BENARES, THE SACRED CITY
No one can realize what an awful religion Brahminism is until he visits Benares, the most sacred city of India, upon the banks of the Ganges, the most sacred river, more holy to more millions of human souls than Mecca to the Moslem, Rome to the Catholic or Jerusalem to the Jew. This marvelous city it so holy that death upon its soil is equivalent to life eternal. It is the gate to paradise, the abundant entrance to everlasting happiness, and its blessings are comprehensive enough to include all races, all religions and all castes. It is not necessary to be a Brahmin or to worship Siva or Krishna or any other of the Hindu gods, nor even to believe in them. Their grace is sufficient to carry unbelievers to the Hindu heavens provided they die within the area inclosed by a boulevard encircling this city.
There are in Benares 2,000 temples and innumerable shrines, 25,000 Brahmin priests, monks, fakirs and ascetics, and it is visited annually by more than half a million pilgrims - a larger number than may be counted at Mecca or Jerusalem, or at any other of the sacred cities of the world. There are more than 500,000 idols established in permanent places for worship in Benares, representing every variety of god in the Hindu pantheon, so that all the pilgrims who go there may find consolation and some object of worship. There are twenty-eight sacred cows at the central temples, and perhaps 500 more at other places of worship throughout the city; the trees around the temple gardens swarm with sacred monkeys and apes; there are twenty-two places where the dead are burned, and the air of the city is always darkened during the daytime by columns of smoke that rise from the funeral pyres. No other city, not even London, has so many beggars, religious and otherwise; nowhere can so many pitiful spectacles of deformity and distress be seen; nowhere is such gross and repulsive obscenity and sensuality practiced - and all in the name of religion; nowhere are such sordid deceptions imposed upon superstitious believers, and nowhere such gloomy, absurd and preposterous methods used for consoling sinners and escaping the results of sin. Although Benares in these respects is the most interesting city in India, and one of the most interesting in the world, it is also the most filthy, repulsive and forbidding. Few people care to remain there more than a day or two, although to the ethnologist and other students, to artists and people in search of the picturesque, it has more to offer than can be found elsewhere in the Indian Empire.
Benares is as old as Egypt. It is one of the oldest cities in existence. It was already famous when Rome was founded; even when Joshua and his trumpeters were surrounding the walls of Jericho. It is the hope of every believer in Brahminism to visit Benares and wash away his sins in the water of the sacred Ganges; the greatest blessing he can enjoy is to die there; hence, the palaces, temples, and lodging-houses which line the river banks are filled with the aged relatives and friends of their owners and with pilgrims who have come from all parts of India to wait with ecstatic patience the summons of the angel of death in order to go straight to heaven.
Nothing in all their religion is so dear to devout Hindus as the Ganges. The mysterious cavern in the Himalayas which is supposed to be the source of the river is the most sacred place on earth. It is the fifth head of Siva, and for 1,600 miles to its delta every inch of the banks is haunted with gods and demons, and has been the scene of events bearing upon the faith of two-thirds of the people of India. The most pious act, and one that counts more than any other to the credit of a human soul on the great books above, is to make a pilgrimage from the source to the mouth of the Ganges. If you have read Kipling's story of "Kim," you will remember the anxiety of the old lama to find this holy stream, and to follow its banks. Pilgrims to Benares and other cities upon the Ganges secure bottles of the precious water for themselves and send them to friends and kindred in foreign lands. No river in all the world is so worshiped, and to die upon its sacred banks and to have one's body burned and his ashes borne away into oblivion upon its tawny current is the highest aspiration of hundreds of millions of people.
The Ganges is equally sacred to the Buddhist, and Benares is associated more closely with the career of Buddha than any other city. Twenty-five hundred years ago Buddha preached his first sermon there, and for ten centuries or more it was the headquarters of Buddhism. Buddha selected it as the center of his missionary work. He secured the support of its scholars, teachers and philosophers, and from there sent forth missionaries to China, Japan, Burmah, Ceylon, the Malay Peninsula, Siam, Thibet, and other countries until half the human race accepted him as divine, his teachings as the law of God, and Benares as the fountain of that faith. It is a tradition that one of the wise men who followed the Star of Bethlehem to the Child that was cradled in a manger was a learned pundit from Benares, and it is certainly true that the doctors of theology who have lived and taught in the temples and monasteries there have exercised a greater influence upon a larger number of men than those of any other city that ever existed. But in these modern days Benares is wholly given over to ignorance, superstition, vice, filth and idolatry. The pure and lofty doctrines of Buddha are no longer taught. The "Well of Knowledge" is a filthy, putrid hole filled with slime and rotting vegetation. Buddhism has been swept out of India altogether, and Brahminism is taught and practiced there in its most repulsive and depraved forms.