Words by Kave Sharma. Photos by Ellie Pierpoint.
Varanasi is one of the most popular places to visit in India for its spiritual importance, historical architecture, temples, sadhus, tantric practitioners and the holy river Ganges, in fact, you could say that Varanasi is the heart of Hinduism. But why? Here you can learn about the spiritual significance of Varanasi, so that next time you visit, you’ll understand its sacred roots.
Varanasi – the most popular spiritual destination in India?
Some call it Kashi, some Benares, while others say Varanasi. Besides being known with many names, Varanasi has always been a sacred and mystical place throughout history. If you focus on the scriptures of Hinduism, you will find Varanasi’s spiritual importance referenced in many places.
Many enlightened people have taken its name and talked about it again and again, and even in this modern age, Varanasi attracts a lot of tourism – people looking for the “real India”, something that is magical and historical all in one. Varanasi is certainly the place.
Some people visit to explore, some to connect, some with spiritual intentions and even some to die here, amazing, right? Every one of them feels the energy of the holy city of Kashi, whether they like it or not!
Varanasi has also won the heart of legendary yogis like Lord Buddha, who gave his first enlightened sermon here at Sarnath, the poet Tulsidas, who was inspired by his home of Varanasi to write the epic poem, Ramcharitramanas, and Swamivivekananda, whose teachings were coloured by his love for this holy city.
Why is Varanasi so Sacred?
Of course, everyone knows that Varanasi is located on the banks of the holy River Ganges, and that the entire city revolves around this sacred river, but the Ganges flows for over 2,500km, all the way from the Himalayas to Bangladesh. There are hundreds many cities along its course, what’s so special about this one?
What is the spiritual significance of Varanasi?
According to Padma Purana, there lies a very sacred land between two holy rivers, Varuna and Asi. Put the two names together and you get “Varanasi”, the luminous land, the land of light, the land dearest to Lord Shiva. This land is where existence begun, it’s the heart of cosmic energy, the heart of Hinduism.
To understand better, let’s travel back in time to the beginning when the Creator and the Sustainer had a debate…
The Cursing of Lord Brahma
At this time, a mysterious light had appeared from the ground, shooting into the sky. Lord Brahma went to find its peak and Lord Vishnu went down to find its base, but they couldn’t find out where it was coming from.
Lord Vishnu said to Lord Shiva, that perhaps the physical form of the light had no end, just like how knowledge has no beginning or end, a smart answer. Fearing he would lose out to Vishnu’s wisdom, Brahma lied and said that he had in fact found the top, so Vishnu must be wrong.
Upon finding out the lie, Lord Shiva cursed Lord Brahma that from now on, no one will pray to him, but Vishnu will be prayed until the end of time. This ended the debate and the magnificent temple Viswanath, one of Hinduism’s 12 Jyotirlinga, meaning “Radiant Sign of The Almighty Shiva”, grew in the place. Of course, this was in Varanasi!
Still to this day, many of the locals believe that lying in the holy city of Varanasi is a terrible sin, and still, all across India, no one ever prays to Lord Brahma!
Viswanath Temple: Shiva’s Jyotirlinga
Viswanath Temple is so special, not only because of this story, but also because it features Goddess Bhagwati, the divine feminine Shakti herself. The temple is covered in yantras (symbols used in tantra to attract energy) and has four doors suitable for tantric practitioners and yogis.
If you’re taking a spiritual tour of Varanasi, Viswanath should be high on your list. Seekers and devotees who want to connect with cosmic energy flock to this place to connect. It is a strong representation of Shiva-Shakti, the divine union of masculine and feminine. The energy here makes you realise your true self and helps you to rise above your mind.
And, that’s not all, Viswanath is the place where Lord Vishnu did tapasya (atonement) to sustain and protect the universe…
The Legend of Prince Ripunjay
Lord Vishnu is known as the brother of Goddess Parvati, he has an important role in Varanasi too.
When Lord Shiva got married to Goddess Parvati, he decided to change to stay somewhere on land instead of the Himalayas, so he chose Varanasi for his home. When he was staying in Varanasi, Prince Ripunjay was deeply submerged in his tapasya.
Lord Brahma appeared from his own tapasya and told Prince Ripunjay to go and become a king, time to put the crown on his head and look after his people. Ripunjay said “ok but I have one desire. I want all gods and goddesses to stay away from land and go back to heaven”.
Lord Brahma granted the boon and the prince Ripunjay became king Divodasa.
Time passed and Lord Shiva wanted to come back to Kashi, so he sent his messenger, but they didn’t come back. He sent yoginis, they also never returned. Next was the Lord of Sun, but he also didn’t return and even the fearsome Dwarpal warrior giant didn’t return, they all wanted to stay in beautiful Varanasi, so, finally, Shiva asked Lord Vishnu to help.
Lord Vishnu and Ganesha disguised themselves as a sage and an astrologer and made the king realize his mistake. He prayed to Lord Shiva to return back, as well as any other gods and goddesses, and insisted that their energy stay here in Varanasi.
This is why the energy is so high here in Kashi, and one of the reasons people come here to atone.
Rituals, Energies and Escaping the Cycle of Samsara
It is believed that remembering this land also lightens the heart and that visiting Kashi is itself a powerful form of tapasya, just visiting and taking a tour of Varanasi can cleanse one of sins. Here, the energy of all gods and goddesses stay with Lord Shiva himself, making it the center of Hinduism, the hub of all cosmic energy.
Watching the cremation ceremony at Kashi’s Manikarnika Ghat is a scene never to be forgotten, with the beating of damaru drums and flames sending the dead up to be reckoned in swirling pyres of smoke.
It is believed if one dies here Lord Shiva himself gives Tarak Mantra to the dead one and provides mokshya, so that the deceased will end the wheel of lives and become one with the source. This is why Hindus gather here to die or bring sick and old relatives to spend their last days besides the River Ganges, where their ashes will be spread after the cremation ceremony.
If you do puja (rituals) for your forefathers here, it’s a thousand times more effective, especially with the cosmic energy of the gods and the holy water Ganga.
Mantras chanted and spiritual practices are more effective here in Varanasi, you only have to look around to see people busy with their own rituals and practices. It brings a strong spiritual feeling to the city, whether you’re a Hindu or not.
God is everywhere, no doubt, but different places have their own energies and the vibes here are so strong you have to experience it to believe it.
So next time we visit Varanasi, let’s utilize our time and connect with that energy of Lord Shiva within.
“Om Namaha Shivaya” is a powerful mantra of Lord Shiva. By chanting it with full faith, we connect more and more with Him, which means we connect more with ourselves. We become more aware of ourselves, our actions, and what we contribute to this world and being in our true nature is the goal of every spirituality and religion.
This is the true spiritual significance of Varanasi – truth, atonement and light.
All photos by Ellie Pierpoint. Please credit 108mountains.com.