The Kasi yatra is one of the most important pilgrimages for a Hindu. What is it?
What you have to know and do when proceeding on a Kasi pilgrimage
- The main purpose of a Kasi yatra and why it should be done
- What does a Kasi pilgrimage involve?
- The sanctity of Kasi, Ganges and Hindu mythology
- The legends of Kasi and Lord Viswanath Temple
The main purpose of a Kasi yatra and why it should be done
Though throngs of people go to Kasi every year, there does not seem to exist a proper guide for them as to how they should proceed, what the rituals are in Kasi, where they are done, the places to be visited in Kasi etc. What follows is an attempt to fulfil this need which was felt when we went to Kasi.
First we must understand that the main purpose of a Kasi Yatra (or Kasi Parikrama) is to perform Vedic rites for our ancestors. Why Kasi? Since Kasi (or Varanasi/Benaras) is the center of Hindu religion, many yatras or parikramas take place here during different parts of the year. For many Hindus, the Kasi Yatra is one of the important sacred rituals of Hindu religion and is thought to help in washing away one‟s sins and help in salvation. It is also a means to appease and pay homage to ancestors so that they will continue to shower their blessings to the living. Going to various temples in Kasi and other places is only secondary or incidental. The ritual portion of the trip does not require one to go to the temple of even Kasi Viswanath.
What does a Kasi pilgrimage involve?
Most devout Indians dream of making the pilgrimage to Kasi, known as the Kasi Yatra, at least once in their lifetime. Kasi, Benares, Varanasi - no matter what name you call it by - is one of the oldest and the holiest cities as well as one of the most venerated in India with the Ganges flowing through it. This is where rituals are performed for the propitiation of departed souls. Traditionally, rituals for one's forefathers are performed at all riverbanks, since rivers are considered especially sacred. Among them the Ganges is the most revered, and thus performance of these rituals on the banks of the Ganges at Kasi takes on an entirely new significance. This is not all, as such a ritual-centric pilgrimage involves performance of the rituals also at three other places – Gaya, which is the holiest of all places since this is where the Buddha attained enlightenment, at the Prayag, Allahabad, where the three holiest of India's rivers - the Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswathi – meet and finally at Rameswaram.
The Kasi Yatra also refers to another pilgrimage - a completely spiritual one, involving two sacred places, both ancient, both abodes of Siva, and considered to be among the most important of the Jyotirlingas - Lord Viswanath at Kasi and Lord Rameswar at Rameswaram.
The sanctity of Kasi, Ganges and Hindu mythology
Before I proceed let me say something more about Kasi (Benares) or Varanasi as it is called nowadays. Kasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world. Reverent Hindus from around the globe hope to spend their final days in Varanasi. For those who cannot spend their final days in Varanasi, having one‟s cremated remains (cremains) scattered on Mother Ganges, with the Asthi Visarjan ceremony performed on its banks, is the answer. Referred to as the “River of Heaven” or “Goddess and Mother,” the Ganges is sacred from its source in the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal and the sea. Some say that the Ganges' power to destroy sins is so remarkable that even a tiny drop of its water carried by the breeze will instantly erase the sins of many lifetimes.
Kasi's prominence in Hindu mythology is virtually unrivalled. For the devout Hindu the city has always had a special place, because besides being a pilgrimage centre, it is considered especially auspicious to die here, ensuring an instant route to heaven. The revered and ancient city of Kasi (or Varanasi) is the religious centre of the world of Hindus - a city where the past and present, eternity and continuity co-exist. Kasi is known as the land of Siva. Everything in Kasi not only revolves around the main temple of Viswanath, as Siva is known here, but He is also believed to be in control of everything that happens in this holy city. Normally, in Hindu mythology, the nine planets, or Navagrahas, which govern our actions, are independent, and perform their duty without interference from the Gods (a case of not even God interfering with nature and her rules). However, Kasi is a special city, an exception to this rule, where Siva even governs the Navagrahas. It is believed that Lord Saneeswara (Saturn) once came to catch Siva for a period of 7 ½ years (what is commonly called saade-saati), and found himself unable to enter the temple. He is believed to have stayed outside the temple, and hence the temple of Saneeswara outside the Viswanath temple is much frequented by pilgrims who light oil lamps here, hoping to escape the clutches of Sani.
The legends of Kasi and Lord Viswanath Temple
There are just too many legends to explain why Kasi is sacred, and why Siva chose to reside here. I recently read an article where the writer explains in scientific terms that in this area the Ganges flows in a curve, in a northward direction. The curvature and the force of the river led to the formation of a natural amphitheatre, or natural steps in simpler terms. This probably attracted our forefathers to this place, who built Ghats where the steps had formed, to have a bath, and installed their patron deity Siva as the lord of this place. Therefore, in order to avoid the confusion, let us not discuss the legends and accept the fact that here Siva is called Viswanath or Visweswar, the lord of the world.
Lord Viswanath temple has particular significance as it is dedicated to Lord Siva. The present temple stands beside a mosque that had been built by Aurangzeb over the ruins of the original temple. The sacred idol, the Siva lingam, had been hidden in a well hoping to prevent its destruction. This well, now known as the Gyaana Vapi (well of knowledge) stands in an area between the temple and the mosque. It has earned the name of Golden Temple because of the one ton gold plating donated by Maharaja Ranjit Singh on its 15.5-m high spire. Invaders destroyed the original temple and Rani Ahilyabai of Indore rebuilt it only in 1776. Again, the fanatic Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb destroyed the Viswanath temple to replace it with the Gyaanavapi Mosque. However, one can still see the remnants of the temple in the intricate and fine artwork of the western wall of the mosque. Today, the Kasi Viswanath Temple and the Gyaanavapi mosque lie adjacent to each other.
Now that I've given you an overview of the Kasi pilgrimage and the legends surrounding the city and its temples, let me in my next article proceed to share with you the nitty-gritties of the rituals and other paraphernalia that I performed for my yatra.