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Varanasi: A Reflection on Mortality

Death creeps through every corner—a mesmerizing tapestry of glowing fires on the Ghat steps, a haunting scent of ashes and rotting corpses, and the solemn riverside ritual of sprinkling ashes into the sacred waters. This mysterious location is the city of Varanasi, also known as Kashi or Banaras. This colorful North Indian city sits nestled between the Varuna and Assi rivers in the state of Uttar Pradesh.


Life in Varanasi mirrors the cultural vibrancy found across India, but it harbors a unique experience that draws Hindu pilgrims from across the globe to witness and participate in public cremations. Diverse religious beliefs converge in Varanasi, with Hinduism at its forefront. Amidst the karma system and salvation concepts, the city emerges as a cultural hub for death, offering a unique perspective on life's continuation beyond the mortal plane.


The Ghats, wide steps leading into the river, harbor cremation grounds camouflaged by mismatched temples and waters adorned with dark remnants and flowers. The legendary 3500-year-old Cremation Flame, attributed to Lord Shiva, adds an otherworldly glow to this holy city. Myth and history intertwine as references to Lord Shiva shine. One notable example is the self-originated Linga in the great Crematorium of the Manikarnika Ghat. This Linga holds a sacred connection to Shiva that is believed to transcend earthly beings. Although the myths are contradictory and confusing to untangle, it is believed by Vedic mythology that Kashi was where Shiva practiced his Tapasya, (deep meditation), where he covered himself in cremated ash and meditated in the Aghor form. 


Varanasi's most famous inhabitants are the Aghoris—fearless seekers of liberation, dwelling in ashrams and challenging societal norms. In their ashrams, sacred safe spaces, these individuals pursue moksha by disregarding taboos, and ritually embracing the impermanence of life with symbolic practices such as nocturnal rituals, meditating on corpses, consuming human flesh, and even collecting skulls. According to the Aghoris, buildings and worldly possessions will one day vanish, so they are all “Maya”-- an illusion. They traditionally worship in this sacred city and seek moksha from the cycle of reincarnation. Because of this, it is believed as part of the Hindu culture that if you die in Varanasi, you will be freed from the cycle of reincarnation or “saṃsāra” and sent straight to Lord Shiva. 



In immersing oneself in the Aghori philosophy, one discovers a profound lesson regarding the interpretation of life and death. Varanasi's colorful Hindu culture paints death as a matter of perception and a master of illusion, inviting increasing reflection on our pasts. 


Ultimately, the city beckons one to explore the concept of mortality, urging them to apply the Aghori wisdom to our own lives. As one navigates the culture’s existential nuances, they are forced to contemplate these questions: Will my life, at its end, be stained by regret? Will I transcend common bias and societal pressure? Am I embracing a fearless pursuit of authenticity?










Works Cited

“Escaping Death and Rebirth on Varanasi’s Sacred Riverbanks.” Phys.org, phys.org/news/2018-11-death-rebirth-varanasi-sacred-riverbanks.html#:~:text=the%20electric%20crematoriums.-. Accessed 29 Jan. 2024.

https://www.facebook.com/tripsavvytips. “9 Must-See Ghats along the Ganga River in Varanasi.” TripSavvy, 2019, www.tripsavvy.com/must-see-ghats-in-varanasi-1539761.

“I CAN’T BELIEVE WHAT I AM SEEING! 🇮🇳 VARANASI.” Www.youtube.com, www.youtube.com/watch?v=vdywnUuviqg. Accessed 29 Jan. 2024.

“NIRVANA | STORY of LIFE and DEATH in VARANASI | AGHORIS | DOCUMENTARY.” Www.youtube.com, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jd1dkiNnZ8U. Accessed 29 Jan. 2024.

Raezer, Jennifer. “Visiting Varanasi (Benares): History, Sunrise, and the Ghats • Approach Guides.” Approach Guides, 15 May 2017, approachguides.com/blog/visiting-varanasi-benares-history-sunrise-and-the-ghats/. Accessed 29 Jan. 2024.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Varanasi | India.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 9 Aug. 2018, www.britannica.com/place/Varanasi.


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