When he first came to Benares in 1916, Gandhi went to the Vishwanath Mandir, a temple dedicated to Shiva, the Lord of the worlds. His stroll through the holy city was a real shock and, a few hours later, the Mahatma declared to his dumbfounded audience: “ If a foreigner discovered this noble temple and had to consider what we are as Hindus, wouldn’t he have the right to condemn us? (…) Is it fair that the alleys leading to the sacred temple are as dirty as they are? (…) If even our temples are not models of cleanliness, what is the use of being freed from the British yoke? For decades, the surroundings of the sanctuary were just as chaotic, but the words of the father of independence did not remain a dead letter. In December 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated an imposing corridor linking the temple to the Ganges through a series of monumental forecourts. To do this, it was necessary to destroy hundreds of houses, thus putting an end to an ancestral world where, in a labyrinth of narrow streets, Hindu priests, students of Vedic schools, colorful crowds of pilgrims, small merchants and herds of cows…
The expansion of the Vishwanath Mandir is one of the many major works recently decided by the Indian government. In places particularly marked by painful memory wounds, such as Ayodhya not far from Benares, it is a question of rebuilding temples formerly destroyed by Muslim rulers in order to build mosques that the upheavals of History then swept away.
While the engineers and craftsmen are busy in the construction sites, it is good to meditate on the astonishing link that certain Hindus have with their temples, places where the Absolute materializes under the effigy of a divinity such as Shiva, Vishnu or the Devi. As surprising as it may seem, many believers never or very rarely visit shrines – this was the case with Gandhi during his political career. For the more mystical, justification is provided by the words of the wise Saraha: “There in my body are the Ganges and the Yamuna, there are Prayag and Benares, there are all the sacred places. I have never seen a place of pilgrimage and bliss like my body. »
At XIIe century, when southern India was covered with impressive edifices, the lingayats stopped entering temples to worship Shiva, manifested in the shiva-lingam, a characteristic phallic-shaped stone. The followers of this reforming movement preferred to wear a tiny lingam around their necks and worship the divinity present in their hearts. In immortal verses, their founder Basavanna reminded all generations to come where the true sanctuary is: The rich man builds temples for Shiva, but what can I, the poor man, do? My legs are pillars, my body is the holy of holies, my head a cupola of gold. Hear, O Lord of confluences, what is stable will fall, but what is ever moving will remain forever.. »
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The true sanctuary of the Hindus
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