Benaras through the mist and mirage of history

Author Rev. M.A.Sherring
The early History of Benares is involved in much obscurity. It is, indisputably, a place of great antiquity and may even date from the time when the Aryan race first spread itself over Northern India. Although such a supposition is incapable of direct proof, the sacred city must, undoubtedl, be reckoned amongst the primitive cities founded by this people.

When it was first built, and by what prince or patriarch, is altogether unknown. But of its great antiquity, stretching back through the dim ages of early Indian history, far into the clouds and mists of the Vedic and pre-historical periods. There is no question. It is certain that the city is regarded, by all as coeval with the birth of Hinduism, a notion derived both from tradition and from their own writings.

Allusions to Benares are exceedingly abundant In ancient Sanskrit literature. And perhaps there is no city in all Hindustan more frequently referred to. By reason of some subtle and mysterious charm, it has linked itself with the religious sympathies of the Hindus through every century of its existence. For the sanctity of its inhabitants – of its temples and reservoirs- of its wells and streams of the very soil that is trodden of the very air that is breathed – and of everything in it and around it, Benares has been famed for thousand of years.

The Hindu ever beholds the city in one peculiar aspect, as a place of spotless holiness and heavenly beauty, where the spiritual eye may be delighted and the heart may be purified; and his imagination has been kept fervid, from generation to generation by the continued presentation of this glowing picture. Believing all he has read and heard concerning this ideal seat of blessedness, he has been possessed with the same longing to visit it as the Mohammedan visit Mecca, or the Christian enthusiast visit Jerusalem, and having gratified his desire, has left the memory of his pious enterprises to his children, for their example, to incite them to undertake the same pilgrimage, faithfully transmitting to them the high ambition which he himself received from his fathers.

Unfortunately, Hindu writers have shown a singular neglect of chronology and an utter distaste for noting and recording historical facts in a simple and consecutive manner. This is the remarkable, when it is remembered that many of them have been accustomed to close thought and have prided themselves on their intellectual acumen; they have originated numerous systems of philosophy and made great pretensions to logical accuracy; and that the habit of the nation generally, for thousand of years, has punctilious nicety, its religious ceremonies and social usages.

Were the Hindus Proverbially reckless in their statements and opinions and had they never produced any great work exhibiting minuteness of detail, together with clearness, consistency and truth there might not be so much cause for wonder. But they have astonished the world by their achievements in a department of learning usually regarded as dry and uninteresting. I refer to the subject of Grammar. Carefully collecting the facts brought to light by critical and painstaking observation, they have elaborated a system of grammar of gigantic dimensions, far surpassing anything that has even been effected, in this branch of study, in any country or age of the world. Their greatest and most brilliant champion in this science is : yet many other grammarians helped to rear the stupendous fabric which now excited the admiration of Mankind. And, while they emulated the genius of the Greeks in generalizing upon the results of their observations, they far outshone them in the correctness and extent of their investigations.

One would have imagined that they who were exact in one subject would be exact in another and that having acquired the habit of calmly noting points of agreement and difference, and of rigidly adhering to them, it would be a moral impossibility for them to act in direct opposition to such a habit. Yet this does not hold good in regard to the Hindu race. While excellent grammarians, they are meager historians. They possess no single record, among the ten thousand separate manuscript works, of which their ancient literature is said to be composed, on the historical correctness of which one can place much reliance.

Legendary stories are so intermingled with real events and the web of the one is so intimately inwoven with the woof of the other, and the two form so homogeneous a whole that the finest microscopic intellects of Europe, after patient and long continued examination, have been well knighted  baffled in the attempt to discover which Is fiction and which is fact. A few threads of truth have rewarded their pains and perhaps a few others may occasionally be drawn forth, but that the gaudy- colored fabric of Hindu history, manufactured by themselves, will ever be satisfactorily separated into its two component parts is as hopeless as to expect that the waters of the Jamuna will ever cease to mingle with the waters of the Ganges.

Were only the epoch or epochs of the Mahabharata satisfactorily settled and were it really known what elements of that great work are pre-Buddhist and what post-Buddhist, the minds of men would be at least freed from the despair which possesses them in reference to this subject.

The result is that this city of Benares, whose antiquity is very great, is robbed of much of the glory which is justly her due. Thanks to a rival creed (Buddhism), however - which sprang into existence probably in the sixth century before the Christian era - whose annals have been kept with some decent amount of Trustworthiness we gain certain specific information respecting this city at that early epoch.

(Excerpts from renowned Indologist Rev. M.A.Sherring’s (1826-1880) 
book “: The Sacred city of the Hindus” published in 1868)

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