Kashi, the semiotic dimensions
January 17, 2022
Project Kashi is a part of a new social contract being written which seeks to reclaim what rightfully belongs to Hindus of Bharat rashtra. — Dr. Jaya Kakkar
Kashi still invites devotees seeking salvation, escape from the worldly bondings. Since ancient times it has welcomed all. It was the prosperous capital of Kosala. It was an international trade hub connecting India to the lands across Khyber pass, showcasing fine silk and spun cotton. It was a famed seat of learning. It hosted accomplished artists, artisans, and musicians. But overtime it faced apathy, dereliction, and distraction due to invasions by Turks and Mughals. In this Kashi is located the famous kashiVishwanath Temple. As an appropriate metaphor, December 13, was used to showcase the spruced up version of the temple by none other than the PM Modi himself. It was the day terrorists had attacked our parliament. The presentation of the renovated mandir to the nation was symbolic of Hindus’ resolves to crush memories of its repeated desecration by non Hindus. In the past the temple was rebuilt by the Maratha queen Ahilyabhai (1777-1780), the last major sprucing up.
Kashi, in olden times, was an established and acclaimed seat of great learning, faiths, and languages. It was the seat of the Naga and Yaksha deities, welcomed all gods, and looked benevolently at dissenters. Yogis, Nath, Siddha, and Aghorpanthis – all kinds of heretics found residence here, as did the courtesans. Gradually the language Hindi embraced Urdu, and other dialects here to popularize ‘Nayi’ Hindi. Even if Varanasi witnessed so many massacres, bore the brunt of colonial loot, and suffered sectarian riots, the cultural vitality was not lost. Now, the adjacent Gyanvapi mosque appears visually dwarfed. Is it then a new project, full of symbolism? The statue of Nandi in the temple faces the adjacent mosque. But according to the devotes Nandi always faces the Lord. Hence the real garbhagriha (sanctumsanctorum) should be located there. To them it is the holiest of places, one of the 12 jyotirlinga sites where Lort Shiva appeared as a column of light, an infinite form with no beginning or end.
A commonly held account believes that the temple has existed since time immemorial; king Vikramaditya reconstructed it 2050 years ago. Aurangzeb ordered it to be razed. Instead, the Gyanvapi mosque was built. According to Historian Audrey Trusehke the temple was built during Akbar’s reign by Raja Man Singh. Now the Masjid stands alongside part of the ruined temple’s wall incorporated into the building.
Today’s Kashi Viswanath temple was built on an adjacent site by Ahilyabai. In 1991 a suit was filed in Allahabad High Court to restore the original structure in place of the mosque. But Muslims went to the court of obtain a stay. The then government in power of PM Rao then effected the places of worship (special provisions) act through parliament that mandated that the nature of all worship places (except in Ayodhya) would remain unaltered as it prevailed on India’s day of independence. Ayodhya was excluded because it was under litigation since before.
Though all places of worship were shielded, including Kashi and Mathura, BabriMasjid was damaged. This act of Narsimha Rao has been favorably commented upon by Supreme Court when it pronounced a judgment in favour of Hindus in Ram Janmabhoomi – Babri Masjid case. However, on March 30, 2021 the Supreme Court has sought government response on a public interest litigation (PIL) which challenges the constitutional validity of the act. In April 2021, a Varanasi Court admitted the plea that a dispute existed over Gyanvapi Mosque complex and ordered that the Director General of Archeological Survey of India (DGASI) conduct a survey to fix the fact if the Mosque at the disputed side is a superimposition, alteration or addition or any structural overlapping over any religious preexisting structure. For the moment, Allahabad High Court has stayed this order because petitions are already pending before the Allahabad High Court, a higher Court. This is where legal position stands.
Meanwhile the PM Modi has inaugurated the Rs. 800 crore Kashi VishwanathDham Corridor, which he terms as the bridge between the past and future. Varanasi is one of the oldest living cities in the world and has been able to maintain its holy status among Hindus forever. The newly built Kashi-Vishwadham corridor has shaped new links, albeit at the expense of snapping a few existing ones. The scale of rebuilding is awe inspiring. The temple has been refurbished magnificently. The whole complex stretches now from the temple complex to the LalitaGhat depicting a splendid architecture. This is only the phase-I of the whole project. There is a phase-II also. According to the PM whole idea is to reinforce our culture and ancient history. He wants it to be a marriage between ancient and modern.
Not that there are not voices of disquiet, however. Has there been a meeting of the Church and the state in the ‘secular’ India? Our PM has of course a different viewpoint. According to him, he has tried to achieve a balance between seemingly disparate spheres like politics, and religion, faith, and science, etc. Thus today’s India can simultaneously build temples as well as medical institutions. He suggests that India needs to ensure both vikas (development) and heritage (virasat). There are no contradictions.
However, skeptics beg to differ. India has been a great civilization which now has also become an independent political entity. India has never fought shy of embracing differences existing in the society in terms of cultures, religions, languages, and ideologies. For this India was respected the world over. It has generally been able to maintain the delicate balance between the diverse forces. India’s founding fathers advocated assimilation, not exclusion. But, according to critics, now the country is getting polarized, divisions are being engineered. This is further accelerated due to the presence of a powerless, ineffective, divided opposition. Not that this fragmented opposition is immune to using religion as a vole catching device.
The idea of India, as was known earlier, is slowly but surely changing. While it is early days to pronounce whether India will remain a secular democracy or become a Hindu Rashtra, there is no doubt that a new social contract is being written, a new consensus is being developed that Hindus must gain their ‘rightful’ place in Bharat, the new India. Let there be a foundational transformation through implementation of a larger project. Collaboration and assistance of all – media, cultural elites, aspiring political actors – is welcome in implementing the grand design. There is a widespread acceptability of the ideas about India being a Hindu nation. Opposition, whatever of it remains, has ceded ground without putting up a fight.
Question is, while the constitution of India still pronounces India to be a secular state, is the popular sentiment unwilling to accept it anymore? Well, the ultimate arbiter has to be the electorate in a democracy? One may question the rule of democracy itself, but that is a different question all together. Let’s wait for the results of UP election.
Dr Jaya Kakkar teaches History, Culture, and Environmental Studies at Shyam Lal College, Delhi University.