Hinduism is probably the world’s oldest religion, and its history and the history of the Indian subcontinent are conjoined, so it isn’t surprising that many sacred Hindu sites exist in India. The most revered are distinguished by geography, such as Allahabad, at the confluence of three major rivers; or Gangotri, high in the Himalayas at the source of the Ganges river. The most sacred site is Varanasi, where the Ganges meets two smaller waterways.
According to legend, the god Shiva founded Varanasi, also known as Benares or Kashi, over 5,000 years ago. Whether or not that is true, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It was a center of philosophy and a trading capital famous for silk and muslin as early as the second millennium B.C., when it was known as Kashi. Varanasi declined during the centuries of Muslim occupation that began in the 12th century, but became a separate state under British rule in the 20th century. When India became independent, Varanasi became a part of Uttar Pradesh state.
THE SACRED GANGES
Hindus worship the goddess Ganga as the personification of the mighty Ganges river that stretches 2,500 miles from the western Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. Many of the most sacred Hindu sites, such as Haridwar, Allahabad and Rishikesh are on its banks. Varanasi derives its name from two streams, the Vararuna and Assi, that skirt the city, but the overarching geographical feature of the city is the Ganges itself. Pilgrims come to Varanasi to bathe in her holy waters, and many more come to die there and gain quick passage to heaven. To accommodate them, 84 separate ghats, or stone slabs, line the banks of the river.
A CENTER OF LEARNING
Varanasi, or Kashi, is mentioned in the Vedas, the oldest Hindu scriptures; the Puranas, which are commentaries on the Vedas; and the two Indian epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Varanasi has been a center of learning throughout most of its history, and has been home to several important Hindu personalities, including Sankaracharya, who founded the Hindu school of non-dualism known as Advaita Vedanta, and Ramanujacharya, a great teacher of Vaisnavism, or worship of Vishnu. Saivism, the denomination within Hinduism that worships Shiva, also has its roots in and around Varanasi, and the two sects have traditionally coexisted there peacefully.
CROSSROAD OF RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS
The significance of Varanasi to Hindus is analogous to that of Jerusalem for Jews, and, like Jerusalem, it is also important for adherents of other faiths. The deer park in Sarnath, a suburb of Varanasi, was the location of the first sermon of Buddha, and the monument that stands there, erected by emperor Ashoka to commemorate that sermon, is the national symbol of India. As the birthplace of three of its Tirthankaras, Varanasi is also important for Jains, and an important Jain temple is located there. In addition, there are five places in Varanasi of historical importance to Sikhs.