BANARAS . The city of Banaras, also known in India as Vārāṇasī, is one of the most important and ancient of the sacred places of India. Such places are called tīrtha s, "crossings" or "fords." Many tīrtha s, like Banaras, are located geographically on the banks of India's rivers and were, indeed, fords where ferries plied the river. As places of pilgrimage, however, such tīrtha s are seen primarily as spiritual fords, where one might safely cross over to the "far shore."
Banaras is located on the bank of the Ganges River in North India, at a place where the river curves northward, as if pointing back toward its Himalayan source. The river itself is considered holy, having fallen from heaven upon the head of Lord Śiva, who tamed the goddess-river in his tangled ascetic's hair before setting her loose to flow upon the plains of North India. In Banaras great stone steps called ghāṭ s lead pilgrims from the lanes of the city down to the river's edge to bathe. To the north and south of the city, smaller rivers named the Varaṇā and the Asi, respectively, join the Ganges, thus providing a popular etymology for the city's ancient name Vārāṇasī.
Another of the ancient names of this place is Kāśī, which means "shining, luminous." Kāśī is also the name of one of the North Indian kingdoms that rivaled one another from about the eighth to sixth century bce. The city of Vārāṇasī seems to have been the capital of the kingdom of Kāśī. Located on the high Rājghāṭ plateau overlooking the Ganges, this city, known as both Vārāṇasī and Kāśī, maintained a degree of importance for many hundreds of years, through the period of the Maurya and Gupta empires. Perhaps the height of its prestige was in the late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, when it was one of the administrative capitals of the Gāhaḍavāla kings of the Ganges Plain. Throughout its long history, however, the political significance of the city and its surrounding kingdom could not compare with its religious importance.
As a place of religious significance, Banaras was not only a "city" but a forest, which stretched beyond the small urban center and attracted sages and seekers to its forest hermitages. It was to these rural environs of Banaras, to a place called Sarnath, that the Buddha came following his enlightenment at Bodh Gayā. There he encountered his former companions in asceticism and preached his first sermon to them. Until the late twelfth century, much of the area south of the Rājghāṭ plateau, which today is the center of urban Banaras, was still an extensive forest, filled with pools and rivulets, and dotted with temples and shrines. In the Purāṇas, it is called the Ānandavana, the "forest of bliss." Even today, when Banaras brahmans speak of ancient Banaras, they refer to the time when this city was the Ānandavana.
In the time of the Buddha, the most popular form of worship in this part of North India was the worship of what might be called "life-force" deities, such as yakṣa s, yakṣī s, and nāga s. Such deities were propitiated with offerings called bali, which often included wine or meat. These deities were known for their strength, which they could use in either harmful or beneficent ways. With the rise of theism, whether Buddhist, Śaiva, or Vaiṣṇava, these life-force deities were gathered into the entourage of the great gods. In Banaras, it was Śiva who rose to preeminence and, according to mythological tradition, attracted the allegiance and even the devotion of many yakṣa s. They became his gaṇa s ("flocks, troops") and gaṇeśa s ("troop leaders") and were appointed to positions of great responsibility within the precincts of Śiva's city.
The mythology of Banaras, including the stories of Śiva's connection to this city, is found in the Purāṇas in a genre of praise literature called māhātmya. The most extensive of such māhātmya s is the Kāśī Khaṇḍa, an entire section of the voluminous Skanda Purāṇa. One myth tells of the divine hierophany of Śiva in this place. Here, it is said, Śiva's fiery pillar of light (jyotirliṅga) burst from the netherworlds, split the earth, and pierced the sky—a luminous and fathomless sign of Śiva. Kāśī is not only the place where that liṅga of light is said to have split the earth, but in a wider sense, Kāśī is also said to be the liṅga of light—an enormous geographical liṅga, with a radius of five krośa s (about ten miles). Even today pilgrims circumambulate Kāśī on the Pañcakrośī Road, a five-day pilgrimage circuit around the whole of the city.
There are countless shrines and temples of Śiva in Kāśī, each containing a liṅga, which, according to Saiva theology, is a symbol (pratīka) of that fathomless light of Śiva. It is said that in Kāśī there is a liṅga at every step; indeed, the very stones of Kāśī are Śiva liṅga s. Within this wider array, however, there are several temples that have special fame as sanctuaries of Śiva. The most significant of these liṅga s are Oṃkāreśvara, Viśveśvara, and Kedāreśvara, which traditionally centered the three khaṇḍa s, or "sectors," of Banaras—north, central, and south. Oṃkāreśvara was of great importance in ancient Kāśī, but was damaged during the early Muslim destruction of the city and has never regained its former prominence. Viśveśvara (modern-day Viśvanātha) rose to preeminence and popularity around the twelfth century, and later continued to hold its position and reputation despite repeated Muslim devastation. Finally, Kedāreśvara anchors the southern sector of Kāśī. Its original home and prototype even today is the shrine of Kedār in the Himalayas, but it is one of the many liṅga s from elsewhere in India that have an important presence in this sacred center. The three khaṇḍa s centered by these temples also have traditional circumambulatory routes that take the pilgrim through the most important temples and tīrtha s of each sector.
In another mythic sequence from the Kāśī Khaṇḍa, Śiva populated the city of Vārāṇasī with the entire pantheon of gods. At that time, Śiva dwelt in his barren Himalayan home with his new bride, Pārvatī. He surveyed the entire earth for a suitable abode for the two of them. Seeing the beautiful Kāśī, he set about the task of evicting its ruling king, Divodāsa, so that he could have the city for himself. One by one, Śiva sent the various gods and demigods to Kāśī to find some way to force the king to leave. Not only did each god fail, but all the gods were so entranced with the city itself that they remained there without reporting to Śiva. Finally, with the help of Viṣṇu, Śiva succeeded in evicting King Divodāsa. The city into which he triumphantly entered was full of the gods.
As a sacred center, then, Kāśī is not only the city of Śiva, but also a maṇḍala containing the entire divine population of the Hindu pantheon. There are the twelve āditya s, "suns"; sixty-four yoginī s, "goddesses"; and eight bhairava s, the "terrible ones," led by Kāla Bhai-rava, the divine governor of the city. There are fifty-six gaṇeśa s, protectively situated around the city in seven concentric circles at the eight compass points. Lord Brahmā and Lord Viṣṇu are there, both of whom have prominent locations within the city.
In addition to assigning a place to each of the gods, the city of Banaras has a place within its precincts for each of the other great tīrtha s of India. India's twelve jyotirliṅga s, its seven sacred cities, and its sacred rivers and lakes all have symbolic locations in Kāśī. Banaras, then, is a microcosm of India's sacred geography.
The intensity of power that comes from the symbolic gathering of gods, tīrtha s, and sages in this one place has made Banaras India's most widely acclaimed place of pilgrimage. While it is visited for the benefits associated with pilgrimage in this life, Kāśī is most famous as an auspicious place to die; a popular phrase is "Kāśyām maranam muktiḥ" ("Death in Kāśī is liberation"). According to tradition, those who die within the precincts of the holy city are certain to be instructed by Śiva himself at the time of death: in Banaras, Śiva's teaching is said to carry one across the flood of saṃsāra to the "far shore" of immortality.
Eck, Diana L. Banaras: City of Light. New York, 1982. A study of the city of Banaras, based on its traditional literature in the Sanskrit Purāṇas and its modern sacred geography and patterns of pilgrimage.
Sherring, Matthew A. The Sacred City of the Hindus: An Account of Benares in Ancient and Modern Times. London, 1868. A consideration of the temples and legends of Banaras by a nineteenth-century British missionary.
Sukul, Kuber Nath. Vārāṇasī down the Ages. Patna, India, 1974. A study of the religious history and spiritual life of Banaras, including consideration of its saints, fairs, festivals, and arts.
Parry, Jonathan P. Death in Banaras. Cambridge; New York, 1994.
Diana L. Eck (1987)