by CS Riggs of The Call Solemn Assemblies and PIHOP
Varanasi, formerly called Benaras, is an ancient city located in northern India in the state of Uttar Pradesh. It is believed to be the oldest continuing city in India, and some scholars think it is the oldest city in the world with a history that dates back more than 3000 years. Historians say that Aryans settled in this area in the 2nd millennium BC. In the 6th century BC Benaras became the capital of the kingdom of Kashi which drew many learned men from around the world. It has been a center of culture, religion, and learning since its foundation. It is a unique city unlike any other in all of India or the world. Varanasi is where history and the present collide. After his visit to the city of Benaras, Mark Twain said it very well: “Benaras is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.”
Varanasi is the capital of some of the most important religions in Asia, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism. Though it is called a sacred place for all these religions, it is jealously guarded by Hindus. It is more sacred for the Hindus than anywhere else in the world. You can find Hindus from all across India visiting and making pilgrimage to Varanasi. Hindus believe Varanasi was the birthplace of the universe, and the Hindu god Shiva makes his home in Varanasi. It is an ancient tradition within Hinduism that those who die in this city secure a place in paradise, escaping the cycle of death and re-birth. Many people travel from a far country to die in this city. The temples in Varanasi where Shiva is worshiped are numerous and growing; they can be seen on numerous street corners in all different sizes.
Being such a spiritual epicenter for all these religions, Varanasi can feel like a dark place for a believer. For example when I was recently in the city, I heard one tourist say Varanasi is like, “Heaven in hell in one city.” Walking down the street you will see the religious devotion of the Hindus. You can smell the fragrance of the incense burning while they pray, and you can hear the ringing of bells in the temple as a symbol of their prayers. Early mornings are filled with devout Hindus rising with the sun and beginning their daily “puja” or worship. They begin by dancing with their faces to the sun and dipping into the Ganges River. They believe that the river is sacred and will make them spiritually clean.
However, Varanasi has not always been a Hindu city. Before it was Hindu it was declared to be a Buddhist city in the 4th century BC. It was seen as a holy city, and a region on the outskirts called Sarnath is where the Buddha was supposed to have preached his first sermon after receiving enlightenment in the nearby state of Bihar. This made Varanasi a holy pilgrimage location for Buddhists. During this time there were many Buddhist monasteries, stupas, and shrines throughout the city.
After the Buddhist Mauryan Dynasty, which lasted approximately 400 years (from 322 BC to 185 CE), the city went into a dark time. Then in India’s golden age from the 3rd to the 6th century, Varanasi became a thriving and vibrant city with peace and prosperity. Under the new Gupta Dynasty the inhabitants made astounding advances in science, technology, engineering, art, literature and poetry, mathematics, and astronomy. The city flourished. Then in the 7th century Varanasi was finally recognized and established as a holy city by the Buddhists. In 1194, the city succumbed to Turkish Muslim rule under Qutb-ud-din Aibak, who ordered the destruction of some 1,000 Hindu temples in the city. The city went into decline over some three centuries of Muslim occupation. But one of India’s most revered Hindu kings, a man who was even believed to be an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu, arose and defeated the Muslim armies. This act brought prestige and popularity to the Hindu religion.
During the 11th century to the 17th century, the city was destroyed at least four times by Muslim invaders. It was repaired, revived, and then thrived in the midst of these invasions. Hindu temples were repaired and rebuilt. Hindus believe their Vishwanath temple, dedicated to Shiva, was never destroyed during these invasions. In the eyes of Hindus, this made Vishwanath the holiest temple in the city. To this day Vishwanath is seen as a very important Hindu holy site, which inspires Hindus from all over India to worship Shiva. The temple Vishwanath is on the shores of the Ganges River, and for the majority of Hindus it is the centerpiece of the city.
With so many Hindu holy places and different religions today in Varanasi, there are many unreached people groups living in the city. Some say the number may exceed 300 different groups. One of the more prominent groups that reside there are the priestly Brahmins (see days four to six). There are over 58 million Brahmins living throughout India, and the province of Uttar Pradesh has the greatest Brahmin population with over 12 million. The Brahmins are arguably the most influential people group in all of India, especially when it comes to India’s politics.
Because of the sheer number of Brahmins that live in Varanasi, that city has a key voice in national politics and the policies of India’s political parties. In 2014, Narendra Modi, candidate from the BJP (a Hindu nationalist party), faced a crisis in Varanasi. After dealing with a political setback, he gained approval from the various religious leaders in the city. With their help, he later went on to win the general election and is now Prime Minister of all of India.
Varanasi also has one of the largest universities in all of Asia. Benaras Hindu University (BHU) boasts around 30,000 students and makes Varanasi a key city for academic learning. Many people from around Asia come to the university, and many young Hindus from influential communities attend. This university is a very strategic part of the city. I personally believe God will use this place as an influential part of reaching the city with the gospel. You will read one example of how this can happen on day 31.
In conclusion, it should be pointed out that in the rich history of this city, there has been little response to the message of the gospel. While experiencing Varanasi for myself, I want to emphasize that I noticed their longing for the living God. In Acts 17 it talks about how humanity is “groping” for the living God. You see the evidence of this throughout the city. The old name of this city is Kashi, which means “city of lights.” James says God is the “Father of Lights.” The people of Varanasi have a father they are longing for. We know He will be faithful to reveal Himself to those who long after Him. This gives us faith to know that God will meet these people in their place of longing and desperation. Though they do not know him, they long for him, and Varanasi will one day be a city of light, a city radiating the revelation of God as Father. They will know Him and reflect His goodness. It is just a matter of time!
• Pray that God would send laborers into the harvest field of Varanasi (Matthew 9).
• Pray that the Father will soon give the revelation of Jesus to the peoples of Varanasi the same way he did to Peter, and the outcome of this will be a strong church that is built upon the rock (Matthew 16).
• Pray that His kingdom would come, His will be done, in Varanasi as it is in Heaven (Matthew 6:10).
• Pray that God will move your heart to regularly pray for the destiny and redemptive purpose He has for this city.
by Keith Carey, Editor in Chief, GPD
Dear Praying Friends,
Last November I visited Varanasi, India, for the first time. I had been to India one time previously, but this was my first view of this city that is considered holy by Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains. Unbeknownst to me, the author of our background article in this month’s Global Prayer Digest (who is a member of the Pasadena House of Prayer), was visiting other parts of this important religious center at about the same time I was there. Both of us were exposed to the religious aspect of this pilgrimage site.
When I returned to the USA, I began to read news articles about Varanasi. I learned that this is a city with both religious and political influence. To my surprise, I found that during India’s 2014 election, many politicians eagerly sought votes in Varanasi. Many of these newspaper articles made it clear that the politicians had courted votes by caste and religious affiliation.
It became clear that political power was now related to religious affiliation in this important city, a mix that history has proven can produce tragedy. Be it the Catholic-based Spanish Inquisition, the Islamic Taliban rule in Afghanistan, or secular humanism in the USSR, the effects of religious politics are often the same. And today, persecution of Christians in India is on the increase. We need to pray for peace and justice in Varanasi, and by inference, the entire great nation of India.