Bhairava in Benares: Otherness in the Heart of Tradition
Negotiating sacred space and religious identity

Benares, like Jerusalem, is the manifestation in urban space of the religious identity of those who claim it as their sacred center. The holy city indwells believers (and non-believers), even (and often especially) those who do not dwell within its territorial confines. Though perceived as transcending space and time, preceding and modeling creation itself, the terrestrial city reflects the vicissitudes of political power and the historical evolution of the tradition itself. Whether the contending tradition splits off from within (Buddhism/Christianity) or imposes itself from without (Islam), the uneasy accommodations in the sharing of sacred space—punctuated in the latter case by outbursts of violence—offer deep insights into how religious identities are perpetually negotiated and (re‑)constructed.

The Gangetic plain was once occupied by Tibeto-Burman/Munda populations, whose archaic cosmogony may still be excavated beneath the archeology of later historical cults, such as the Fish-Womb conjunction (matsyodarî-yoga) and the marriage of Lât Bhairő. Before Benares became the Hindu sacred city par excellence, elements of this cosmogony had been assimilated into Buddhism as the funerary stűpa and the cosmic pillar, just as they have been in the Katmandu Valley. The Muslim conquest, with its iconoclastic imposition of the mosque, îdgâh and the mihrab, merely attempted to reorient this religious axis towards Mecca, whose role is itself largely modeled on Jerusalem. These overlapping spaces were also witness to syncretizing practices that reveal shifting religious identities. Far from obliterating this (inner) landscape, secularization has resulted in the city's material future becoming a hostage to its unresolved religious past. Even the ongoing cycle of indiscriminate violence inscribes utopian political agendas into a common underlying sacrificial paradigm that would constitute the core of the sacred city. An attentive reading of how religious identities have been negotiated in Benares may help us (re-)write the contested text of history so as to visualize and facilitate the prospect of a shared future.

As the secret transgressive identity of the royal Shiva in the form of Kâshî Vishvanâtha, Bhairava is of central significance to the holy city of Benares. The divine magistrate, who inflicts his liberating metaphysical punishment at the sacrificial pillar, is also the heinous brahmanicide who has violated the most sacred laws of the Hindu tradition. The marriage of this Lât Bhairő to the adjacent ‘maternal’ well used to be celebrated with ‘lower-caste’ Muslim participation. Likewise, the Hindus used to participate in the marriage of the ‘decapitated’ martyr Ghazî Miyă, whose posthumous worship has assimilated the symbolic universe of that very ‘tribal’ cult of human sacrifice that this proselytizing Muslim warrior had sought to extirpate. Despite a century of more or less peaceful coexistence, the contested ground around Lât Bhairő erupted into the Hindu-Muslim riots of 1809, which has provided the conceptual model for the understanding of subsequent communalism in the Indian subcontinent. The ritual space that united the central Vishvanâtha temple with the peripheral pillar became the processional route for mutual mob violence that resulted in the ‘apocalyptic’ felling of the world-pillar. Despite this phase of religious polarization, Banarasi society was able, within the space of a couple of years, to have the British-imposed House-Tax repealed through successful passive resistance predicated on caste-based autonomy and Hindu-Muslim unity. In today’s context of growing Wahhabi ‘fundamentalism’ among Muslims and the aggressive claims of ‘Hindu nationalism’ over disputed sacred spaces, this paper invites all concerned South-Asians and well-meaning foreign scholars to join us in a ‘pilgrimage’ across time and space to an excavation of Lât Bhairő. Permanent reconciliation between Hinduism and Islam will be achieved only when, by reducing the inner distance between Mecca and Banaras, the questions posed by (the mutilated stump of) the world-pillar—which still straddles the boundary between the two religions—are finally resolved.