What is it that ‘Varanasi’ veils? Depth?1
Varanasi – the modern cocktail of religion and capital!
What is it that the Monotheism of Varanasi veils? Multiplicity?
Does it veil the maternal polytheism, the pagan pluralism of faith? Running through the lanes and bylanes? Running through the bylanes of bylanes? What is it that the capitalism of religion and the religion of capitalism veil? The spirituality of the older inhabitants of Benaras? The spirituality of the yet older inhabitants of Kashi? The spirituality of the adi-vasi – the original inhabitant – of Kashi, of Benaras? The spirituality of the even older ones who lived here before the widow from Bengal arrived.
Do we then need to distinguish between the scorchingly public religion of Varanasi and the solitudinal religion of the women of Kashi?
Do we then need to distinguish between the public religion of modern men and the medieval spiritual form of the feminine?
Do we need to distinguish between believed religion (marked by membership) and lived religion (marked by the widow’s praxis of self-transformation)?
What is it that the official Hinduism of Varanasi veils; another model of pagan hinduism? an Other imagination of hinduism? hinduism marked by an originary multiplicity of divinities; divine forms; paths to the divine – like the lanes and the by-lanes. There was no One path. No one Highway. No royal road to the Divine. This is the pagan hinduism of 33 crore godheads. 33 crore kinds of praxis of being-in-touch with the divine within.
Not the Monotheistic Hinduism of One God.
One Holy Shrine.
One Holy Book.
Does what Varanasi veils – i.e. the continuum from Kashi to Banaras – also offer a model of the human psyche? With its labyrinthine lanes and by-lanes; one leading to the other; one lending itself to the other; each waiting with a surprise-effect; each opening to a different divinity; a different idol – human idol, animal-idol: a different temple-mosque; a multiplicity of medieval divinities await us at every bend, at every u-turn, at every nook and corner.
One cannot but be amazed by the maze (a la Lacan).
Is the unconscious a labyrinthine structure?3 Of lateral associations? Of a horizontal mesh of lanes and bylanes; which do not lead to a final highway or a final destination; but to another lane or bylane?
The labyrinthine structure is in turn built on layers of life-history; on a thousand plateaus of the past; on the footprints of the Bengali widow who made her way down the slippery slopes of the ghats of Kashi, at sunrise; and made her way up the stairs to her puja room, in wet clothes; after a holy dip. The stairs still bear the marks of those lonely footprints. Of an abandoned single woman; not a widow; abandoned by the Bengali elite families, the Victorian-ised English educated Bengali. One can still hear the whisper of her laboured steps to an Other world; that was to come. This world had been cruel. Would the other world be kind? She was followed by the Jain traders of Rajasthan; the bearers of merchant capital. Who laid the foundation of another city-space – Benaras. The single woman’s Kashi overlaid by the Benaras of merchant capital. Benaras overlaid by Varanasi of Monotheistic Hinduism and the circuits of global capital. Could this be another way of conceptualising the unconscious? Conceptualising it as a repository of a thousand and one plateaus?
Banaras is as if the multiple geological layers of affect, emotion, feeling, longing, loss, hurt and hope. As also of sexuality – the worship of the lingam and the yoni. Of eros – the ardhanarishwar Radha-Krishna.
“To be in love is to get lost in a labyrinth. Love is labyrinthine. You don’t find yourself along love’s byways; you don’t find yourself.”
These labyrinthine structures are, as if, an immanent allegory of love.
This labyrinthine complexity, this depth of layers looks flattened, looks arid in contemporary Varanasi. One can call it: the death of depth.
As if, dry erectile greed of (capital) accumulation and the ‘philosophy of more’ has taken over the silent solitude of riverine spirituality.2
As if the regressive yet modern urge to be the Tallest, the Highest, the most Powerful has taken over the medieval horizontality of cohabitant poly-spirituality.4
- Debt: this reflection would not have been possible without inputs and insights from Niti (Gupta) in an accidental phone call conversation on a cold winter evening. To thank is to think. The pictures titled ‘Being and Nothing’ and ‘Multiple’ are also hers.
- This reflection distinguishes between modern Varanasi, medieval Kashi and Benaras at the cusp of the medieval and the modern. Is modern Varanasi more about religion; and Kashi more about spirituality? Kabir was born perhaps in 1440 in this context of spiritual surplus.
- Debt: The idea that the lanes and bylanes of Kashi-Banaras could offer a model of the unconscious was born in a longish conversation on psychoanalysis with Prakriti (Sharma). To think is to thank. The picture titled The Labyrinthine Unconscious is hers.
- This reflection makes a sharp distinction not just between medieval and modern, but between religion and spirituality. I build on Marx to mark the distinction between religion and spirituality:
Marx writes in the “Introduction” to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right “Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people”. Marx offers two contradictory perspectives to religion:
Perspective One: Religion = sigh sigh of the oppressed / heart of a heartless world / spirit of spiritless conditions
Perspective Two: Religion = opium of the people
Building on Marx, I see religion as the opium of the people; and spirituality as the sigh of the oppressed.
I would also like to draw a distinction between modern spirituality and medieval spirituality. Medieval spirituality is a movement from the loftiest theological abstractions, the most other-worldly passion for God and the Infinite, to the most intimate and personal realization of the humanised divine, expressed in this-worldly and everyday metaphors of life and living – including metaphors of home – and symbols of love drawn guiltlessly from Hindu and Islamic contexts.