Hinduism - Where Is Benares?


On the banks of the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh, there is a city and a holy center (tirtha). 

Benares is an anglicized version of the name Varanasi, which is one of the city's original Hindu names, along with Kashi and Avimukta. 

  • The titles Avimukta, Varanasi, and Kashi are all used to refer to the whole city, but in this case, they refer to concentric holy zones around the Vishvanath temple; Avimukta being the smallest, followed by Varanasi, and lastly Kashi. 
  • Benares, like all other pilgrimage sites along the Ganges, is revered for its closeness to the river, especially since the Ganges flows in a northerly direction at Benares, which is considered fortunate. 
  • The Ganges is an important element of Benares' identity, and it is the focus of most of the city's religious activity. 

The deity Shiva, however, is the most significant holy presence in the city. 

  • Benares is Shiva's home on Earth and the location where he never departs, thus the term Avimukta ("never forsaken"). 
  • The most significant Shiva temple is the Vishvanath (“Lord of the Universe”) temple, which is spread across the city—some ancient, some modern, and some almost forgotten. 
  • Vishvanath is one of Shiva's twelve jyotirlingas, a collection of holy Shiva locations. 

The Moghul emperor Aurangzeb demolished the old Vishvanath temple and replaced it with a mosque; the current Vishvanath temple was constructed close to the original spot. 

  • Benares is one of the seven holy towns where death gives soul freedom because of Shiva's everlasting presence (moksha). 
  • Shiva is said to appear to the dying individual at the time of death and give his salvific knowledge. 
  • Shiva's presence may also be felt at the holy location Manikarnika Ghat, which is located in the center of the city rather than on the outskirts like most other sites. 
  • Shiva gives humans a lesson here as well; particularly, Shiva warns them of their impending demise. 
  • This is not to make people sad or depressed, but to encourage them to pursue a genuine religious life. 

Benares is an excellent location to die or immerse oneself in spiritual life due to the presence of the Ganges and Shiva; yet, it is also an exceptionally lively place to live. 

  • It has a long history as a trade hub and market town, and it still is today, despite the fact that the creaking wooden boats that formerly traversed the Ganges have been replaced by other modes of transportation. 
  • Weavers and metalworkers, many of whom are Muslim, are well-known in Benares. 

For at least a few millenia, it has also been known as a cultural hub. 

  • From grammar to astrology to medicine, Benares is still one of India's most significant hubs for ancient Sanskritic study. 
  • It is also a hub for music, dancing, and the arts, and it has been home to a slew of Indian religious luminaries, including poet-saints Tulsidas, Ravidas, and Kabir, among others. 

Diana Eck, Banaras, 1999, provides a comprehensive account of the city and its inhabitants.

You may also want to read more about Hinduism here.

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