Welcome to Varanasi or the Mahashamshaan
Now this might come as a shocker to you guys. Varanasi is also called Mahashamshaan or the final resting place of humans.
You see, this city is closely associated with Lord Shiva, the God of Death. It is said that anyone who wants Moksha- liberation from Birth and Death, should come to this holy city at the time of his or her death. That is why you see so many funeral pyres burning all the time on the ghats of Varanasi. People who are just on the verge of dying express their desire to their friends and relatives to spend their last days in Varanasi.
Strange? Very strange indeed!
Who is Lord Shiva?
Travelers to India may not know who Shiva is. So here is a bit of gyan to them.
You see, Indians have three main Gods. Brahma is the creator and he is also called Prajapati. Vishnu is the preserver of all things virtuous. He has several temple devoted to himself in not just India but also in many parts of South East Asia as well.
Shiva is the Lord of Death and his job is to remove and destroy all bad and deleterious things from the world.
Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva represent the various functions of the Supreme Almighty who is formless and has no quality.
Like Vishnu, Shiva too has several temples across India and the world.
Why is Varanasi associated with Shiva?
It is said that Banaras was founded by Lord Shiva! I have never heard of any other city in India that has been founded by God. Have you? I would love to know. Should you want to to write to me, you may send an e-mail to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ok, let me make a tall comment- Varanasi is associated with the dawn of time! No body knows when this city was actually founded.
In Rigveda, Shiva is the source of the prime energy and the Big Bang Theory is closely associated with His creation of the Universe.
Can we say now that the origins of this city are covered in the mists of time ?
An interesting tale
There is an interesting tale as to how this city, also called as Kashi, came to be associated with Shiva. It is said that one day, the God was expelled from his home (Himalayas) by his wife, Goddess Parvati.
Upon his banishment, He came to this city with his followers and begun living there. While He lived in exile here, Shiva sent his two friends , Brahma and Vishnu to persuade the Goddess to take him back.
After some time, Goddess Parvati allowed Lord Shiva to come back and live in the Himalayas. During all that time, his home in Himalayas was guarded by hsi two attendants- Kalbhairav and Dandapani.
I don’t believe in Moksha and all that, do you?
In fact, I have a different take on the theory of Moksha. It is this.
You and I and the rest of the world can get liberation because of knowledge. This knowledge can come to us only if we have a good guru. Since Kashi in the ancient times had a lot of gurus, many people came to this city in search of knowledge.
Over time, Kashi- the City of Light- lost its initial significance and became associated with the idea of death. I find this notion ridiculous. Do you?
Various names of Varanasi
By the way, did I tell you that Banaras is the corrupt form of Varanasi? When the Britishers came to India, they had trouble spelling this name, hence the word Banaras or Benares.
Another name of this city is Kashi which means “the City of Light”.
My favorite name of this town is Anandvana- the forest of Bliss.
Since Lord Shiva (Rudra) resides in this forest, it is also called as “forest of Rudra”
What does the word, Varanasi mean?
Friends, the word Varanasi is made up of two parts, Varuna and Asi. These are two rivers that merge together in this ancient holy town, hence the name Varanasi. It is much like Budapest of Hungary. Get the drift?
The City of Great Debates
In the ancient times, Varanasi was the center of knowledge and learning. This city housed men and women of the highest intellect.
Not surprisingly, these men and women were all the time engaged in debates and arguments on the finer points of life, philosophy , language etc. If some person in any other part of India had any doubt on any aspect of life, he could come to Varanasi and seek a solution.
No wonder, another name of Varanasi was “City of Light” in ancient times.
The Buddha connection
Have you heard about Gautam Buddha?
He chose Varanasi as the place for his first sermon. If you have Benares on your travel radar, then make it a point to visit Sarnath, the place where he delivered his first sermon. Preserved wonderfully well by the Archaeological Survey of India, Sarnath gives you goosebumps. Imagine, this place, Sarnath, has a history of more than 2500 years!
Probably he chose Varanasi as the place of his first sermon because he felt that his teachings would be easily accepted in Kashi, the land of the open minded.
City of Ghats
Now you will ask me- what are ghats? Well, my dear, ghats are stairs that lead down to the river. The river in this case is Ganga.
Varanasi is also called City of Ghats as it has a lot of them.
Many Indians use these ghats to cremate their dead relatives. The ashes are then immersed in the river Ganga. This is o because many of us believe that this immersion liberates the soul from the cycle of Birth and Death.
Other ghats are meant for the people to bathe in the Ganga. It is quite a sight to watch the devotees take their holy dips in the river early in the morning.
The evening aarti of Maa Ganga on the ghats of Varanasi are a sight to behold. It is a surreal experience and I hope to watch that spectacle one day.
Watch this Ganga aarti on the Dashashwamedh Ghat, Varanasi;
An aarti means an invocation to God or Goddess. We consider Ganga as Maa or mother because she tends us like a mother.
Don’t stay away, more stories on the way
I must confess, I am a compulsive storyteller, so I want you to be around….
Story No. 1-This one is about Manikarnika Ghat. Many 100,000 years ago, the wife of Lord Shiva, Parvati once wished to go over to her parents’ house to attend a ceremony. When she told her husband about her intention, Shiva advised her to not to go.
When you haven’t been invited to this party, my dear, why do you want to go, Shiva asked.
But Parvati was insistent and later left for her parents’ house.
Daksh Prajapati , her father, was not too pleased at seeing Parvati at his house. He considered Shiva as inferior to his social standing. There was no question of Daksh inviting Shiva and Parvati to his house.
Why did Daksha not invite Shiva to this ceremony?
You see, Daksh had never wanted his daughter, Parvati marrying Shiva. According to him, Shiva did not have a social standing. But she was strong willed and went ahead and later married Shiva. Daksh felt offended.
Feeling insulted, at the behavior of her dad, Parvati immolated herself at her parent’s house.
What followed was hell and fury. The Lord of Death was enraged at seeing her wife die in such circumstances. He carried Parvati’s body and started dancing in a manner that shook the entire world.
This dance is called Tandava and represents the cosmic dance of the Lord.
Alarmed, Brahma and Vishnu, decided to calm him down. Vishnu took out his celestial discus and began dismembering the dead body of Parvati. He thought that Shiva could be calmed down this way.
One of her parts fell in Varanasi. The Manikarnika Ghat marks the exact spot where one of her body parts fell down on the earth. There is a temple that marks that spot and is called the Kashi Vishwanath Temple. This temple radiates energy and is one of the most important religious sites of the Indians.
There are several such temples in India which mark the places where the body parts of Goddess Parvati fell down.
(To be continued later)