Varanasi - Whats in a Name!
Vārānasī is also an ancient name, found in both the Buddhist Jātaka tales and in the Hindu epic, the Mahābhārata. From the Pali version of this name—Bārānasi—comes the corrupted name Banāras, by which the city is most widely known today.
In both Muslim and British India, the city was “Benares,” but in independent India, Vārānasī has been revived as the official name of the city. Any resident of the city will readily explain that Vārānasī sits between the Varanā River, which flows into the Ganges on the north, and the Asi River, which joins the Ganges on the south.
Vārānasī stretches along the river between the two. According to the Padma Purāna, “The Varanā and the Asi are two rivers, set there by gods. Between them is a holy land [kshetra] and there is none more excellent on earth.” And in the Kūrma Purāna, we find it simply put: “Vārānasī is the city between the Varanā and the Asi.” It is likely, however, that the city did not receive its name from these two rivers, but rather from the single river that bordered it on the north, known to early literature as the Varānasī River, not the Varanā. It is clear from archeological excavations and from old descriptions of the city that ancient Vārānasī was situated primarily in the north, on the high Rājghāt Plateau.
It might be added that the Asi, the alleged southern boundary, hardly merits the status of a river except during the rainy season. It is little more than a rivulet, and one Purāna rightly calls it the “Dried-Up River.” While the popular derivation of Vārānasī is probably a false etymology, it is nonetheless extremely important for our discussion.
What interests us in the name is not only that from which it really derives, but rather that toward which it points in helping us understand what Hindus have commonly understood by the name Vārānasī. The rivers are the boundaries of this sacred zone; they define and protect the city. According to the myth, the two rivers were created by the gods and placed in position to guard against the entrance of evil. One river was named “The Sword” (asi) and the other was named “The Averter” (varanā).
In the Vāmana Purāna, the two rivers are said to originate from the body of the primordial person, Purusha, at the beginning of time. The Varanā issued from the right foot of the cosmic giant and the Asi issued from its left foot. “The tract of land lying between them is the best place of pilgrimage in the three worlds and is potent enough to destroy all sins. Its peer does not exist in heaven, earth, and the netherworld.” In the Jābāla Upanishad, the two rivers are described not as geographical rivers, but interior rivers, the mystical veins of the body’s subtle physiology: “It is called Varanā because it obstructs [vārayati] all sins of the senses. It is called Nāsī because it destroys [nāshayati] all sins of the senses.”
When the seeker asks where this place between the Varanā and the Nāsī is located, the sage replies: “It is the place where the nose and the eyebrows meet. That is the meeting place of heaven and the world beyond.” Here Vārānasī is given an esoteric interpretation. It is the highest of the six chakras, the “circles” of power in the yogic anatomy. It is the place of the eye of wisdom.