The Interreligious Resilience of Varanasi
Telling and passing down narratives of interreligious amity in cities like Varanasi can demonstrate the countervailing power of peace.
By Kalpana Jain
In July 2018, in yet another case of violence against minority Muslims, a man was lynched for allegedly killing a cow. This is not an isolated act of such horrific violence. Ever since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a rising Hindu nationalism has targeted minorities. A month earlier, an eight-year-old Muslim girl was brutally raped and killed, reportedly to drive her nomadic tribe out of the area. In the past, mobs have lynched a number of Muslim men for consuming beef. Many commentators have pointed to the age-old animosities between these religious groups to argue that Hindus and Muslims cannot live together.
As someone who grew up in Meerut, a city with a 36 percent Muslim population in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, I am not unaccustomed to flare-ups between religious communities. But I never witnessed the scale and the spread of hatred that is going on currently. On September 5, 2017, my own friend and colleague at The Times of India, Gauri Lankesh, a critic of Hindu nationalists, was shot dead in one such senseless act of violence.
In my hometown, communal flare-ups were considered anomalies in an otherwise tolerant city. The “work of outsiders” were the words that my young ears heard, as communities came back together. Each festival was a time to celebrate diversity, as copious amounts of food traveled from home to home. On Eid, we would scoop up bowlfuls of sewains, sweet vermicelli loaded with nuts, from our Muslim friends, as much as they would savor our Diwali sweets. My parents did not hesitate to appeal to a different higher power, if that is what a well-wisher suggested in times of crisis, be it at a Sufi shrine or with an amulet with Qur’an verses from a nearby mosque.
No matter the differences among us, the fabric of our daily lives was made up of friendships and shared stories that wove our communities together. In my experience, despite the assertion of the ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) that India is a Hindu nation, in small towns and villages this plurality is what still keeps India together. But now, the narrative of hatred is so strong and powerful that the aggressor, who was always considered an outsider in the years of my childhood, has, in some communities, become an insider.
Yet, at the same time, for many ordinary people—whether Hindu or Muslim—the stories they have learned through the generations are what they still tell each other. These are the stories that make India’s diversity so extraordinary.
I recently visited the ancient city of Varanasi. On the face of it, given the current spread of Hindu nationalism, Varanasi might appear to be a tinderbox. It is a major center for Hindu pilgrimage and is also the parliamentary constituency of Prime Minister Modi.
For its majority Hindu population, it is a city created by the Supreme Lord, Shiva, for his beloved consort Parvati, and where he continues to dwell in eternity. Its strong Hindu religiosity is evident alongside the river Ganga, where this city has existed for centuries. The ghats, a more than four-mile stretch of riverfront steps, built around the fourteenth century, are where devoted Hindus gather on any given day. These steps lead to the many temples, and also to the site of cremation, where Hindus prefer their final rites to be performed. Death in Varanasi is itself considered to bring salvation. A dip in the sacred waters of the Ganga is said to wash away all sins.
There are thousands of Hindu temples, but for the 28.8 percent of Varanasi’s residents who are Muslim, there are also hundreds of Muslim shrines and mosques. There are places of worship of many other faiths, too. The city is an important pilgrimage center for Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs. Barely six miles from Varanasi is Sarnath, the place where Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment.
In its congested, dense lanes and byways, these multiple faith traditions live in close physical proximity to one another. Much of the city retains its ancient form, what scholar Diana Eck describes as lingering in “another era” and Mark Twain described as “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend.” Most lanes that lead into residential areas or marketplaces are so narrow that if midsize cars pass through, as they do, even pedestrians have to hop off the road. On either side of such a narrow passage could be a string of shops or residential homes. Hindus and Muslims often live in separate neighborhoods, but a true separation isn’t really possible in a city this dense. A Hindu neighborhood will gradually blend into a Muslim one, with only a mosque to make the difference apparent.
In this dense and close-knit city, it is not possible for one faith to live without the others. Interdependence, built over centuries, is nurtured and cultivated in multiple ways.
I went around the city of Varanasi and talked to a wide cross-section of the local population, across different faiths. What became clear to me is that, while each faith tradition might have its own religious spaces, beliefs, and rituals, in this dense and close-knit city, it is not possible for one faith to live without the others. Interdependence has been built over centuries, and it is nurtured and cultivated in multiple ways.
All the people I spoke to are acutely aware of the current environment of increased fear among minorities and the growing radicalization of nationalists, but they have sought to distance themselves from it. Unlike in my childhood, people did not point to an obscure, invisible “outsider” but blamed current politics. Professor Vishwambhar Nath Mishra, mahant, or chief priest, of Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple, made his views clear. “I am a practicing Hindu, not a radical Hindu,” he asserted, in what appeared to be a clear reference to the increasing Hindu radicalization.
His temple is an important site for this discussion. It draws thousands of devotees each day, and it was here that the first terrorist attack against it occurred in 2004, when 28 people were killed. Today, this temple is at the forefront of interfaith efforts. One way in which it contributes to interfaith relations is through music, “a common, global language,” explained Mishra, who is an engineer by profession and a professor at the well-known seat of learning, Banaras Hindu University.
In 2016 and 2017 the Pakistani singer Ghulam Ali came from Pakistan to perform. There were tensions and protests, but the program was still conducted peacefully. The fact that a Muslim from Pakistan was invited, and that he agreed to come, both warrant attention. How the event played out is a reminder of the deeply fraught, centuries-old history of Hindu-Muslim tensions, but at the same time it exemplifies how these two religious communities can work (and have) through their differences. In his remarks, Ali communicated his desire, as an artist, to transcend any religious differences. He said to one journalist, “I have nothing to do with politics. I came because I was invited. Whether they love me or abuse me, I will continue to sing. Hanuman ji has called me here.”1
That people did not want political interference or religious or national division was demonstrated by the large numbers who turned up to listen to Ali. Despite the threats, the event was a huge success.
What is important to note is that such peace efforts are not a recent phenomenon. This is a city that has been through many waves of destruction and reconstruction. The first Muslim crusaders came around 1000 CE, followed by many more conquests in which religious sites were destroyed. Sharing this common space would not have been possible without instituting practices that could keep peace between the different religious communities.
One illustration is a practice during the Shi’i observance of Muharram, which Mishra described. Shiite Muslims observe the first ten days of Muharram to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, and his family. The procession involves carrying the tazia, a paper and bamboo replica of the tomb of Hussain, through the lanes of the city. Horses decorated for battle, with swords, are also taken out in the procession, in memory of Hussain’s horse. Interestingly, in Varanasi, the custodian of the horse is a Hindu family. The procession cannot move without their participation. This observance is also a time when the waters of the Ganga are not just sacred for Hindus, but for fellow Muslims as well. In much of India, there is a tradition of burying the tazia, but in Varanasi, until recently, the tazia was immersed in the sacred Ganges—as is Hindu custom. (This practice has stopped recently in an effort to stem the uncontrolled levels of pollutants streaming into the river.)
These stories are told as much by Hindus as by Muslims. I met Siraj Ahmed Shah, a Muslim weaver, and one in the twelfth generation of his family to continue this trade, in his modest double-storied home, to ask what, if anything, has changed in the current environment. Shah started off by telling me how he has “lots of Hindu friends” and how he gets “lots of love in Banaras.” Given that he was talking to a non-Muslim, it is quite possible that Shah hid his deeper fears. But it is the conversation that followed that is important to understand.
What I heard, as did his two small children, sitting in his lap, were the stories of Hindu-Muslim amity that had been passed down to him, through generations.
First, Shah urged me to partake of the dates he had served as part of his hospitality. The dates were from a Haj pilgrimage, undertaken recently by a family member. When I started to throw away the pits, he stopped me. “The pits have sacred value,” he said gently, for the dates had traveled from Mecca. That he knows he can say it to me without fear, and also knows that I will respect the religious sentiment, is a moment of appreciation for me of the deeper sense of oneness that was an important part of my growing-up experience.
As he became more comfortable during the conversation, Shah narrated one story after another to convey how, and why, his beliefs of unity have been formed. Some came out of his own experience and some were part of the popular lore. He explained how, each year, the Hindu festival of Holi is celebrated at the Sufi shrine. As popular lore goes, even in centuries gone by, when some Muslims objected, they were admonished by the pir, or Sufi master. In telling this story, he acknowledged the age-old tensions, the fears, but also the efforts, over generations, of Muslim religious leaders to sustain a harmonious bond.
His next words reminded me of what I had often heard growing up about the “work of outsiders”—that it was politicians behind the instigations. He said, “Banaras is a place where there are no differences, it’s all political. It’s all about trying to get votes. Someone who is truly religious does not do politics.”
He then narrated another story, which too was passed on over generations, of how a Muslim man wanted to watch the Ramlila, the reenactment of Rama’s life. Animatedly, even as sewing machines in the next room buzzed and more bales of silk arrived for processing, he described the sequence of events in this story: A man, working in the shop of a tailor—a reminder of Shah’s own trade—was keen on going for the last day of the Ramlila, but his employer kept him back. By the time he rushed out, he knew he would not be able to make it. It was then that a miracle happened: a heavenly voice asked him to stop and shut his eyes. It was a Sufi saint who interceded so that he could fulfill his desire.
In these stories and narratives were our shared cultures—Muslim and Hindu—and Shah, though years younger than me, understood them as deeply as I did. As he concluded, I wrapped up the pits of the dates, as I would the offerings from temples, to carry with me to bless my home in the United States. He further stressed this sentiment: “I always saw how Hindus and Muslims lived together. Religion spreads love. If someone gives pain, can he be Hindu or Muslim?”
As I walked through the streets of Varanasi, I witnessed, on the one hand, a Hindu fervor, as the devout headed to the temples, but also, on the other, Muslim religiosity, as a peaceful Muslim religious procession made its way through the city.
As I walked through the streets of Varanasi, I witnessed, on the one hand, a Hindu fervor, as the devout headed to the temples, but also, on the other, Muslim religiosity, as a peaceful Muslim religious procession made its way through the city. In those narrow lanes, the majority Hindus moved to one side, to allow its passage. In the dizzying diversity of the city, such scenes of harmony can be seen at any given time or place, and within any community.
By the banks of the sacred Ganga, Christian communities have also found acceptance. Father Yann Vagneux, a priest with the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris (MEP), came to India when he was 21 and has made Varanasi his home for the past six years.
He agrees there are religious and political tensions, but he also gives examples of how communities are trying to bridge the gap. Since 1952, three communities of nuns have settled along the banks of the Ganga—a river so sacred that Hindus immerse the final ashes of the physical body, following its cremation. It is not only along the banks of this sacred river that Hindus share their religious space, but also right in the heart of their main pilgrimage center, for one of the order’s contemplative communities, Mariammae Ashram (Mary’s home), is situated close to the Vishwanath mandir, which for Hindus is the abode of the lord of the city, Shiva.
To understand the deeply religious significance of this place for Hindus, think of Christians making a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. That Catholic nuns have found acceptance at a site as holy as this speaks to how accustomed the city is to its multicultural and multifaith fabric. Putting this in context, Father Vagneux asks, “Can you imagine a small community of Muslim maulanas going to the Vatican and asking for a place to live and hold namaaz?”
For its part, the Catholic Church regularly organizes interreligious meetings around major festivals such as Diwali and Eid. On the occasion of Christmas, different faith communities gather for an hour-long prayer service at the invitation of the church. Father Vagneux describes witnessing in these interreligious gatherings what might defy the understanding of many devout believers. In his own room, where he gathers his friends, the Hindus chant shanti shlokas (peace prayers) for Jesus, the Muslims read the texts of the Qur’an that relate to the conception of Jesus, and other religious groups sing their proper songs. In the final rituals, everybody joins for the aarti, a ritual taken from Hindu practice, in which a prayer is sung before an image of Christ.
In every place I visited, diverse communities demonstrated their resilience against the emerging political narrative. The power of this resilience was not primarily in organizing interfaith meetings but in affirming and practicing traditions that are already so much a reality for the different communities.
In the temples of Varanasi, many of the Muslim disciples of Bismillah Khan, a Muslim maestro of the shehnai, a musical instrument that originally came to India from the Middle East, still continue the practices and traditions started by their guru. As Khan liked to say, he was a worshipper of both Allah and the Hindu goddess of learning, Saraswati. Today, no Hindu wedding is performed without the auspicious note of the shehnai, a rich reminder of the shared Indo-Mogul heritage.
Thus, I was not surprised when my conversations concluded with a beautiful rendition from the Bible, sung colloquially in the form of couplets in the local language, Bhojpuri, by none other than a Brahmin, Hari Prasad Dwivedi, now retired from his job at the government-run radio station, All India Radio. Present at the small gathering were many devout Hindus, both young and old.
In telling these stories, I want to be clear that I am not in any way minimizing the violence against minorities in India, or trying to put a gloss of any sort over the serious tensions that now exist. The truth is that, for many of us who grew up in India, such stories would be so commonplace that they wouldn’t be worth telling. So the telling of these stories is itself recognition of the current divisive environment.
At the same time, it is an attempt to reclaim the narrative from those nationalists for whom the plurality of India is a myth. At this point in time, narrating these daily conversations—between strangers and between friends—matters. The risk today is that if these stories are not repeated, then Shah’s children, or mine, will no longer understand the mystery of India’s 1.2 billion people, who live with multiple faiths, multiple gods, and multiple languages, while recognizing their oneness. There is a reason that Varanasi, despite its strong Hindu identity and the two terrorist attacks on its Hindu religious sites, has not seen violent incidents over beef eating, Muslim prayers, or other issues.
As the Muslim weaver in Varanasi told me, the date pits that traveled from Mecca to Varanasi, and now to my home in the United States, indeed have a sacred purpose. They symbolize the centuries-old practices of peace that keep these communities together, even in times of hatred.
In the end, it is up to each of us to decide which stories we choose to tell. But it is important to remember that the stories we tell will lay out the narrative that our children, and our children’s children, will go on to live. If we choose not to tell these stories because they are too ordinary, we risk losing them.
After all, it is the ordinary people, who, through what we might consider the ordinariness of their daily lives, build the extraordinary fabric of the day-to-day peace that the world benefits from—at least on most days.
- Siddhant Mohan, “Varanasi’s Sankat Mochan Music Festival Continues to Preserve Syncretic Traditions” The Wire, May 25, 2017.
Kalpana Jain, MTS ’17, is a journalist. In addition to her HDS degree, she holds a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard Kennedy School. She worked for many years at India’s leading national daily, The Times of India, and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 2009. Her book Positive Lives (Penguin, 2002) is the first detailed account of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in India.