Kashi Manthan: Continuing Kashi’s Eternal Quest For Enlightenment

Kashi Manthan: Continuing Kashi’s Eternal Quest For EnlightenmentVaranasi ghats
Snapshot
  • Kashi Manthan will work to prevent Kashi, the progenitor of the ancient Indian traditions, from losing its moorings.

    The 4E’s: Education, Engagement, Empowerment and Enlightenment formula will be central to the group’s initiative.

“Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend and looks twice as old as all of them put together."

Kashi, the modern day Varanasi, could not have been better described than what Mark Twain, master of succinct, once wrote. To understand the mosaic called Kashi, believed to be the oldest living city in the world, one needs to travel with legends and history. Matsyapurana describes how Lord Shiva became a permanent resident of Kashi as a boon to the penance of Yaksha Harikesha. Devout Hindus believe that Kashi is held up on the Trishul (trident) of Lord Shiva and is indestructible. Puranas refer to Kashi as centre of the universe.

Adi Shankaracharya in his Kashi Panchakam described the city:

मनोनिवृतिः परमोपशान्तिः

सा तीर्थवर्या मणिकर्णिका च।

ज्ञानप्रवाहा विमालादिगंगा

सा काशिकाहं निजबोधरुपा।।

(I am that city of Kashi in the form of my own pure awareness. The supreme peace is that is the quietude of the mind is that Manikarnika Ghat, the holiest of the holy. The flow of the waking consciousness is the divine Ganges.)

Kashi Khand of Skandpurana has innumerable references to Kashi. Since times immemorial, the city has been the centre of philosophical, spiritual, religious and academic discourses. Seers from around the country congregated to deliberate, discuss and expound on theories ranging from the mystical and spiritual to the mundane. Buddha gained enlightenment in Gaya, but delivered his first sermon at Sarnath in Kashi. The ruins of Sarnath, including the Ashok Pillar, bear testimony to an era when Ashoka’s ‘Dhamma Ghosh’ had replaced ‘Ran Bheri’ (call to arms), as the great emperor even sent out his children to promote peaceful co-existence propounded by Buddhism. Similarly, Adi Shankaracharya’s debates in Kashi led to establishment of his philosophy of Advaitvaad (dualism) and revived the Hindu religion sagging under the travails of history and social upheavals.

Kashi’s acceptance of theories ranging from prosaic to the mundane and encouragement to people to express what less blessed societies would consider blasphemous, made the city a melting pot for enlightened individuals. It was Kashi where Kabir could uninhibitedly confront the entrenched religious dogmas through his Dohas (couplets). The ones like;

कंकर-पत्थर जोरि के  मस्जिद लई बनाय,

ता चढ़ि मुल्ला बांग दे का बहरा भया खुदाय |

which challenged the entrenched superficialities of religious practices, would not have been acceptable in many other societies than Kashi. For Kashi, Kabir’s religious identity remained irrelevant.

The all-embracing character of the city has ensured that intellect has taken precedence over any other identity. It was this acknowledgment of the intellect which allured Tulsidas, perhaps the greatest bard India has produced, to the city and compile the Ramacharit Manas. Manas’s association with the local dialects ensured that indentured labourers in places like Fiji, Surinam and Mauritus sung the verses to preserve their culture and traditions in trying times. It was Kashi which allowed Tulsidas to challenge established linguistic and caste hierarchies without fear of any recrimination. The fact that Kabir and Tulsidas were in the vanguard of the Bhakti movement in the 15th century epitomises Kashi’s respect for individual choice.

Innumerable intellectuals from across the world have made Kashi their home and have seamlessly blended into the uncountable gullies (alleys) of the city. The enlightening experiences of Ramakrishna Paramhansa and Swami Vivekananda’s have been chronicled by various writers. Annie Besant’s establishment of Central Hindu College became the seed for Madan Mohan Malaviya’s Banaras Hindu University (BHU). Malaviya himself preferred Kashi to his native Allahabad to establish BHU, a product of the nationalist debate prevailing in the early 20th century. A visionary far ahead of his times, Malaviya established the university to produce empowered academics rather than babus rolling off the conveyor belt of the British-introduced education system in the country.

Successor to the city’s philanthropy for academic causes, Maharajah of Banaras unhesitatingly donated land for BHU. For Kashi, merit and intent prevailed over any other discourse, like the status of one’s family.

The eclectic nature of Kashi allowed even foreigners like James Prinsep and Annie Besant the freedom to flourish. Prinsep worked tirelessly to document the minutest details pertaining to the city. His paintings of the ghats are a testimony to his love for the city where he referred to the river Ganga as ‘My Ganga’.

Reverence of the Ganga as mother in Kashi predates all modern ecological preservation. In a nutshell, Kashi was the progenitor of the ancient Indian tradition of preferring knowledge and truth over self-preservation.

Glorification of the past by disowning the present is, however, a mistake which any vibrant society should abhor. If newspapers in a city of intellect and wisdom, that made Diana Eleck refer to Kashi as ‘City of Lights’, carry full page reports for days at a stretch about the murder of a gangster in an inter-gang rivalry, something seems to have gone awry. If newspapers discuss conspiracy theories and carry emotional and elaborate reports about how a Mafiosi obtains parole and turns up for the funeral of an associate killed by rivals, the decline in values should no longer be ignored.

When intelligent youngsters start preferring the new education hotspots like Pune and Hyderabad and abandon a city which boasts of two central and two state universities, something seems to be amiss. When journalists from the Lutyens circuit who descended on the city in 2014 during what they called ‘Battle of Banaras’ and smirked condescendingly at Narendra Modi’s choice as his constituency, the intellectuals should have taken note. Signs of youth preferring social media profiles displaying photographs with strong men and small time politicians instead of academics and achievers, are ominous.

Like any ancient society, Kashi has displayed signs of intellectual decay for some time - and what better indicator than the shift of the city that had empowered debate and discussion at the core of its existence to one which prefers the shallowness of political one-upmanship. Are we to blame institutions or society for this decline? Can we consider institutions as isolated from society they cater to?

Kashi Manthan officials at the inaugural conclave on paradigms of national security
Kashi Manthan officials at the inaugural conclave on paradigms of national security

It was these and more such questions which led to the birth of Kashi Manthan. We were a group of individuals worried at the sight of a city losing its moorings. Talk of demographic dividend favouring India was also at the core of our worries. Does dividend mean only the mass of ignorant youngsters that any wily politician or criminal could shepherd around their selfish cause? Or did this dividend include an empowered generation which could absorb the good and the not so good with equanimity and take independent decisions?

For us, this critical mass of youth needed mentors more than teachers. Schools and universities are doing what they can, but more support is required to balance the banality being spread through social and even mainstream media. When we express concern about the present generation’s disconnect with its legacy and traditions, do we really acknowledge the lack of effort from society to educate the youth. It is time we realised that ignorance is not always bliss. It is this ignorance which is being utilised by forces inimical to the existence of India as a cultural entity and play mischief with the minds of our youngsters.

We decided that Kashi Manthan will try to fill this gap and prop up the efforts being done through routine curriculum. Our approach is based on what we call the 4E’s: Education, Engagement, Empowerment and Enlightenment.

A section of the audience at the conclave
A section of the audience at the conclave

Our effort is based on using the 4E’s specifically for disseminating knowledge in our core areas of national security, foreign policy, historical legacy, heritage and leadership. Our concept for empowering the youth is through interactions with experts and also providing platform for the intellectuals and youth of Kashi to themselves deliberate upon nation and society building ideas. Debates and discussions are just the external manifestations of the intellectual manthan (churning) we expect as a result of this movement. We will leave no stone unturned to revive the practice of discussion and debate prevalent in Kashi for ages. The Indian tradition of informed debate and argument needs to be retrieved from the uninformed hullaballoo which passes off for debates on television channels. As successors of the Vedic tradition, this quest to know needs to be strengthened through public participation.

Kashi Manthan also plans to become the nucleus for ideas for the rebuilding of India. For long, as a society, we have criticised New Delhi for being the centre of Indian intellectual universe without making any serious efforts to spread the narrative of academics or for using information to build knowledge and perspective. Kashi Manthan wishes to be the platform for ideation, which ensures that knowledge reaches smaller cities and centres that have faced neglect till now.

Locals in Kashi have an innate belief in the saying that Kashi is the Darbar (court) of Lord Shiva and only the blessed have the opportunity to serve in Shiva’s court. Kashi, with its proclivity for encouraging debates and permitting alternative discourses, is destiny’s favoured child as progenitor of fresh ideas. It is not without reason that Buddha, Adi Shankaracharya, Tulsidas and James Prinsep to name a few, attained their objectives in Kashi despite not being natives of the city. There is something in atmosphere of Kashi which encourages both traditional and radical ideas. Kashi Manthan is just trying to wipe the dust which has settled on this legacy with the passage of time. We hope to supplement the call for revival of the nation which has gone out of the city.

The fact that residents of the city are concerned by the decay in the intellectual capital manifested itself in the encouraging crowd funding which we had to resort to, after big city sponsors refused to believe that Kashi had the potential to establish a new narrative. People are concerned and are willing to go the extra mile to revive and rejuvenate the knowledge domain of the city. Packed auditoriums have sat through and responded with enthusiasm in equal measures on our ‘Conclaves on Paradigms of National Security’ which had Ambassadors, Admiral and senior Generals as speakers and an inter-school debate.

Kashi Manthan is only trying to make its humble contribution to this magnificent legacy of providing fresh dimension to narratives for nation and human evolution. We are only small flag-bearers in the city’s continuing quest for enlightenment. And what better way than Adi Shankaracharya’s immortal verse that describes the essence of Kashi:

काश्यां हि काश्यते काशी काशी सर्वप्रकाशिका ।

सा काशी विदिता येन तेन प्राप्ता हि काशिका ।।

(Enlightenment exists in Kashi only. Kashi showers light of knowledge through divinity, physical and spiritual paradigm on its inhabitants. He who understands Brahm (divinity) of Kashi obtains enlightenment and experiences Kashi.)

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