Spiritual Atmospheres ii: Varanasi

Some months ago I wrote how I have twice felt ‘spiritually unwelcome’ in a place. The second of these occasions was a visit to Varanasi in India in 2008, formerly called Benares. It appeared to be the quintessential Indian city with its noisy, clamouring people clad in all colours, going about their business. Like elsewhere, it sported ancient temples and bazars. Yet after an hour or so of being there, I really, really wanted to leave. I felt oppressed; the atmosphere was heavy and I asked my guide to take me home.


Afterwards, I discovered Benares is the holiest of the seven sacred cities in Hinduism and Jainism, and was instrumental in the founding of both Buddhism and Sikhism. One Indian travel writer describes it as ‘A city of ghosts and demons’, ‘….enriched in tradition, spirituality, religion and faith, that it has more than 1000 Temples, the city where Lord Shiva resides and the evil deity Ravana performed his yagya (prayer), a place where one comes to liberate oneself from the act of life and death’ (Travel with Varun, 2015). Many Hindus go to the city to die as they believe the River Ganges there is the place of Moksha, the state at which they may escape reincarnation. The place is also popular with the Hare Krishna, whose Lord Visvanatha’s temple is located therein. It seems that any Eastern religion worth its salt has a claim and foothold on the city of Varanasi. Truly, it’s India’s necropolis.

Looking back, I’m reminded of Acts 17 which describes the Apostle Paul’s time in Athens: ‘…his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols.’ In place of ‘provoked’, some translators use ‘distressed’ or ‘troubled’ which was closer to my experience. Whatever lurked in that place, hiding behind the smiling statues and gaudy shrines, didn’t like me, nor I it. I went there as an emissary of another Kingdom, whose Ruler the city rejected. My arrival was a reminder that Christ ‘having disarmed principalities and powers, made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it’ (Colossians 2:15).

Jesus, the name high over all,

  In hell, or earth, or sky:

Angels and men before it fall,

  And devils fear and fly.

C. Wesley