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Photo: Shobha Narayan
Photo: Shobha Narayan

Walking into the Ganga at Kashi

Saints and scholars, from the Buddha to Shankara and Ramanuja, has walked the path before me in this holiest of cities

This is my first visit to Kashi, even though, like many Indians, it has been part of my vocabulary and psyche since birth. When my grandfather lay dying, one of the things at his bedside was a small copper pot of Ganga water, collected at Kashi and to be poured into his lips when the soul left the body. My mother performed this act and, to this day, gains solace from it.

Today, Kashi is like any other dusty town in north India—a hodgepodge of streets, tightly packed buildings, street signs askew, chaotic honking traffic and the obligatory cow in the middle of the street looking bewildered but determined not to leave its spot.

Godowlia Circle is the main meeting point when talking to guides. Four roads lead away from it: one towards the Kashi Vishwanath temple, one towards Dashashwamedh Ghat and two others towards bazaars and shops. Rickshaw-wallahs call out to tourists—sitting on three-wheeled cycles, like a child’s tricycle on steroids, and just as gaily painted. Policemen in khaki ineffectually wave the honking cars and scooters around. It could be any dusty north Indian town, but it isn’t.

Kashi claims to be the world’s oldest continually inhabited city. Unlikely. That status probably goes to towns in the Levant—Jericho, Aleppo, Faiyum or Byblos, some of which go back to 4500 BC as compared to Kashi’s 1500 BC. A fair claim is that Kashi is the oldest city in India. Duck into one of the small bylanes that branch off the main roads and it feels like Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nizwa or any other ancient town in Mexico, Egypt, Morocco or Rajasthan. Cobblestone streets, tiny alleys, shopfronts displaying silver jewellery and locals in loose long clothes (perfect for the tropical weather) hurrying on urgent errands, picking their way through cow dung, stagnant water and stray dogs curled up on the street.

The streets are tiny and wind through a bewildering maze of shops and houses. One entire street sells paneer, one sells kachoris, one sells silver, one sells hand-stuffed beds and, to round it all off, there is hearty lassi and paan. Sacred food in Kashi is everywhere.

Kashi in the predawn darkness is magical. From the boat, the outlines of the two banks of the Ganga are visible, but not much beyond that. Birds chirp, a temple bell clangs, the oars slap softly into the water. On the shore, the dim outlines of the buildings can be easily be mistaken for outlines of trees. It truly looks like Ananda Vana, or Forest of Bliss, its most ancient name, given by Shiva himself, according to the Kashi Rahasya (Kashi’s Secret), a 16th century text. In it, Shiva says that in Kashi, his lingams (Shiva’s emblem) are everywhere, like little sprouts that rise spontaneously out of sheer bliss.

This is still true. Wherever you look in Kashi, it seems, there is a lingam. There are tiny street-side temples, 33,000 of them by one count, each of which holds a lingam. Our guide stops at a shop selling cigarettes, chips, betel paan and other miscellany. We peer behind the bottles to find a small stone lingam sitting next to the shopkeeper. Homes contain lingams, as do street corners. Black lingams are painted on walls, ceilings, buses, auto-rickshaws and tricycles that carry pilgrims from temple to temple. More than anything else, Kashi is Shiva’s city, his chosen place, one that he vowed never to forsake for all eternity.

Photo: Shoba Narayan

Much of the mythology about the city comes from the Kashi Khanda, a 13th century book of 11,000 verses in praise of Kashi, and part of the massive Skanda Purana, which talks about Kartikeya, the son of Shiva and Parvati, but also describes various pilgrimage sites.

Like much of this type of literature, the stories come in the form of a conversation between a husband and a wife—in this case, a short sage named Agastya and his wife, Lopamudra. The sage lists all the Hindu sacred sites that are capable of giving the four purusharthas, or the four objectives/goals of human life: dharma, or righteous duty; artha, or wealth and prosperity; kama, or love; and moksha, or liberation.

He proceeds to list out the names of these places, and I have to say that I don’t recognize a couple of them—perhaps these were the ancient names. They are Prayag, Naimisharanya, Kurukshetra, Gangadwar, Avanti, Ayodhya, Mathura, Dwarka, Badrikashram and Purushottam Kshetra. But nothing beats Kashi, he says.

The other story involves the sage and his wife meeting Skanda, or lord Kartikeya. When they sing his praises, Kartikeya replies, “I can go to any part of the world that I wish, but here I am, doing austere penances so that I can reach Kashi. I haven’t yet been successful. If anyone thinks that he can attain Kashi just by performing austerities, he is totally wrong. Kashi cannot be attained until one has the blessing of Shiva—lord Mahadeva. And if you are fortunate enough to reach Kashi, you would be foolish to leave.

“O Agastya and Lopamudra, you both are fortunate to have lived in Kashi. Please let me touch your body, which has acquired immeasurable holiness due to its proximity to this holiest of cities."

Having said this, Skanda reverently touched different parts of Agastya’s body as if he were touching the sacred soil of Kashi.

Too much closeness, you may think, as you visualize a god touching different parts (which parts?) of a saint’s body. But the story illustrates Kashi’s importance in the pantheon of holy places in Hinduism.

It was in Kashi that the first jyotirlingam, or Shiva’s shaft of light, appeared for the first time, something that I read about in Diana Eck’s comprehensive book, Banaras: City of Light. The 12 jyotirlingams comprise one of many Hindu pilgrim circuits; along with visiting all the Krishna temples and the four dhams in the north, south, east and west.

My mother wants to visit all the 12 jyotirlingams before she dies and every now and then, we plot her itinerary together—to Ujjain, Aurangabad, Dwarka and other locations where Shiva’s shaft of light made its appearance. Kashi, and I didn’t know this, is the original one.

It happened at the beginning of the Kali Yuga, the age in which we are living now. Hinduism’s view of time is expansive and would make productivity mavens who want to account for every minute of the day freak out. We have kalpas, manvantaras and yugas. The shortest is a yuga which is 432,000 years long. In the Brahma Vaivartha Purana, Krishna tells Ganga that the first 10,000 years of this Kali yuga will be good before humans sink into avarice. We are, thankfully, only 5,000 years in. I wonder if this destruction that Hinduism imagined is connected to the climate change and oceans rising that environmentalists talk about.

For our purposes, we can say that it happened at the beginning of time, which was the end of the previous age. There was nothingness. Shiva resided alone. He longed for company. So, he created Narayana or Vishnu, who slept in yoga-nidra (yogic sleep pose) on the milky ocean on a bed made of the coils of a giant serpent. From Narayana’s navel sprouted a lotus on which sat Brahma. In the vast expanse before time and creation, Brahma thought he was all-powerful, the original human. He grew proud.

Vishnu said, “Hey, you are not the all-powerful. Shiva is."

They fought for many aeons, a clash of the titans, a battle of egos.

Suddenly, between these two warriors appeared a great big shaft of light that pierced the heavens and then beyond and stretched downwards till infinity. Vishnu and Brahma stood stupefied and humbled.

Who are you, they asked. And why have you chosen this place to appear?

“I am Vishweshwara, the lingam of light and this place is Kashi, where I will live for this age and the next," said the glowing shaft of light. “People who come and visit me in this sacred city will be absolved of their sins and attain liberation from human bondage."

There was more. “When the next pralayam (apocalypse) happens, when the earth gets swallowed up by torrential floods and never-ending flames, Kashi alone will be held aloft on the tines of my trident. I will never forsake this city, and for this reason, it is called Avimukta (Never Forsaken)."

No wonder the people of Kashi have a certain je ne sais quoi about them. If I lived in Shiva’s chosen city; the place that he has pledged to save and cherish no matter what, I would feel pretty complacent as I ate my piping hot kachori breakfast too. “Kashi ke khankar Shiva Shankar hai," they say. In every stone in Kashi lies Shiva.

Merely living in Kashi assures protection, and on top of that, you have 33,000 temples to pass by and pray to, and the 100 billion Shiva-lingams that are supposed to be in Kashi. Heaven is guaranteed. The people of Kashi are aware of this. As we walk up and down the gentle slopes of Kashi, our guide smugly says that we are walking on the three forks of Shiva’s trident, the ones that will hold Kashi up above the swirling flood waters at the end of time. He glances at me as if to say, “Top that."

In another version of this story, Brahma and Vishnu decide to find out the top and bottom of Shiva’s shaft of light. Brahma flies upwards and Vishnu takes the form of a boar and digs deep. To no avail. Neither is able to reach the top or bottom. On the way to the top, Brahma sees a ketki flower falling down. He persuades the flower to lie on his behalf. When the two contestants meet back, Vishnu admits that he has not be able to touch Shiva’s feet. Brahma lies and says that he has seen the top of Shiva head. In anger, Shiva chops off Brahma’s fifth head with his finger nail. To his horror, Brahma’s skull is stuck to his hand. The reason: Brahma is a Brahmin and Shiva has committed the great sin of chopping off a Brahmin’s head. Brahma-hathya, they called it.

In Hinduism, there are five great sins: pancha maha papa. They are stealing, drinking alcoholic beverages, killing a Brahmin, lusting after your guru’s wife and associating with people who engage in these activities. This was probably written for young men who lived with their guru in gurukulas. The only woman they probably saw was their teacher’s wife. In today’s world, it could probably be rewritten as getting drunk, killing people, stealing, having extramarital affairs and keeping bad company. Shiva the ascetic killed a Brahmin—Brahma.

As penance for this sin, Shiva wandered the earth for 12 years, using Brahma’s skull as a begging bowl. In the end, he enters Kashi and the skull falls off. Shiva dances in delight. He is freed of this great sin, as is anyone who enters Kashi. For this reason, it is called kapala mochana—shedding of the skull. The logic is that if Kashi could help Shiva shed his sin, it can help anyone reduce their karmic load.

It wasn’t just Shiva who was attracted to Kashi. Every god resides here. For this, we have to go back to a virtuous king named Divodasa, who ruled Kashi. Every kingdom needs only one ruler, he said. So, if you want me to rule, Shiva must go out of Kashi, he said. So, the gods persuaded Shiva to leave Kashi. Which was fine, for a while. Then Shiva started longing for Kashi. He sent his ganas or minions to Kashi to try to persuade Divodasa to let him come back. Divodasa said no.

But the ganas were so taken up by Kashi that they stayed back instead of returning to Shiva. So, it was with the yoginis or female goddesses that Shiva sent, with the devas, the sun, the moon, the air and water gods. Pretty much all who came to Kashi didn’t want to leave.

Finally, Brahma came and asked Divodasa to do 10 ashwamedha yagnas (horse sacrifices) at the ghat that still bears that name. Even that was successful. Finally, Vishnu came in the guise of a saint and sowed the seeds of depression and dissatisfaction into this virtuous king. Ask Shiva to come back to Kashi, said this saint-astrologer-Buddhist monk (it varies in the tellings). Only then will you be happy. The king invited Shiva back to Kashi. A delighted Shiva returned to his city and has never left.

Kashi’s “misfortunes", as Diana Eck says in her book, began in 1194. Muslim invaders led by Qutbuddin Aibak looted the city. He destroyed close to 1,000 temples and built mosques on top of many of them. By some accounts, 1,400 camel loads of cash, gold, silver and jewellery were carried away as loot. This trend continued. The Hindus kept rebuilding the temples, the invaders kept destroying them—Firoz Shah in 1376 and Sikander Lodi in 1496. The Mughal emperor Akbar provided some respite, but this changed with Aurangazeb’s ascension to the throne. He destroyed some of the most important temples, including the Vishweshwara and the Bindu Madhava temples, and had mosques built in their place. They still exist to this day.

Today, the tiny lanes around the mosque and temple are tightly patrolled. I stand in a long line without mobile phone or camera, waiting to get into the Vishwanath temple. Inside, the Shiva lingam is small, relative to the monumental myth that surrounds it. I carry some milk and a bilva leaf known to be Shiva’s favourite. I pour the milk on top of the lingam and am quickly hurried out by the police and priests guarding the entrance and exit.

It is in the Kashi Vishwanath temple that the saptha rishi (seven sages) aarthi occurs at around 7pm every night. Shiva taught these seven sages or seven preceptors the secrets of yoga and then asked them to spread it to the seven corners of the world.

The sages were sad to be leaving Shiva, so the god taught them a simple technique called saptha rishi aarthi. Doing this, he said, would bring them close to him; and allow them to feel his presence. The saptha rishi aarthi is still done every day for this reason. Hindu rituals, in that sense, are like software coding: you do this and you get that. If this then that (IFTTT). Temple rituals build up “stacks of energy", says Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, founder of the Isha Foundation, in his blog.

Watching the saptha rishi aarthi at the Kashi Vishwanath temple is a surreal spiritual experience. The priests chant words that originated in the Sama Veda and are set in the Hindustani raag, Shree. Seven of them sit in a circle around the small lingam. They hold stacks of flickering oil lamps that they move in a synchronized way. Temple bells clang. All of it builds up a certain vibration that even the most sceptical non-believer can feel.

“What they build up in this temple in this one hour is phenomenal because they have a method—that is what a ritual is," says Vasudev. “Whoever conducts it, if it is done right, it will work, because it is a technology. These priests maintained the process. They kept well what is of some sanctity to them, and it still works fantastically."

Yogis can create good energy through years of self-cultivation. Rituals are a mass-market approach. They have been codified. Priests follow the code. Their actions create a certain impact on the devotees who stand witness. Godliness being transferred to the masses, who don’t have the wherewithal to engage in austerities or yoga. Ritual as a software code.

A 17th century Sanskrit compendium called Puja Prakasha—the elucidation of puja rites—by Mitra Mishra says that anyone who does the aarthi will dwell in heaven for “ten million kalpas (aeons of time: around 4.32 billion years by one calculation)". The practice of observing god in this pleasing, flickering light (much beloved by women too, who believe that they look better in candlelight) induces shanta-rasa or peacefulness when done in solitude.

The weird thing is that temples with their noise and chaos also create a certain peace for believers. The logic is to see inner light in this outer light; to submerge the ego into nothingness like how camphor burns, leaving nothing behind (somewhat akin to what contemporary artist Alwar Balasubramaniam talks about in his “untraceable" sculptures that evaporate into nothingness).

The saptha rishi aarthi at the Vishwanath temple induces, if not ego-sublimation, at least an element of contemplation. Perhaps, it is the way the priests chant the words; perhaps, it is the power of those flickering flames.

The saptha rishis are seven sages, but they are also preceptors who appear at the beginning of every Hindu age and give rise to all humans. Each age has a different set of seven preceptors. It bugs me that there are no women linked to these sages, because how can you create the human race by yourself?

These sages weren’t celibate by the way, even though pictures of them show old men with beards—monk-like in appearance. The seven original Vedic age rishis were Vasishta, Vishwamitra, Agastya, Gautama, Bharadwaja, Jamadagni and Atri. The age that we are living in now is called Vaivaswata Manvantara (or the age of the Vaivaswata Manu) that is enfolded into a longer time span called the Swetha Varaha Kalpa.

The Kali Yuga we are living in now lasts 432,000 years—2016 is the year 5106, so we have a way to go before even this age ends. The Hindu unit of time is mindbogglingly micro and macro at the same time. Yugas multiply into kalpas, which in turn make up manvantaras, which all end up as a day in Brahma’s life.

In our time, the seven sages who are worshipped with the aarthi in the Kashi Vishwanath temple are Vasishta, Vishwamitra, Gautama, Bharadwaja, Jamadagni, Atri and Kashyapa (who has taken Agastya’s place).

Walking along the ghats is the best way to experience Kashi. There were 84 ghats on the Ganga, an auspicious number chosen presumably by multiplying the 12 zodiac signs or rashis into the seven sheaths that a human body is supposed to have. Today, only about 30 ghats remain. Of these, five are especially important: Assi, Dashashwamedh, Manikarnika, Pancha Ganga and Adi Keshava.

The ghats are a hive of activity in the morning. I follow a couple as they walk down the steps into the Ganga. Both stand waist-deep in the river, take a handful of the water, hold it cupped in their hands, stare at the rising sun, mutter some prayers and gracefully offer it back to the river. I force myself to follow suit. I have come dressed for a dip in the Ganga—in light easy-drying clothes. I stand at the water’s edge.

A few minutes later, I turn back resolutely and walk up the steps. I cannot do it. I cannot bring myself to jump into her brown depths. Mind has won over myth—at least for now. At the top of the ghat, under a banyan tree, sits a snake charmer. I sit before him and watch him play his flute to make two snakes curve and dance sinuously. It is a quintessentially Indian scene: a snake charmer wearing a turban, behind him a vermilion streaked banyan tree, and behind it the Ganga.

Photo: Shoba Narayan
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Photo: Shoba Narayan

Kashi is the only place where the Ganga changes course. From her origin in Gangotri in the Himalayas, the 2,510-km-long river flows southwards, except in Kashi, where she makes a sweeping U-turn and flows northwards as if back to her source, or as if—as the people of Kashi say—she cannot bear to leave the city.

On my last day in Kashi, I stand on the banks of the Ganga before dawn, trying to figure out how I feel about the place. It occurs to me that I love this river. I love the impetuous imagery of young Ganga descending from the heavens; I love the fact that she purifies, not just the body but also mind, heart and soul. Just seeing the Ganga makes me happy in a way that makes no sense.

The Danube is much more picturesque; the Seine just as poetic; the Potomac certainly far cleaner. Then, why am I drawn to the Ganga? It is as Nehru said: “The Ganga especially is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her racial memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India’s age-long culture and civilization, ever-changing, ever-flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga."

As the sun rises, I start walking into the Ganga. The water is icy cold. The orange orb that is rising on the horizon beckons me forward. Keep going, I tell myself as I feel the spongy earth underneath me. Remember the saints and scholars who have walked this path. The Buddha probably bathed in this river, exactly at this very spot. As did Shankara, Ramanuja, Madhva and every Hindu philosopher worth his salt. They dipped into this holy river and achieved enlightenment. Poets and prime ministers paid homage to the Ganga. In Kashi. Don’t be afraid. Think of your insignificance in the grand mythology that surrounds this holiest of Hindu cities. Who am I, a mere mortal, in front of this river of eternity? The waters rise up to my waist, then to my chest. I stop thinking and keep walking.

“F*** faecal coliform count. F*** bacterial overload. Jai Gange," I mutter.

And then I hold my nose, close my eyes, purse my lips tightly and plunge into the river.

How was it? Well, I am here, aren’t I? Writing all this stuff.

This is the last in a four-part series from Kashi. Read the first part here, the second part here and the third part here.

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