Luminous Kashi to Vibrant Varanasi; K. Chandramouli; Indica Books, Varanasi; pp 486; Rs 575.00
CALL it Kashi, call it Benaras, call it Varanasi, call it by any other name, but nobody can deny that it is the holiest of holy places in India. As a city it is unique; it is considered to be the oldest, continuously existing city in the world and has an even greater significance and to an even larger number of people, than Jerusalem. To millions it is the doorway to moksha, the ultimate liberation from the cycle of births and deaths. Its uniqueness finds expression in the Vedas, Upanishads and Puranas. Kashi is so many things: it is luminous; it is Mahashamasana, it is Avimukta (never forsaken by Shiva), it is the ultimate destination of all thirthas and, to bring us down to the present times, it is the home for siddhas, yogis, sanyasis, sadhus, pandits and purohits, not to speak of pandas, pujaris, panwalas, pahalwans and boatmen.
The Kashi Panchakam says that in Kashi, Kashi itself is luminous, that Kashi illuminates everything and that he alone attains Kashi who understands this Kashi. So relevant to India'sculture and dharma it is, that the Puranas alone have about 16,509 references to different aspects of Kashi. The references to this fantastic city with its ancient heritage in the Vedas and the Upanishads are brief and often symbolic. As the author of this richly researched work notes, their meanings stretch from the ordinary to the most highly philosophical. Some scholars describe Kashi in three forms, as karana (cosmic or casual), sukshma or adhyatmika (subtle or philosophical) and sthula or adibhautika (gross or physical or geographic). No matter, Kashi remains Kashi.
As the author himself notes perceptively, Kashi'speaceful bliss beckons, its sacredness attracts, its holy vibrations energise, its churning brings out its essence its charm percolates and its fragrance exudes culture! And of which other city can that be said? Tansen, earlier known as Ramtanu or Tanna Mishra was born in Kashi and was years later to go to Delhi to adorn Akbar'sdarbar as one of its navaratnas. The unforgettable Sadarang and Adarang are said to have gone from Gazipur near Kashi to Mohammad Shah Rangeela'sCourt ( 1719-1748) in Delhi to give a new dimension to khayal. The author names literally scores of distinguished musicians, to end up with names such as Ravi Shankar, Ustad Bismillah Khan and Ustad Allauddin Khan. And not many realise that Benaras has a long tradition of dance as well, and one does not have to recount names like Sambhu Maharaj and Lachhu Maharaj, Birju Maharaj and Beni Prasad. But Kashi'ssignificance goes beyond its artists and musicians, its writers and dramatists. At different times and periods in history Kashi has hosted such luminaries as the Buddha (528 BC), Adi Shankaracharya (805 AD), Madhvacharya, Ramanujacharya, Vallabhbhacharya, Chaitanya Prabhu and Ramananda. And Kabir was born in Kashi. The Chinese traveller Hieun Tsang visited Kashi during the reign of Harshavardhana (606-647 AD) and has left a detailed description of the city. Francois Bernier who travelled widely in the Mughal Empire visited Kashi in 1660. Jean Baptiste Tavernier, a French dealer in Jewellery made six trips to India between 1636 and 1668 and visited Varanasi in 1665. And Mark Twain who visited Benaras for five days in 1796 was to write: ?Benares is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together!? He spoke the truth.
In our own times Benaras is famous for its Hindu University, often described as ?the first of the teaching universties and also the largest residential university in the whole of India?, whose name is perennially associated with Pandit Madan Mohan Malavaiya. The author unquestionably has done a tremendous amount of research. The University itself is in the great tradition of scholastic achievements. It was in Kashi that Patanjali lived (150 BC) and where Sanskrit has thrived. The period from the14th to the 18th century, described as the golden era in the history of Sanskrit grammar very much belonged to Varanasi. Next to Takshashila, it is Benaras that has always been associated with the search for knowledge. Chandramouli has rendered signal service not just to Kashi but the entire history of India with this work of outstanding merit.
Reading it is to be reminded of an entire way of life, of Shiva and Bhagiratha and Bhagirathi herself, eternally flowing, perennially pure. Kashi is Ananda Kanana; that it has been in the past, that for all its shortcomings it is so now; and, despite all the multiple attacks from westernisation and consumerism, it will remain so till eternity come. For Kashi cannot be anything else but Kashi, ever luminous, ever vibrant.