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Banaras Shiva's Eternal City

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From the Book: CONFLUENCE At the very heart of Hindu India is the ancient city of Varanasi or Kashi (the luminous), on the western bank of the sacred river Ganga. Amidst its narrow lanes, ghats, temples and crowds, time has lost its way and now the mythical, the historical and the contemporary exist simultaneously. Its recorded history makes it one of the oldest living cities in the world. From ancient times this city has been the foremost centre of Hindu pilgrimage, a seat of San...

From the Book:

CONFLUENCE

At the very heart of Hindu India is the ancient city of Varanasi or Kashi (the luminous), on the western bank of the sacred river Ganga. Amidst its narrow lanes, ghats, temples and crowds, time has lost its way and now the mythical, the historical and the contemporary exist simultaneously. Its recorded history makes it one of the oldest living cities in the world.

From ancient times this city has been the foremost centre of Hindu pilgrimage, a seat of Sanskrit learning and home to influential thinkers like Patanjali (who wrote the Yogasutras), Shankaracharya (the Advaita philosopher), the Buddha and medieval saint-poets like Kabir and Tulsidas. Ideas which established themselves here invariably influenced life in the rest of the subcontinent. But more than its antiquity, the centrality of its location in the Gangetic plain or its cultural importance, it is the continuity of its religious and cultural traditions that makes Varanasi truly remarkable. The tenacity with which its people have kept alive their age old traditions has ensured that today their three thousand year old past exists not merely in monuments but in their day-to-day activities. The lanes, the riverfront, the temples and the present-day beliefs of the 'Banarasi' people constitute a living text in which we can trace the very evolution of Indian civilization. Everyday, humdrum images reveal themselves to be fascinating composites of history, myth and metaphysics.

Take, for instance, an oft-witnessed gesture. If you go to the riverfront at dawn you will see hundreds of Hindus awaiting the rising sun. As its first rays splinter gold on the waves of the quietly flowing river, the Hindus cup the glimmering water in their hands, raise it to the sun, and then pour it back into the river as an offering to the Sun God, murmuring under their breath the Gayatri Mantra:

 

Om Bhur Bhwasva
Tat Savitur Varenium
Bhargo Devasya Dhimahi
Dhiyo Yo Nah Prachodayat

(Lord we behold your light that fills the three worlds,
And pray for your radiance to illumine our minds).

This verse is from the Rig Veda, the oldest of the four sacred Vedas (holy books, whose name derives from the Sanskrit root vid: to know) which constitute the Hindu Revelation. The Rig Veda is a collection of 1,028 hymns meant to be recited at fire sacrifices and ranks as the first known literature in the subcontinent.

For the Hindus, the Vedas are not simply texts. They are sacred accoustic substance or mantra, a part of creation itself and destined to survive the cycles of cosmic dissolution and creation. They do not have any author, human or divine. They were originally 'heard' ('sruti') by the primordial seers and have been orally passed along to successive generations since then. They are the most hallowed of the holy things in the Hindu tradition and are meant to be the sole source of knowledge on matters lying beyond the senses.

Till the advent of the British the Rig Veda was the zealously guarded preserve of the Hindu priestly caste, the Brahmins. But in 1780 a few Brahmins were persuaded to divulge its text and this enabled the collection of versions from all over India. Western scholars were amazed at the unity of transmission from Kashmir in the north to Tamil Nadu in the south. The Rig Veda had been passed on orally for nearly three thousand years with hardly an error. Even today, there are Brahmins living in Varanasi who specialise in memorizing the Vedas syllable by syllable (and it takes years to do that) ensuring that they preserve the three thousand year old pronunciation of each word.

Once the text was written down, historians, linguists, and geographers began to analyse it, and soon a consensus emerged amongst western scholars that the Rig Veda was composed by nomadic tribesmen who called themselves Aryah (anglicized into 'Aryans'). They worshipped gods of rain, thunder and wind with simple sacrifices of animals and food grains. Their chief deity was Agni, the god of fire, who acted as an intermediary between men and gods.

Acknowledgements:

Banaras remains one of the most written about cities in India. Many distinguished Hindi writers from here have often gone looking for their city 'like fish in water'. I have read and profited from the writings of Dharamsheel Chaturvedi, Vishvanath Mukherjee, Dr. Bhanushankar Mehta, Dr. Motichand, Pandit Baldev Upadhayaya and Kubernath Sukul.

Among those who have written about Varanasi and Hinduism in English, I am indebted, above all, to Diana Eck's brilliant work, City of Light, I have also consulted the works of the following writers: A. L. Basham, J. A. B. van Buitenen, Alf Hiltebeitel, Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty, Madeline Biardeau, Sandria B. Freitag, Jonathan Parry, Elizabeth Chalier Vishvalingam, Ananda K. Coomaraswamy and Baidyanath Saraswati.

It is always a pleasure to meet and talk to the genuine 'Banarasi'. During the last three years I interviewed many of this unique breed of men. Raghul Maharaj, Anand and Ashok have been quoted extensively in the text. Conversations with Pandit Shiv Kumar Shastri, Seth Laxman Das, Ramakant Mishra, Govind Agarwal, Chakachak Banarasi and Hakim Banarasi have provided insights that have helped shape this book.

A very special note of thanks to Renuka Khandekar and Kishore Singh, two very fine editors, painstaking yet systematic, for their encouragement, assistance and firmness.

Above all I wish to thank Dharamsheel Chaturvedi and Y. Kisa for their very generous help spread over years. But for them it might not have been possible for me to repeatedly visit and explore Varanasi.

 

Pramesh Ratnakar

 

CONTENTS

 

  Pages
CONFLUENCE 7
HINDUISM 14
LORD SHIVA 20
CITY OF MYTHS 28
  THE BEGINNING OF CREATION AT MANIKARNIKA  
The Profit of Kashi 40
LANDMARKS 55
  MOSQUES  
  RAM NAGAR FORT  
KASHI'S LANES 70
KASHI'S CALENDAR 83
  SHIVARATRI  
  CHAUSATTI MELA  
  CHAITRA NAVRATRA  
  RAM NAVAMI  
  SHITALA ASHTAMI  
  VAISHAKI AMAVASYA AKSHAYA TRITIYA  
  BUDDHA PURNIMA  
  GANGA DUSSEHRA AND NIRJAL EKADASHI  
  RATH YATRA  
  GURU PUJA AND VYASA PUJA  
  DURGAJI KA MELA  
  NAG PANCHAMI  
  LOLARKA SHASHTHI  
  DUSSEHRA  
  KARTIK PURNIMA  
  PANCHKOSI PILGRIMAGE  
SARNATH 91
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Publisher: Lustre Press Roli books
Pages: 96
Weight: 860 gms
Specifications: Hardcover

Lustre Press Roli books
ISBN 81-7436-103-0

Language: English
Size: 9" x 12"
Pages: 96
In Full Color
Weight of the Book: 860 gms
Item Code: IDD031
Price: $35.00
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