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Hindu pilgrims stand on one of the ghats (flights of steps) situated on the west bank of the Ganges River in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh.
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The holiest of India's sacred cities, Varanasi's mythical status within Hinduism has attracted religious seekers and pilgrims since antiquity. Previously known as Benares and Kashi ("city of light"), the abode of the Hindu god Shiva, Varanasi is referenced in the Vedas and the Mahabharata. Hindus believe that dying in the city will liberate them from the cycle of death and rebirth. Its present name derives from the two rivers, Varuna and Asi, that join the Ganges River here and the city is the most celebrated pilgrimage, destination in India.
Varanasi's waterfront, with its miles of ghats, is the spiritual heart of the city that is home to hundreds of shrines, temples, and palaces. Its famous sites include the Vishvanath Temple, dedicated to Shiva; the Durga Temple, with its throngs of resident monkeys; the Sankat Mochan, a shrine to the monkey god Hanuman; and the Gyanvapi Mosque built by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb on the site of an earlier Shiva temple. Several miles north of Varanasi is Sarnath, where the Buddha preached his first sermon. Apart from its religious significance, Varanasi has been a center of learning—notably Sanskrit studies—and trade, and is known for its silk saris decorated with elaborately brocaded borders.
Practiced primarily in India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, Hinduism is considered the world's oldest religion, with traditions originating in and before the Neolithic era, around 8,000 years ago. Hinduism may have had its beginnings in the Indus River Valley in modern Pakistan, and the word hindu comes from the Persian name for that river.
A heterogeneous philosophy, Hinduism has no one founder and includes many sacred texts, the most ancient being the Vedas. Among the variety of genres included in the Vedic texts, composed 1500 – 1100 BCE, are hymns to gods, descriptions of rituals and philosophical writings. Commentaries on the Vedic books, written between 800 and 100 BCE, discuss the transcendent principal of Brahman, the source of the universe. Also influential are the great epics of the Mahabharata and Ramayana written between 500 BCE and 200 CE. Among these epics, the Bhagavad Gita describes the central idea of moksha, or liberation of the soul from the cycle of perpetual death and rebirth. The primary principle of karma determines the character of the soul in this cycle.
Although Hinduism contains elements of polytheism, monotheism and monism, all gods within Hinduism are today considered manifestations of Brahman. Many Hindus practice devotion to one of three main deities: Brahma, the creator of the cosmos; Vishnu, preserver of the cosmos; and Shiva, destroyer of the cosmos.
In Hinduism, the nature of the universe and the structure of society are closely linked. Brahman is the ultimate reality and also the name given to the highest (priestly) caste. The concept of dharma describes both cosmic law and the conduct of individuals in society, including adherence to the social order. Castes in orthodox Hindu society distinguished among people of priestly, military, merchant, peasant, and untouchable (individuals with no social standing) castes—now known as dalits and the focus of positive discrimination legislation and job quotas in today's democratic India.
Approximately 80% of India's population today practices Hinduism.
Shiva, known as the destroyer, is the third of the principal gods of the Hindu. The triad's two other gods are Brahma, the creator of the universe, and Vishnu, the preserver of the universe. Hindus believe that Shiva periodically destroys the world in order to recreate it and is the source of both good and evil.
Shiva is depicted in many forms and known by 1,008 names, which are detailed in the Shiva Purana. He is often presented with a blue face and throat; long, dark matted hair; and holds a trident, which corresponds to the functions of the Hindu triumvirate. His forehead is anointed with three horizontal lines in white ash and may also feature a third eye, a symbol of wisdom and untamed energy. Among the most ancient representations of Shiva is as a lingum, a phallic statue that symbolizes his progenitive powers, and as a yogi, seated cross-legged in meditation dressed in a loincloth or simple animal skin.
Figures of a dancing shaman/deity with trident bangles and an animal headdress has been found on prehistoric wall paintings in Central India and though this is disputed, many scholars see a proto-Shiva as depicted on seals from the Indus Valley civilization. When depicted in the pose of the cosmic dancer, Nataraja (or Lord of the Dance), Shiva's dual nature is manifest in a single image, for his dance is believed to both destroy and restore the universe. He is also the ideal family man and husband when shown with his wife, the goddess Parvati, and his two sons, Ganesha and Skanda.
Many Hindus worship Shiva as the supreme and all-powerful deity and are part of the Shaivism sect. As a mark of their devotion, Shaivite ascetics smear their bodies with ash, keep their hair uncut, and carry a trident.
The Vedas (sacred knowledge) are Hinduism's oldest and most sacred texts, composed between 1500 BCE and 600 BCE, and compiled by Vyasa Krishna Dwaipayana. The texts are collections of hymns and ritual instructions used to perform Vedic ceremonies, and the theology and philosophy they contain form the foundation of the indigenous religious systems of India which today we call Hinduism.
The oldest of the four works is the Rig-Veda, a collection of over 1,000 hymns, many of which invoke the deities Indra and Agni, the gods of war and fire, respectively. The remaining books are the Atharva-Veda, a collection of myths, verses, spells, and prayers named after the priest Atharavan; the Yajur-Veda, a book detailing Vedic sacrifice; and the Sama-Veda, a collection of liturgical chants.
Textual commentaries written by priests are attached to and elaborate on each of the Vedas and are also considered part of Vedic literature. These commentaries include the Brahmanas, Aranyakas, and Upanishads.
The Vedas are considered divine revelation or sruti ("that which has been heard") as opposed to texts of human origin, smrti ("that which is remembered"). Brahmin priests methodically memorized the content of the Vedas to ensure their consistent transmission to subsequent generations. The Vedas also provide early records of astronomy and mathematics in India that came out of Vedic ritual and temple construction.
The Mahabharata ("The Great Tale of the Bharatas") is one of two major epics in ancient Indian literature, the other being the Ramayana. The story first began in the oral tradition during the first millennium BCE and was composed in Sanskrit over centuries, beginning perhaps as early as 800 or 900 BCE, and reaching its final written form around the fourth century BCE. Attributed to the poet Vyasa, the epic is composed of nearly 100,000 verses divided into 18 books. The sixth book contains the central text of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita ("Song of the Bountiful Lord"), which discusses the four goals of life or purushartas—artha (worldly wealth and success), kama (pleasure and desire), dharma (righteousness), and moksha (knowledge and liberation from the cycle of birth and death). A dialogue between the warrior Arjuna and Krishna, the Bhagavad Gita makes dharma its central lesson: hesitating before the prospect of war, Krishna reminds the hero Arjuna of his selfless duty or dharma.
Set in the kingdom of Kurukshetra on India's northern plains, the epic narrates a succession struggle among members of the Bharata ruling family that results in a ruinous civil war. The Pandava brothers are pitted against their rival cousins, the Kauravas, who divest the eldest Pandava brother of his kingdom and his wife in a fixed gambling match. The brothers are forced into exile for 13 years during which time they prepare for war with their cousins. The Pandavas prevail in an 18-day battle that causes great loss of life on both sides. In contrast with the Vedas, which are considered "sruti" or divine revelation, the epics are considered smrti ("that which is remembered") or of human origin.
India's most revered river, the Ganges, or Ganga, is formed by the merging of two mountain streams, the Bhagirathi, which is fed by the melting of the Gangotri glacier, and the Alaknanda, at the village of Deoprayag in the foothills of the Himalayas. The Ganges flows parallel to, but several hundred miles south of, the Himalayas as it crosses northern India on its route east to the Bay of Bengal. Its tributaries bring down sediment-filled water from the mountains, which help create a wide, fertile plain that provides food and sustenance for nearly a billion people.
The river has played a vital role in the growth of the civilizations that developed along its shores, not only in terms of agriculture but commerce as well, and been worshipped by Hindus since ancient times. According to Hindu mythology, the Ganges is a goddess, Ganga, who dwelled in the heavens until a human king, Bhagiratha, prayed to the god Brahma to have her descend to Earth. Bhagiratha made this request in order to help cleanse and release the souls of his ancestors who had been burnt to death and condemned to wander in the nether-world. Although Brahma granted Bhagiratha's wish, Ganga was displeased and threatened to descend with such force that it would destroy the Earth. Bhagiratha then prayed to the god Shiva, who caught Ganga in his hair and released her in small streams to the Earth.
Traveling to places of religious import, whether temples, shrines, or cities, is a familiar part of every major faith in India. Found throughout the country, these sacred locations draw pilgrims because they are thought to bestow special blessings or spiritual knowledge. Pilgrimage has been a long-standing tradition within Hinduism. Many of the sites that Hindus visit are temples devoted to the life of a particular deity. Other destinations are found near rivers, the most sacred of which is the Ganges, where the faithful go to perform religious rites and bathe in the waters in order to be absolved of sins.
In Buddhism and Jainism, pilgrimage sites are connected to the life of the religion’s founders and the leaders and holy persons who followed and contributed to the faith's dissemination. Buddhist shrines developed around relics of the Buddha's body and important events in his life. Bodhgaya, in Bihar, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment, and Sarnath, in Uttar Pradesh, are among the most famous centers of pilgrimage.
For Jains, places where the faith's teachers (tirthankaras) achieved enlightenment, as well as locations that are home to famous temples or sculptures, are among the sites that draw pilgrims. The tombs of Sufi saints of the Chishti order, who thrived in India during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries CE, are the focus of Muslim pilgrimage in India and Pakistan. The shrine of one saint, Moinuddin Chishti, in Ajmer, Rajasthan, is especially venerated and attracts thousands of pilgrims during the Urs, the annual festival to mark the anniversary of his death. Even Hindus are known to worship there.
Although pilgrimage is not a part of Sikhism, devotees do journey to its foremost place of worship, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab, as well as locations associated with the lives of its ten gurus (spiritual leaders).
Ghats are the broad sets of steps that lead from the high bank of the Ganges River down to the waters where Hindu devotees take ritual baths to absolve their sins and increase their chances to attain moksha (liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth). Of the more than 80 ghats that line the river's western bank, the majority are used for bathing, while several are open-air crematoria (or "burning ghats"). The ghats are also where pilgrims congregate to perform pujas (religious offerings), especially at the auspicious time of sun rise; holy men meditate; and locals even wash clothes. The central bathing destination is the Dasavamedha Ghat, which is named for the spot where the Hindu god Brahma performed a ritual sacrifice of 10 horses.
Located six miles north of Varanasi (Benares), Sarnath is the location of the deer park where the Buddha preached his first sermon in the sixth century BCE after attaining enlightenment at Bodhgaya. Buddhism developed from the teachings he began imparting at Sarnath and the park has been a holy site for Buddhists since that time. Sarnath is also where the Buddha attracted his first five disciples, initiates of the faith's monastic order called the Sangha, the oldest religious association still in existence.
Among the Sarnath's important monuments are the Dhamekh stupa, erected on the site where the Buddha delivered his first sermon as well as a polished sandstone pillar, from the third century BCE, carrying inscriptions of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka. The elaborate lion capital at the top of the pillar, now located in the Archaeological Museum in Sarnath, was adopted as India's national emblem following independence in 1947.
The Buddha is the title given to the founder of Buddhism, and means "enlightened one." He was born Siddharta Gautama, a prince of the Shakya clan whose small kingdom was located on the border between India and Nepal. Although exact dates for key events of his life are still in dispute, most scholars believe he was born sometime in the mid-fifth century CE.
Siddharta grew up in luxury in the palace of his father, Suddhodhana, a warrior-caste king, and in his late teens married the princess Yasodhara. On venturing outside of the palace, he was shocked by the misery he witnessed—of an old man, a sick man, a dying man, and a corpse—and began to contemplate renouncing his princely life.
When Siddharta was about 29 years old, he left his wife and young son to seek religious enlightenment. He spent the next six years in his quest to understand and break free of temporal suffering. He studied under a number of teachers and lived as a wandering, religious ascetic, practicing extreme forms of self-deprivation. He eventually decided to abandon such austere practices and resolved to sit in meditation until gaining enlightenment. One day when he was mediating under a pipal tree in the village of Gaya, later known as Bodhgaya, he reached enlightenment and came to be called the Buddha.
For the next 45 years, the Buddha spent his life preaching his doctrine of the Four Noble Truths throughout northern India and attracted disciples and converts. The Buddha died, achieving parinirvana (final nirvana), at the age of 80 in the town of Kushinagar, in Uttar Pradesh.
- Why are pilgrimages important in India? What is the importance of the pilgrimage sites in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism?
- What is the role of pilgrimages in Christianity and Islam?