THE SYMBOLISM AND HISTORY OF VARANASI

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In the consciousness of India, this city symbolises a seat of great civilisational churning which throws up new directions, leaders of new thought and of new epochs

Varanasi has, in the last few days, assumed a certain centrality in the national political discourse. In the Indian civilisational experience Varanasi continues to remain the eye, the centre, the pole star of the evolutive and cyclical quest for penance, for pilgrimage, for sacred work, for realisation and liberation. The mighty sagas of thought and of action in our civilisational march have almost always culminated in realisation, dissolution and identification on the banks of the sacred Ganga at Varanasi. As one witnesses the great ongoing churning today with Varanasi as the centre it may be interesting to recall certain episodes in history — spiritual, material and political — that link themselves to this most sacred city of Hindus.

In 1888, when he set out from the Baranagar math to live the life of an itinerant mendicant, Swami Vivekananda first headed to Varanasi. It was here, during this period, while darting away from a pack of ferocious monkeys that he heard a voice commanding him to ‘Face the brutes’. The Swami stopped and confronted the beasts who quickly melted away. He would later recall the episode as indicative of the necessity of facing the dangers and vicissitudes of life and not run away from them. It was at Varanasi that the Swami, then an unknown monk, prophetically vowed that when he would return here next he would “burst upon society like a bombshell…”

The Swami spent his last winter at Varanasi. A vast multitude congregated to receive him as he alighted at the station. It was during this final visit to the city that the legendary NC Kelkar, follower of the Lokmanya and editor of the nationalist daily Maratha, met the Swami and witnessed his constant preoccupation with the thought of India. Years later Kelkar recalled how the Swami spoke animatedly on the topic of India and her distress. “What is the good of India living in this degeneration and extreme poverty”, thundered the Swami. India’s ‘dishonour and distress’ greatly pained him and the way forward which could ‘lift India’, the Swami told Kelkar, was only through a ‘spontaneous development from inside, following the ancient traditions’.

Varanasi’s achievements were not confined only to the realm of the mystic. In his study of the city, noted historian Dharampal brought to light records which indicated that as late as 1801 there existed in Varanasi 300 six-storied houses all of which were products of an indigenous construction technology. In his seminal work, Indian Science and Technology in the Eighteenth Century, Dharampal referred to the intricate ‘observatory at Varanasi’ which was treated as “one of the five celebrated observatories of the world by the Encyclopaedia Britannica in its edition till 1823”. To a section of the colonisers such grand achievement of Hindus in science appeared blasphemous and the fading away of this scientific feat from the collective national memory was gradually engineered.

It was Varanasi which threw up the first record of a mass satyagraha against the imposition of an oppressive tax regime. In 1810 and 1811 Varanasi witnessed such a ‘civil disobedience’ movement. Records show that the entire city, cutting across religious and caste divides united in this protest which, at its peak, was estimated to have consisted of around 2,00,000 protesters sitting on dharna declaring that they will “not separate till the tax will not be abolished”. The intrepid revolutionary Rash Bihari Bose chose Varanasi as his centre of activity in 1914. Joined by a number of young revolutionaries from all over India, Bose planned an all India insurrection, from Varanasi, by creating disaffection within the ranks of the British Indian Army.

It was at the inauguration of the Benares Hindu University on February 6, 1916, that Mahatma Gandhi made one of his early and most impassioned pleas against alien rule. “No paper contribution”, said the Mahatma, “will ever give us self-Government. No amount of speeches will ever make us fit for self-Government. It is only our conduct that will fit us for it.” In the consciousness of India, Varanasi symbolises a seat of great civilisational churning and achievements, achievements which often throw up new directions, leaders of new thought and of new epochs, perennially signifying the end of one cycle and beginning of another more promising one.

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