Monday, May 27, 2013

A theoretical memoir from Benaras

When I was leaving for benaras, my mom strictly told me not to buy statues of God in large number. I was also advised to visit kasha vishwanath temple. Benaras, in popular view, is almost synonymous with “Religion”.  In my imagination as well, Benaras was a small city with temples, aghori babas and a gypsie culture(“hare ram hare Krishna” culture). I knew that I’ll see a lot of Durkheim in this place. Benaras would be exciting. It did turn out to be exciting but not so predictable. Every moment spent was a different experience. Besides Durkheim, I met a lot of other known sociologist and also found theoretical food which is yet to be served. 

As we stepped out of the station, I looked back to see the station and found religion in the very architecture of the main railway station. It revealed how the city wanted to present itself. It was presenting itself not just as a religious city but essentially as a “Hindu” city. The ‘secular’ in me, however, did not have a problem with it. Benaras is known to be a sacred city for Hindus.

As we moved towards our guest house, I was trying to grab the new environment and I saw, though not much to my surprise, an over-emphasis on religion. Religion was there in the names of the shops – “kuber optics”, “swastika tailors”, “shivam chashma Kendra” etc. Again, the names were essentially hindu. However, I did find some “modern” names and a few with muslim names – “Islam auto engineering”. I also saw a church, a jain temple and Sikhism on a motor bike. So I wouldn’t narrow down to one religion but I would definitely say that it was all heavy with religion. The architecture of the main university – Benaras Hindu University was also in the form of a temple. The entrance was that of a gateway of a temple. There was also a temple within the campus. It was too much of “religion” for me.

This trip to benaras was a field trip. We had come to try and find ‘answers’ to two sociological questions concerning Buddhist site of sarnath, 15 kms away from Benaras – religious syncretism in Buddhist sarnath and the concept of a religious economy. But since we stayed in Benaras, we extended our research(‘unofficially’) to Benaras. I was a part of the group exploring religious syncretism. What I found was that religious syncretism is a ‘historical’ process. It is historical in the sense that religions have interacted with each other historically and almost, ‘naturally’. They have interacted for centuries and still do, instead of dying out. Religion and religious identity is very strong. And this is when I saw Durkheim. Religion is a social fact. It is inevitable. It exists and will always exist.

The second group had explored the link between religion and economy. They found that there was definitely a deep bond between the two. Religion sells in Benaras. So the Hindu shopkeeper in Sarnath worshipped Buddha because Buddhism meant livelihood for him. Religion is also commercialized to a large extent in Benaras. A temple on the ghat bore the advertisement of Rupa, a company for underclothes. Near any temple, we would be called out by shopkeepers asking us to buy goods “important” for puja. They would tell us how the puja would be incomplete without them and would sell them at exorbitant rates. In the holy Ganga, we saw “muthoot finance” and “airtel” flowing.  Here, we would get the impression how religion affects economy.

Roaming on the streets of Benaras at night, eating street food, observing people who seemed ‘less liberal’, chewing on the local paan and then going back on the rickshaw…it seemed ‘ideal’. Roaming about in the campus in the moonlight, with wind flowing in your hair, it is a romantic memory now. I feel like Marx…romanticizing incessantly about the ‘pre-industrial’ society. But Benaras has also been changing. The economy has been changing, though not at a very great speed as there were no factories there. But things have been changing. ‘Modernity’ is coming in but it co-exists with tradition. A peaceful co-existence is taking place. So I saw a monk, with a jacket added to his traditional attire, smoking ‘peacefully’.

Another thing which was though predictable for me about Benaras was the people. In contrast to the “big bad world” of Delhi, I found that people here were more friendly or maybe this was just my good fortune. But one thing which is certain is that people here were much more affiliated to their caste and region. So one of my classmates who was from Chapra was an instant hit with most people. I accord this to the fact that maybe this is because economic changes are not very rapid in Benaras. There are not many of Marx’s industries to alienate men from themselves and from each other. I feel that maybe Durkheim’s religion may also be a reason. Religion leads to social solidarity. It binds people and even checks on them.  Though a thug for whom I wrote a letter in English wherein he pleads with foreigners to help him financially does force me to re-think.

Overall, I would say that it’s really difficult to explain this city with just one theory. It is difficult to do that for any place, situation but Benaras particularly has been a difficult case. With order and disorder(aghori cult), orthodoxy and syncretism, economy and social values, I feel that it is difficult to really say what goes around in benaras, how things work here. It is tradition and it is ‘modern’. It is communal harmony and communal clash. It is conservative and it is liberal. Benaras… it is simple but contradictory.

Theoretically, Benaras represents a stage which is capitalist(to some extent) but has retained its social/religious values. In benaras, it is economy with religion or religion with economy. It is tradition with modernity and modernity with tradition. 

*All pictures clicked by Sunam Thapa

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