Varanasi Cultural Heritage
Along the river Ganges, in Northen India, Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world – as old as Jerusalem, Athens,Peking. It is a traditonal centre for learning and a destination for Hindu, Buddist and Jaina pilgrims. (we suggest reading Diana Eck’s scholarly and enjoyable book “Banaras: City of Light, Penguin Books”; that has been a resource for this short presentation).
It is a town that has decided to remain faithful to ancient traditions and, unlike the other cities, little has really changed in Varanasi in the past 200 years.
According to Hindu tradition it is the place the Lord Shiva has chosen as his abode. Devout Hindus believe that Varanasi is not of this earth, but rather sits on top of Shiva’s trident: it’s a midway point between this world and heaven.
Nothing could be more auspicious for a Hindu than to die here, where he or she can take direct passage from this life to the “further shore” of liberation. But until that time, it is where one comes to bathe away one’s sins in the Ganges and to bask in Shiva’s enlightening presence.
Its ancient name, in fact, is Kashi, City of Light.
The Ganges River spreads wide over vast and fertile plains midway between its sources in the Himalaya and its delta at Calcutta. It takes a broad crescent sweep to the north at Varanasi, which rises for about six kilometres along its western shore. This combination of geography, nature and urban architecture sets a marvellous scene when devout pilgrims and residents are drenched in the golden rays of the aurora as they descend steep stairs to take their early morning dip.
Varanasi takes her current name from the two tributaries that feed into the Ganga: the Varuna in the northern part of the city and the Assi to the south. Banaras is a corruption of the name Varanasi.
The Ganges is believed to be the female life-energy of Shiva, his liquid Shakti. She spawned the lush vegetation that grew along her banks and created sacred pools in a Forest Of Bliss.
For over 2,500, Kashi has embraced the most varying teachings of sages coming from all over India to confront ideas, visions and methods. They attracted seekers who desired to enter into their way of seeing, darshana, and thus Ashrams and monastic centres flourish in Varanasi’s womb. The greatest of India’s philosophers, sooner or later, come to take part in public debates. Gautama Buddha came to give his first sermon in the sixth century B.C., followed by the grammarian Patanjali in the second century B.C., the philosopher Shankara at the end of the eighth century, and the theologian Ramanuja in the eleventh. Varanasi became synonymous with classical learning, and the encounter between so many darshana, led to the rich dialogue that refined these philosophies into transforming wisdom.
Varanasi continues its long tradition for classical learning and sacred sciences. The Banaras Hindu University is perhaps the most prestigious University in India for philosophy. The SanskritUniversity is world renowned. Classical music schools reverberate with the sounds of the gods, while dancers evoke their many escapades. Traditional, master-disciple schools for music, dance, yoga, ayurvedic medicine etc. abound, but for those who feel more comfortable with a western approach, the University offers courses in such fields as well. The General Secretary of the Kautilya Society, Dr. Vrinda Dar is residing in Ram Bhavan and is available to assist our members in their choices and application processes.
Many people have a shorter time to spend in Varanasi, but, still, would like to have an in depth experience. Again, Vrinda has organized various itineraries to meet our members’ needs in the areas mentioned above, as well as: eco tourism focusing on sustained development in villages and living artisan traditions, with visits to villages and workshops; cultural tourism focusing on the many temples, holy pilgrimages and museums. Others wish to use Ram Bhavan as a retreat house, in which case, we have our yoga teacher, and a select list of spiritual masters from either Hindu, Buddhist or Christian traditions.