In the centuries-old Indian city of Varanasi, there is a hotel with a weird check-out policy: if you don’t die within two weeks, the manager will politely ask you to leave. The hotel caters to a clientele of faithful Hindus who travel to Varanasi specifically to die (more on that hotel later). They are solemnly adhering to the norms laid down in the hoary scriptures that state that death in Varanasi (aka Kashi, Banaras) and some other holy cities can guarantee liberation from the cycle of reincarnation. Is this fast-track to liberation a parochial and outdated belief, or does it imply that anyone living anywhere in the world can attain liberation from rebirth by dying in an Indian holy city? In this article, we examine the continuing validity of such affirmations.
The prospect of an exotic silver bullet which can dissolve the miseries of life holds enduring allure to the habitually enervated human mind. All religions affirm their unique holy lands, holy days, liturgies and soteriologies. The unfolding phenomenon of globalization, which is fusing together traditionally insulated strands of humanity, is throwing into sharp relief the incompatibilities between the beliefs of various religions. Consequently, it is imperative to critically examine all antiquated beliefs and decouple the underlying inner truths, if any, from the external forms under which they have been historically couched.
In the Matsya Purana, Siva says: “Varanasi is always my most secret place, the cause of liberation for all creatures. All sins which one may have accumulated in thousands of previous lives disappears as soon as one enters Avimukta” (1). One finds similar remarks in the Kashi Khanda (section) 0f the Skanda Purana regarding the importance of Kashi (aka Varanasi) (2). The Garuda Purana lists the seven holy cities, said to be Kshetras or fields of active power, where death is supposed to guarantee liberation. (“Ayodhya Mathura Maya Kasi Kanchi Avantika Puri Dvaravati chaiva saptaita moksadayikah” – Ayodhya, Mathura, Maya, Kashi(Varanasi), Kanchi, Avantika(Ujjain), and Puri are the seven holy cities – Garuna Purana, I XVI.14) (3).
Questions regarding the continuing validity of these scriptural remarks have been raised before some modern seers such as Anandamayi Ma, Ramana Maharshi and Ramakrishna Paramahansa. Let us first read what they had to say in response.
In 1981, a devotee asked Anandamayi Ma, “What is better, to die at Brindavan or at Kashi?”. She replied:
Those who are on the bhakti marga (path of devotion) think is it good to die at Brindavan, because they have the saguna rupa (the form with qualities) of God there in the form of Sri Krishna. Those who are on the nirguna marga (formless worshippers) and want to obtain the God who is jnana svarupa (the essence of knowledge), Atma svarupa (the essence of the Self), and nitya (eternal) take Kashi as their mukti kshetra (place for liberation) because Shiva is there. But where does He not exist? Where is the place unoccupied by Bhagavan(Divine)? He is everywhere. (4)
Anandamayi Ma seems to offer a modicum of flexibility when she says that the Divine is everywhere.
We have two recorded instances where the sage of Arunachala, Ramana Maharshi, was asked the same question. The first dialogue is from Talk 18 recorded in 1935:
Devotee: Is there any psychic effect in visiting sacred places like Mt. Kailas, Benares, etc.?
Devotee: Is there any benefit accruing by dying in Benares?
Ramana: Yes, the meaning will be clear if the real Benares and real dying be understood.
Devotee: You mean that they are in the Self?
Devotee: There are six centres in the body and there are corresponding centres in the world.
Ramana: Yes. What is in the world is in the body; and what is in the body is in the world also.
Devotee: Is the sacredness of Benares a matter of faith, or is it externally also real?
Ramana: Both. (5)
In another talk, Talk 473, recorded in 1938, Ramana Maharshi was asked similar questions about the holiness of the Arunachala mountain where he had established his Ashram.
Someone remarked: It is said that they get mukti (liberation) unasked who live or die within a radius of 30 miles round Arunachala. It is also admitted that only by jnana is liberation obtained. The purana also remarks that Vedanta Vijnana is difficult to get. So mukti is difficult. But life or death round about the Hill bestows mukti so easily. How can it be?
Ramana: Siva says, “By My command.” Those who live here need no initiation (diksha) etc., but get mukti. Such is the command of Siva.
Devotee: The purana also says that those who are born here are Siva’s group of followers, such as ghosts, spirits, disembodied beings, etc.
Devotee: How does mere life or death here confer mukti(liberation)? It is difficult to understand.
Ramana: (quotes a Sanskrit verse) Darsanad Abhrasadasi jananat Kamalalaye, Kasyantu maranam muktih smaranad Arunachale.
(and then gives the meaning of the Sanskrit verse) “To see Chidambaram, to be born in Tiruvarur, to die in Benares, or merely to think of Arunachala, is to be assured of Liberation.” Jananat Kamalalaye means “by being born in Kamalalaya”. What is it? It is the Heart. Similarly, Abhrasadasi – Seat of Consciousness. Again, Kasi is the Light of Realisation. Remembering Arunachala completes the verse. It must also be understood in the same sense.
Devotee: So bhakti(devotion) is necessary.
Ramana: Everything depends on the outlook. One sees that all born in Tiruvarur, or visiting Chidambaram, or dying in Banares, or contemplating Arunachala, are muktas.
Devotee: I think of Arunachala, but still I am not a mukta.
Ramana: Change of outlook is all that is necessary. See what such a change did for Arjuna. He had the vision of the Cosmic Self. Sri Krishna says: “Gods and saints are eager to see my Cosmic Form. I have not fulfilled their desire. Yet I endow divine sight by which you can see that Form.” Well, having said so, does He show what He is? No. He asks Arjuna to see in Him all that he desires to see. If that were His real form it must be changeless and known for what it is worth. Instead, Arjuna is commanded to see whatever he desires. So where is the Cosmic Form? It must be in Arjuna.
Furthermore, Arjuna finds Gods and saints in that form and they are praising the Lord. If the form be withheld from the Gods and saints as said by Krishna, who are they of Arjuna’s vision?
Devotee: They must be in his imagination.
Ramana: They are there because of Arjuna’s outlook.
Devotee: Then the outlook must be changed by God’s Grace.
Ramana: Yes. That happens to bhaktas (devotees) (6).
Ramana Maharshi, while affirming the sanctity of the holy places, stresses that the inner truths of the verses must be understood, instead of relying on their purely literal or external interpretation. He suggests that a change in the outlook, which can come through devotion, Divine Grace and realization, is required before one can attain liberation.
We have an instance of Ramakrishna Paramahansa being asked the same question:
The Marwari devotee: “Revered sir, does one attain liberation only when he quits the body on the bank of the Ganges?”
Sri Ramakrishna: “Liberation comes when one has attained spiritual knowledge. Wherever one may be, whether one dies in the cremation ground or on the bank of the Ganges, a person of spiritual knowledge will attain liberation. But the bank of the Ganges is best for a person who has not attained knowledge.”
The Marwari devotee: “Revered sir, why is a person liberated if he dies in Kashi (Benares/Varanasi)?”
Sri Ramakrishna: “When one dies in Kashi, Shiva appears before him and says, ‘This form of mine is not real. I assume it for the sake of the devotee. Now look, I am dissolving into the Indivisible Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute.’ After saying this, the form disappears.
According to the Puranas, even a pariah will attain liberation if he develops loving devotion to God. According to this belief, only chanting His name brings salvation; there is no need for sacrifices, oblations, tantric disciplines, or mantras.
The teachings of the Vedas are different. According to them, only brahmins can gain liberation. And if the mantra is not recited properly, the worship is not accepted. One has to perform sacrifices, oblations, mantras, and tantric disciplines as prescribed.” (7)
Ramakrishna Paramahansa, like Ramana Maharshi, while affirming that liberation can only come with spiritual knowledge, also affirms the importance of dying in a holy place.
In light of the insights offered by Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Ramana Maharshi and Anandamayi Ma, let us attempt a reconciliation.
Firstly, it must be understood is that these remarks occur in the scriptures known as Puranas, which are secondary sources of authority. The Puranas are called smriti because they are recordings of ancient customs and traditions, as opposed to the Vedas and Upanishads which are denoted as sruti because they contain revelations of sages who had attained enlightenment. Therefore, these remarks from the Puranas about dying in a holy city guaranteeing liberation need not be admitted as eternal truths.
Secondly, the ancient term for Varanasi is “Kashi”, which in Sanskrit means “light”. The external interpretation might today refer to a city, but if we take the real sense of the word, we realize that it implies that liberation comes by dying in the state of enlightenment. This was the inner meaning that Ramana Maharshi was alluding to above.
All said and done, actual self-realization (dissolution of the separative ego and union with the Divine) seems to be the sole factor in gaining liberation, and this trumps everything else – including the place of death. Dying in Varanasi doesn’t bring liberation from rebirth. But for those who have not yet reached self-realization, dying in a hallowed place which has been sanctified by the penance of sages can make a difference because the vibrations of the place can comfort and protect the soul in the immediate aftermath of death when it has to encounter hostile spirits. This is probably what Ramakrishna meant when he said above that the “bank of the Ganges is best for a person who has not attained knowledge.”
About that hotel…
The unusual hotel that was referred to earlier in the article was the subject of a documentary on the Al Jazeera English channel. See the video titled “Salvation House” below or at this Al Jazeera webpage.
- Klaus K. Klostermaier. A survey of Hinduism, p 283 (google books)
- Diane Eck. Banaras, city of light, p 331. (google books)
- Stella Kramrisch, Raymond Burnier. The Hindu temple, Volume 1, p 3 (google books)
- Lisa Hallstrom, Mother of Bliss, p 190. (google books)
- Talks with Ramana Maharshi, Talk 18, 26th January, 1935.
- Talks with Ramana Maharshi, Talk 473, 15th March, 1938.
- Gospel of Ramakrishna, vol. 2, chap. 30. The Master in Various Moods
- Are Indians more spiritual?
- Significance of places of worship, relics and prayer rooms
- On some customs and traditions of Hinduism
- Is fear and awe of God necessary?
- Hermeneutics: how to read holy scriptures
- How to read holy books
- Interplay of Faith and Doubt in Yoga
- The purpose of idolatry and its limitations
- Is fear and awe of God necessary?
- How religions are formed
- Are earthquakes due to Divine retribution?