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Narendra Modi is trying to be the new lord of Varanasi. And that’s not good news

Under Modi, Varanasi has become the reigning symbol of a muscular, resurgent neo-Hinduism.

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According to Indian mythology, Hindu god Shiva was the ruler of Varanasi, the ‘great cremation ground’. The legends and Puranas say he captured the city after defeating King Divodasa and made it his permanent abode. Shiva became the ‘sin-eater’ to devour karmic impurities of his followers and guide pilgrims to liberation (moksha). Now, in place of Shiva, Narendra Modi and his followers seem to have taken over the city.

Varanasi helped Modi win by a wide margin of 4.79 lakh votes. As PM Modi visits Varanasi to thank the city, we must understand why his rule can permanently alter the ancient city.

Under Modi, Varanasi has become the reigning symbol of a muscular, resurgent neo-Hinduism. During the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaigns in the holy city, thousands of Modi supporters thronged the streets and chanted: “Har har Modi, ghar ghar Modi” and “Mein bhi chowkidar”.

Also read: Modi’s Hindutva 2.0 written on Varanasi walls: Temple restoration, not mosque demolition

In the vicinity of Kashi Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque complex, many believe that Modi has been anointed as the new, more hipster kotwal (chowkidar) of the city by Kaal Bhairava, Shiva’s terrifying avatar. No wonder, every time Modi visits his parliamentary constituency, he performs a ritual for the Kaal Bhairava and does Ganga Aarti at Dashashwamedh Ghat to emulate Brahma’s sacrifice of ten horses and prove his imperial sovereignty in contemporary India. Some, however, don’t believe this is true.

Like in politics, PM Modi is not without challengers in the city of gods. In conversation with me recently in Varanasi, Mahant professor Vishambhar Nath of Sankat Mochan temple said rather wryly, “There is only one ruler in Kashi and Modi can’t replace Lord Shiva.” Interestingly, I was told by temple managers at the Baba Kinaram Sthal that PM Modi’s writ does not reach there as he has never visited the most revered and powerful tantric (aghori) seat of power worshipped by Hindus, Muslims and others in the city. Shankaracharya Swami Swaroopanand Saraswati has objected to the use of “Har Har Modi”. Some citizens groups like Dharohar Bachao Sanghrash Samiti are also opposed to Narendra Modi’s status as the new lord of Varanasi.

Like Shiva, Modi, the political organiser and mass therapist par excellence, was also an outsider to Varanasi and the city his de facto seat of power. If legends are to be believed, Shiva, in his search for a permanent home for his consort Parvati, summoned city-deities Kshemaka and Nikumbha to oust King Divodasa from Varanasi. Likewise, Modi has also invoked new mythologies of hyper-nationalism and vikas (development) to get hold of the city. In the process, he seems to have converted Varanasi into a hegemonic Kyoto-like Hindu city of religious and secular pleasures.

Come to the ghats of Varanasi — the new location of majoritarian ‘NARA’ (national ambition, regional aspiration). The riverfronts have become much more swachh. The pilgrims have overcome traditional guilts of power and wealth, and demand better facilities and five-star Ganga darshan. The religious experience has become a Dionysian carnival. Pilgrimage has become so commercial that you don’t mind paying Rs 1,800 for special Aarti ticket during Mahashivaratri. Shiva has never been this expensive in the history of Varanasi.

Also read: Modi wants Paris look for Varanasi, but residents say city identity ‘under attack from BJP’

Trained in modern gurukuls of evangelical Hinduism, young priests performing Ganga Aarti at the famous Assi Ghat have become trendier and cosmetic. Former Vedic scholars and local historians have started selling political pamphlets to attract new clients. Most itinerant, subaltern sadhus have disappeared from the ghats. Traditional dom rajas and their attendants have started taking coaching classes to become tour guides in the ‘grand corridors’ around Kashi Viswanath temple. Everyone in the city fears the rising cost of living and is trying to adapt to excruciating demands of upwardly mobile life.

In other words, perhaps much more significant than his electoral victory across diverse political geographies in India, the unprecedented transformation of the most sacred Hindu city by Narendra Modi holds the key to understanding his near-mythical status.

Historically speaking, Varanasi is the kind of symbol, which condenses the whole of India into a sacred geography embodying all the tirths of Hindus. If you are overwhelmed by Shiva lingams everywhere in the city, you are also dumbstruck by the modern temples of Bharat Mata. Varanasi is a city of metaphors. So, don’t be surprised when the poet Kedarnath in his iconic Banaras poem says, “One half of the city lives in water; the other half is a dead body (shava)”.

In the past, Varanasi has resisted binaries because it has many selves. It’s primitive and modern. It’s eternal and ephemeral. It’s ascetic and hedonistic. It is sublime and filthy. It is a horror and liberating at the same time. It’s strongly sexual and deeply spiritual. But sadly, the primeval and ancient charms of the city are being threatened by the pro-capitalist joys of neo-Hinduism.

Also read: Here’s how PM Narendra Modi performed as Varanasi MP

Although Modi’s cheerleaders won’t admit it, but Varanasi is neither a purely Hindu city nor an un-Hindu city — Muslims, Buddhists and several heterodox sects also consider it a holy place. In fact, Banarasi Muslims are an integral part of the city’s culture. For instance, the mythic memory of Muslim warrior-saint Ghazi Miyan Baba — who was a protector of cows, brother to a Hindu queen and helped low-caste Hindu women — continues to inform quotidian cultural and religious practices in Varanasi. That’s why you’ll find local women from different communities performing rituals like mehndi and changing of drapery at the dargah of Ghazi Miyan Baba.

Varanasi is actually a sacral, hymnal map without fixed territorial boundaries or geographical coordinates. Harbouring dreams of replacing Shiva as the ruler of the city could destroy the essence of Varanasi.

The city promises much more than a good life or political triumph — it’s here that the eternal light shines. Let’s keep in mind why saint-poet Kabir cautioned us about the ephemeral nature of power in Varanasi:

Sadho re, yeh murdon ka gaon
yeh murdon ka gaon…
Peer mare, paigambar mari hain
mar gaye zinda jogi
Raja mari hain, parja mari hain
mar gaye baid aur rogi

(Keep in mind, this is a village of the dead.
The saints have died, dead are the living mendicants.
The ruler is dead, dead are the ruled,
dead are the physicians and the patients.)

The author is a poet, policy researcher and professor of political science at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Mumbai). His recent book is titled “Banaras and the Other”, first of a trilogy on religious cities in India.

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  1. What is this author smoking ? Modi trying to be the Lord of Varanasi ! How ? By performing poojas and by fighting elections ? Varanasi and the whole country has given mandate to Modi.I know commies the world over don’t believe in democracy,but at least you and your ilk can just fake it lest they disappear from Indian political landscape.

  2. Typical trash to be expected from an intellectually colonized person. The scary part is that the guy is a journalist who can potentially influence innocent minds.

    A myth is something that is fictional (not true). There is no “Mythology” in India. India has Itihaasas.

    The intellectually-colonized liberal journalist earned their perks and privileges by toeing the line of their colonial masters. Hence the nonsense they write. With the advent of social media, the polarized mainstream media has become irrelevant. They still do not seem to realize it. Give them time to die a natural death.

  3. Author first study and wright also Muslims in India what they done to temple we know please go home and check your history too

  4. Very negative minded article. The hatred against Modi is coming from every sentence. This would continue to back fire on them in time to come…

    • Billi boli chuhe raja meo meo,
      Mein to chali kashi,
      Ao gale mil gayo,
      Modiji chale Kashi,
      Hindustan ko bewakoof bana ke
      Modi bhai aur 44 chor (mantris),
      Panch saal aur desh ko barbad karenge

  5. Why shy away from the fact that Kashi Vishwanath Temple was razed by Aurangzeb and Gyan Vyapi mosque created on that spot? The current Kashi Vishwanath temple was built much later at a nearby spot. This is not to suggest that something must be done about it, but simply to point out that selecting facts to suit your political perspective is what got us to into the religious quagmire to start with. There have been religious tensions in the past (there were bomb blasts in a temple a few years ago); there has been harmony as well. The falsification of history doesn’t help.

    • You guys come always come up with some thing! You couldn’t even prove that there was a temple at Babri Masjid you were talking about for decades.

      • No amount of education and learning will overcome closed minds. All you had to do was to look up the history of Gyan Vyapi mosque. Given its recent history (Aurangzeb’s time) it is not even contested. By the way, ASI found that Babri Masjid was built on top of a much older structure – given the history of the big structures of that time it was almost certainly a temple. By the way, even if Babri Masjid was built on top of a temple, that fact alone does not justify its destruction today. But concerted falsification of history over the last 70 years is a big part of where why we are so divided today.

  6. No doubt this city is gearing up for a big overhaul both in spritual and materialistic terms;nevertheless,some measures must be taken to improve job prospects of its inhabitants, particularly those of its young generation.On a recent visit to this great city,I was apalled to see many young educated youths selling ‘jal-jiras’ for their livelyhood.

  7. Malicious and false propaganda. Every hindu knows he cannot replace or take the Lord’s place. Cheap motive.get some medication.

  8. Leave it or lump it Modi is the new Lord of India and Kashi or Varanasi is but a small piece of it. Those who oppose Modi in Varanasi (as listed by the author) are themselves losers and nobodies. The first ‘Gangaputra’ was Bhishma in Dwapar yuga, the second is born in Kalyuga and his name Narendrabhai Damodardas Modi. Bhishma was invincible, so is Modi.

  9. Liberals have lost their mind. When did Modi say he wants to “lord” over Varanasi. He is a humble Shiv-bhakth. That’s all. Liberalism = Lies. Why would New India NOT want to throw away the liberals?

  10. What a negative article to read…. yakk….!!!
    Means if evryother person prays so hard amd give those bali etc they are devotees and if that person simply prays bcs he is hardcore hindu…. He is tryng to replace Shiv… Wow…
    Chnge ur thinking dear….. Atleast have some positivity so that readers can feel good to get some good news

  11. what is your problem, brainless moron! what is your point? this man just broke all the records in election and who are you? a barking dog? useless loser

  12. Why would mix up mythology and reality and concoct something in the name of news. Write a fiction please. BTW Modi or no Modi worshipping is expensive if you insist on private audience and special Darshan. Come up with novel ideas to beat that.

  13. The article is quite boring and I’m sure this professor must be lacking interest of students in his class. He seems to be having quite a weird concept as is apparent from the content

  14. 1st, word ” mythology” For hinduism isn’t accepted. 2nd, writer’s intellect brain looks tilted more anti to majority population of India via entering the faith and customized morals of this majority population. Writer looks insecure coz it appears tht he/she thinks tht Modi stands anti to those national n international forces who are head over heels to drive this majority as “underdogs”, when he uses word ” Neo-Hinduism”. Spreading hatred is wht this blog reveals throwing the blame to the ruling BJP. “Try ur best, u cnt injure us anymore with ur hatred policies”. Jai Hind.

  15. The moment I saw the author use the word “subaltern,” I knew he was a loony lefty Marxist. I read the rest of the article for its amusement value. I enjoy watching these Marxists gasping for air like fish out of water after BJP’s victory.

  16. I’ve read it a few times with the hope of understanding how the author has come to know that Modi wants to be the lord of Varanasi. Also, for the sake of argument, even if it is true, why it would not be good news. Nope, I see none of that. Instead, I get to read some nonsense like “majoritarian ‘NARA’” and “Everyone in the city fears”. What is majoritarian about NARA? If everyone was afraid of rising costs under Modi’s administration, how did he even win the election?

    Looking back at the author’s articles, it is pretty clear he is a Modi baiter, and that is blatantly obvious in this article too. It’s amusing to see that these so called intellectual, award-wapasi gang hasn’t learnt that their fear mongering back fired big time handing Modi a bigger win.

    • Thank you for reflecting my own thoughts. The writer of the above article has his own false assumptions.

    • You have hit the nail right on the head. I had come to a similar conclusion regarding the author of this article.

  17. One question to the author? Do you support building a grand temple for Vishweshwara, in Kashi. Your article skips history and amnesia strikes for a period when grand temple here was destroyed by Muslim invaders. Now you are equating Modi to a invader. This kind of hatred is bad for health.

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