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”.
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.
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.
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.