HistoriCity | Varanasi is a microcosm of Hindu India, it's also a city of reform - Hindustan Times

HistoriCity | Varanasi is a microcosm of Hindu India, it's also a city of reformists

ByValay Singh
Feb 19, 2024 09:42 PM IST

Kashi has captured the collective Hindu imagination as Shiva’s city. But to narrowly define this city in terms of orthodox Hinduism is a mistake

Kashi (also referred to as Banaras or Varanasi) is considered to be the citadel of Hindu orthodoxy. According to Puranic texts, it is a city that Shiva doesn’t forsake at any cost. For millions of Hindus, dying here provides salvation, a permanent escape from metempsychosis. It’s a place which abounds in religiosity and where traditions are upheld unapologetically. It’s a place where the caste system remains largely intact and hierarchisation pervades all life.

A Hindu priest performs evening prayers on the banks of the river Ganga at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, in Varanasi on February 10, 2024. (Photo by Niharika KULKARNI / AFP)(AFP) PREMIUM
A Hindu priest performs evening prayers on the banks of the river Ganga at the Dashashwamedh Ghat, in Varanasi on February 10, 2024. (Photo by Niharika KULKARNI / AFP)(AFP)

The pre-Aryan history of this city is discernible in its inception stories that talk about how Gods (Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva) tried unsuccessfully to remove an indigenous but Aryanised king Divodas despite several stratagems and subterfuges.

For a few centuries now Kashi remains unmatched in its appeal as a symbol of Brahminical culture and has captured the collective Hindu imagination as Shiva’s city. But to narrowly define this city in terms of orthodox Hinduism is a mistake.

The earliest reformer associated with Varanasi was Buddha himself who decided to visit Sarnath and preach the principles of non-violence and equality there. Kashi had already acquired the status of a major learning centre for elite Hindus and therefore Buddha picked this city to preach.

A string of excavations starting in the colonial period with the discovery of the iconic Lion emblem in 1904-05 have established that the region was under emperor Ashoka (who reigned from 268 to 232 BCE). The Jains believe that Mahavir, a contemporary of Buddha (6th-5th BCE), preached in Sarnath and Varanasi. A group of three temples at Bhelupur is considered one of the holiest pilgrimages in Jainism.

In the wake of the turbulence caused by the Ghurid invasions (1175-1206 AD; led by Mohammed Ghori from Ghor, central Afghanistan), Hinduism is said to have come under immense pressure with disunity and chaos prevailing across much of north India. While Hindu kingdoms were dissipating fast, some like the Gahadavalas of Kannauj managed to survive in a diminished form by moving eastwards towards Varanasi.

From the 11th century AD onwards, several inscriptions by Gahadavala kings record the donation of lands to Brahmins, one from the 13th century in particular tells us that Chandradeva Gahadavala granted lands to 500 Brahmins in Katehali Pattala, which is identified as the modern Katehar area in Varanasi district.

In the first few centuries of the second millennium AD itself (11th -13th AD), Sufi mystics were successful in drawing to the fold of Islam a huge number of people who were denied equality in the Brahmanical caste system. They too preached and settled in and around Banaras as is evidenced by the multiple shrines that are still worshipped by Muslims and Hindus alike.

Around this time, Varanasi as a town, remained relevant as it fell on the major trade routes towards the east. Buddhism had faded long ago from the region, but Brahminical worship survived with both Vaishnavites and Shaivites holding their ground in the holy city.

As the religion of conquerors, Islam grew rapidly, out of this melting pot, came Kabir, who is believed to have been raised by a Muslim weaver couple in Varanasi. His message of a universal and non-discriminatory God spread like wildfire alarming both Brahmin and Muslim orthodoxies. To date, it remains unclear whether he was a Hindu or a Muslim and ironically, hardliners of both religions have distanced themselves from him.

Another Bhakti saint, Ravidas, is said to have been born in the 13th-14th centuries in a village near Varanasi. Like Kabir, he too preached against social divisions based on birth and gender. Believed to have been born in the Chamar community that has been associated with leather work according to the Brahmin caste system and is considered lower caste, the most profound impact of Ravidas’s message is seen in the Sikh religion; today his followers have spread across the world as a separate sect called Ravidassias.

Since the Hindu religion’s earliest origins, all knowledge was created and maintained in Sanskrit, over which Brahmins had the sole copyright, allowing some kingly exceptions.

Therefore, non-Brahmin devotees had little access to religious learning. Many of these non-Brahmin groups drifted away to either other sects or to Islam, weakening orthodox Hinduism steadily.

In 16th century Varanasi, followers of reformist movements like Vaishnava Ramananda, the non-conformist Aghoris, and Kabir panthis, all existed and vied for followers. At this time, Tulsidas, a Brahmin renunciate came to live in Varanasi and decided to render the Sanskrit Ramayana by Valmiki in the local Awadhi dialect. This triggered a backlash from the local Brahmins who tried to discredit him through various means but couldn’t succeed.

It is Tulsidas’s Ramayana that remains the Bible for Hindus in Hindi-speaking areas and is rightly credited for stemming the erosion of followers in the medieval period. Thus again, Varanasi, the stronghold of orthodoxy, produced a reformer that enabled access to god and religion to millions of Hindus.

It is Varanasi’s intrinsic character: the tryst between opposites, whether as the excessive sacredness of the priest and the unabashed profanity of the ash-covered Aghori or the stringent Brahmin orthodoxy and the liberating message of Buddha and Kabir.

The struggle between the old and decaying and the new and unformed is both the boon and bane of this city. Witnessing it all is the river Ganga that flows eternal and enables the material survival of the city and its people. Besides the temple, shrines, mosques and other places of worship, it is the natural beauty of the sun rays reflecting off its water that has inspired scholars, priests, musicians and laity alike.

Today, perhaps more than ever before, Varanasi and its many-splendored beauty ared identified as being a microcosm of a Hindu India. For instance, it is easy to forget that the famed and beautiful Subah-e- Banaras or Morning at Banaras is a coinage of the 1930s. It is the title of a poem written at the Dashashwamedh ghat by Ijteba Hussauin Rizvi, who wrote: “tamasha ki wo arzaani, wo ganga, wo sanamkkhaana, Banaras ki saher (morning), asnaan ki taqreeb-e-rozaana”. (“It is a theatre of excess, the Ganga here, the temple there, people bathing in the ghats; these mornings of Banaras.”)


Sarnath: A critical history of the place where Buddhism began, Asher, Frederick M (2020)

A History of Ancient and Early Medieval India, From the Stone Age to the 12th Century, Singh, Upinder (2008)

Chapter I: Four Śaivite Sects. The Kāpālikas and Kālāmukhas: Two Lost Śaivite Sects. Center for South and Southeast Asia Studies, Lorenzen, David N. (2020).

HistoriCity is a column by author Valay Singh that narrates the story of a city that is in the news, by going back to its documented history, mythology and archaeological digs. The views expressed are personal.

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