigating the matter, wrote to Swami Brahmananda that some of those boys were unfit for monastic life and ought to be expelled. But Swami Brahmananda forbade any action, and himself came to the sevashrama to set things right. How did he do it? Simply by requesting all to meditate in his presence and instructing them without making any distinction between the good and the bad. He resolved the entire issue by raising the consciousness of all concerned to a higher level!

As president of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, he too unambiguously declared, like Sri Ramakrishna and Swamiji: ‘Those of you who are working in the hospital will also be able to reach the goal and realize the Reality through the practice of pure, unselfish work.’ Again:

True it is that in all creatures He dwells, but His greater manifestation is in man. That is why Swamiji encouraged us to serve mankind. One must have faith that the one Brahman is in man, woman, and all creatures; and with that faith one must learn to serve Shiva in the form of jiva. As you practise this, suddenly one day the veil will be lifted and you will see that it is He who has become everything—man and universe. … You are that all-pervading Shiva; and thus can serve Shiva in the form of jiva.

It was also at the Varanasi Sevashrama that Swami Brahmananda recognized Sri Mahavira Hanuman attending the Rama-nama sankirtana.

Varanasi: City of Seva

Varanasi, early twentieth century

Varanasi has the unique distinction—Kolkata aside—of having been visited and sanctified by Sri Ramakrishna, Holy Mother, Swamiji, and all other direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna except Swami Ramakrishnananda. Swami Turiyananda, the great Vedantic monk and brother disciple of Swami Vivekananda, stayed at the sevashrama for the last three and a half years of his life, from February 1919, and guided the monastic brothers in their spiritual path through scriptural classes and satsanga. One day he proclaimed: ‘Remember that in this Sevashrama it is not hospital work, nursing a few patients, that is done; it is worship—worship of the Lord Himself. Have faith in the words of Swamiji who was like Shiva. Let your work in the Sevashrama be worship, and you will attain liberation. … Work done in the spirit of worship is the only suitable spiritual discipline for this age.’ He used to say, ‘If even for three days you serve in the right spirit, that is to say, as worship, you will have the vision of the Lord. Those who work in this manner realize this truth in the depths of their being.’

B K Paul Memorial Operation Theatre
Swami Shubhananda

Every year, on the Sunday following Swami Vivekananda’s birthday celebrations, Narayana puja and seva are conducted. In the morning, even as the worship of Sri Ramakrishna, Sri Sarada Devi, and Swami Vivekananda is performed in the temple, the monks and brahmacharins of the sevashrama go round the hospital and worship each and every patient with offerings of flowers, incense, and fruits and sweets, as also by touching their feet, amidst the chanting of Purusha Sukta, Narayana Sukta, and Vedic shanti mantras, to keep the ideal of service as worship burning bright in their minds.

The new hospital building

The Ramakrishna Mission Home of Service, Varanasi, truly embodies the spirit of the present age, the spirit of Ramakrishna-Sarada-Vivekananda and the spirit of this ancient land of Shiva. Vyasadeva has beautifully captured this spirit in his ‘Shiva Manasa Puja’:

आत्मा त्वं गिरिजा मतिहि सहचरा: प्राण: शरीरं गृहं

पूजा ते विषयोपभोगरचन निद्रा समधिस्थिथि: ।

संचार: पदयो: प्रदक्षिनविधि: स्तोत्राणि सर्वा गिरो

यध्यत्कर्म करोमि तन्त्दखिलं शम्भो तवाराधनम् ॥

O Shiva, you are my soul, the Divine Mother my intellect; my pranas are your attendants, my body your temple,

its sense-enjoyments your puja, and my sleep, samadhi.

Wherever I walk, I am circumambulating you; all my words are hymns to your glory,

and whatever work I perform is your worship, O Shambhu!

The Ramakrishna Mission Home of Service, which serves Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, agnostics, and atheists alike, is a living embodiment of the following verses of Swamiji’s poem—the poem which inspired the founding of the sevashrama and which vividly captures the spirit of the Ramakrishna movement:

From highest Brahman to the yonder worm,
And to the very minutest atom,
Everywhere is the same God, the All-Love;
Friend, offer mind, soul, body, at their feet.
These are His manifold forms before thee, 
Rejecting them, where seekest thou for God?
Who loves all beings without distinction,
He indeed is worshipping best his God.