Decoding Varanasi: Politics, religion and astrology

Friday, 18 April 2014 - 4:57pm IST | Place: Varanasi | Agency: DNA
  • Women wait to cast their vote at a polling booth in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh during the state elections in February 2012. AFP

The temple town of Varanasi, which has now became one of the most keenly watched seats in the Lok Sabha elections, witnessed the triumphant mid-election vows from Thursday morning when the process of filing nomination papers began in Varanasi. A total of four nominations were filed along with the big one of Congress candidate Ajay Rai, who visited some known local temples besides offering flowers at the statues of Mahatma Gandhi and other prominent leaders. Lastly, he visited the famous Kaal Bhairav temple to offer liquor according to the local traditions. He also tied the “Kasi thread” (black thread) on his hand which is considered to be a sacred element to keep one safe.

Situated in one of the oldest and important areas of the ancient city of Visheswarganj, among the nine other “bhairavs” of Hindu mythology, Kaal Bhairav, which translates to “black terror” is also widely known as the “kotwal Of Kashi” (police chief of Kashi (Varanasi)). 

The section of the city in which his temple stands was known as Kotwalpuri in ancient times, which became Kotwalpura with the effect of Bengali on the local dialects. The term “kotwal” was used in the Mughal and British eras by the administrators referring to the senior most police officer of the city (not district), and the English equivalent is superintendent. Post Independence, this term was changed to “adheekshak” in Hindi. 

The term “bhairav” refers to a fearsome manifestation or re-incarnation of Lord Shiva. In many Indian languages and dialects, the word “kaal” means both death and fate, in addition to referring to the colour black. So, in the same way, the lord Kaal Bhairav is the black one, who apart from protecting the city from all evils, has also been assigned an additional task of being the “God of death” in Kashi. Even death, it is said, is afraid of Kaal Bhairav.

According to mythology, Kaal Bhairav is said to wear a garland of skulls and carries a club of peacock feathers. The temple door is guarded by Bhairav’s mount, which is the dog. It opens into a small but fine courtyard which has the main shrine of Bhairav at its centre. Because of the rules, only the silver face of Kaal Bhairav, garlanded with flowers, is visible through the doorway of the inner sanctum. The rest of Bhairav’s image – said to be pot-bellied, and seated upon a dog, holding a trident – is hidden behind a draped cloth. By the rear door of the temple is a statue of Kshetrapal Bhairav, who is another incarnation of the same lord.

For centuries, this temple has been regarded as one of the biggest spiritual centres of tantra in the world for the most severe of Shiva ascetics, among them the main ones being the lines of “kapalis” or “skull-bearers”. Their descendants are known as the Gorakhnathis. Old timers in the temple town also believe that whenever the local residents left the city for short journeys, they worshipped Kaal Bhairav in order to take his formal permission to leave the city, and when they returned, they again worshipped him to thank him for their safe return. Apart from that, it is also believed that people who live in or visit Varanasi must worship Kaal Bhairav so that he grants protection and shelter to all.

Chapter 31 of “Kashi Khand”, which is said to be one of the most traditional dictionaries of the ancient city of Kashi, quotes that a devotee who worships Kaal Bhairav for six months will attain all types of Siddhis of tantra. It is also quoted in some ancient books that a person who circumambulates Kaal Bhairav eight times will be absolved of all the sins committed by him. 

However, in the past few decades, the temple has become a victim of the commercialisation of religion and tantra, and has been reduced to a shadow of its previous self. It is no longer the exclusive domain of those extreme followers, but still it is regularly patronized by ordinary householders and locals for his protective blessings. 

The biggest days of worship are Tuesdays and Sundays, and the most unique and famous thing about worshipping at this temple is that there is an age-old tradition of offering liquor to the deity as part of prayers to begin any new work. And that became the biggest reason for Ajay to follow this tradition. Known for being a teetotaller among his close friends and supporters, Ajay claimed these old traditional ways of worship and visiting temple replicates his local image as a “son of the soil”.

“We are doing these things since we were children, and these traditions can largely be understood only by the locals and not by political tourists,” said Ajay, addressing the media.

Although his remarks were coded with pure politics, the big question is about the effect of religion on the prominent candidates contesting from this seat. Surprisingly the politics in the temple town is banking more upon the Raj Yog (good time to rule) of astrology than the Karm Yog (work is worship) chemistry. From Ajay Rai to Narendra Modi to Arvind Kejriwal, according to their supporters, everyone is preferring to run by the planetary positions of the charts rather than the geographical positions of the electorate. That is why the religious gurus and astrologers of Varanasi are busy claiming free and tested routes to reach the magical chair of MP. 

Kejriwal has already started to centralise Muslim votes by meeting prominent Muslim religious leaders, but still claims not to be a follower of astrology. Some AAP supporters say on condition of anonymity that he is also in connection with some prominent but undisclosed astrologers of the city to consult them on the “muhurta” (auspicious time) to file the nomination. Senior AAP leaders however consider it to be rubbish and they claimed that nomination date is totally a periodic and planned state of affair. On the other hand, the local class of astrologers claim that almost all prominent candidates are banking on the astrologically-based details of a good “muhurta” to file their nominations. Most astrologers are claiming that according to his planetary positions Narendra Modi may file his nomination during the “abhijeet muhurta” which is said to be at the same time in Hindu mythology when Lord Rama killed Ravana.

It was rumoured that, in the last Lok Sabha elections in 2009, many prominent leaders in the Hindi heartland filed their nominations in the same time period.

The subjective analysis of Indian astrology say Tithi, Vara, Nakshatra, Yoga and Karana are the basic five elements of time, known as “panchaanga” in Hindi. These are based on the positions of the sun and the moon, and all these calculated details are used to find out the auspiciousness of any date and time (the “muhurta”) for any important undertaking, including election nominations. Apart from these five main elements of time, the traditional panchaanga also gives details about the good and bad times on a particular day.

On the other hand, some prominent senior astrologers of the city claimed it was a gimmick and said neither Modi nor any of his aides had contacted any local astrologers. Rather, they are banking on the specific and basic astrological transitions told by Modi’s personal astrologers in Gujarat, who have clearly outlined the planetary positions of April 22. This is a special date as it has the auspicious “Uttara Ashada” nakshatra, which is considered the best for big starts, and it coincides with the date of the “Sheetla Ashtami” of the Hindu calendar, a sacred day of the goddess Sheetla (incarnation of goddess Durga). The day has a special yog named as “Shaadhya Yog” since the early morning, which is said to be beneficial to accomplish any kind of legal work. 

Moreover, Tuesday is known as “mangalwaar” or “bhaumwaar” in Hindi. And the planet Mars (Mangal) is said to be the god of war in astrology. It too has a particularly special yog known as the Bhaum-Jaya-Siddhi yog, which is said to be good for victory.

However the so called high profile and skilled astrologers of Varanasi had still failed to come close to Narendra Modi, and most believe that the election campaign, be it in person or online, is dealt by tech-savvy youth who will never believe in the ancient schoolings of Varanasi. 

The SP and the BSP candidates showed no concern over these astrological facts to file their nominations. The SP camp claimed themselves to be servants of society and not any particular religion, and that they therefore don’t bother about such facts. The BSP camp claimed it to be a subject where they had no consideration at all due to the party’s mentality and ideology, and the date to file nomination is always by the decision of senior leaders.

Even if the result of the mandate and the voting is three weeks from today’s date, these religion-based attributes have added colour to the entire political saga this year. Varanasi has many people in both the pro- and anti-religion camps, and adding politics to the mix always results in an eventful election.


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