Update from Banares (Varanasi)– City of Lights

Last week the Faculty of Social Science of Banares Hindu University hosted a dramatic evening of performance. What made the performance interesting from my point of view is that men and women students cannot touch, so it was very much like a yeshiva day school play, one could profitability compare how to do shomer negiah dramatics in both faiths. The lead male role in the play was given to a girl so that she can touch and hug the heroine. A minor male role was performed by an actual male student, but the rest of the individual roles were women. The men acted as a dance troupe acting out selected events in the narrative as a group like night on the town, the allure of the world, or greed of the business world. All vocals were from a recording.

If the school was traditional old-time Brahman there would have been no mixing allowed and if it was modern then there would not be a question. But they are Orthodox without the old-ways. And like a day school, there was the awkward ending when the female students only received flowers and a shawl from the female Dean and the male students from the male Dean, which noticeably neither side found convenient.

As a school founded in the nineteenth century, the entire academic faculty until recently was Brahman. Certainly departments such as philosophy and religion, Sanskrit, or dramatics (Hindus have an aesthetic tradition ) are still overwhelmingly so, as are the students who take degrees in philosophy because their Brahman fathers and grandfathers did so. I have learned how to recognize Brahman instructors by their last names. The English word pundit is from the Sanskrit meaning learned priest, hence a Professor with the name Pandey is certainly a Brahman. The town of Banares is about 25% Brahman a much higher percentage than most cities.

Traditional students touch the hem or cuff of the professor’s pants and then kisses their hand as they bow to their Professor Guru Ji. They will even do this in subjects where the professors do not want such old-time reverence like women’s studies. As a traditional campus everyone certainly stands or half-stands when a professor walks in or leaves. Women in senior academic positions wear traditional garb. There is a new trend in this post-feminist age for young Hindu women to wear chadors over their faces like their Muslim classmates when they go into the street on their motorbikes. My informants say that it is both to be protected from men’s eyes in unsafe India and at the same time not letting friends and family see you hanging out too close with your boyfriend.

The women in the BA in philosophy & religion choose the text courses and kiss their sacred library books when they are done as is pious Orthodox custom. They also touch the bottom lintel as they go in and out of a room and kiss their hand.

I find frequently find myself creating historically anachronistic parallelism, like the Ibn Ezra who explains Biblical details with similar practices in medieval India. Oh look, they only use the earthenware (heres) cups once and then smash them and consider them non-cleanable. Or look the storm is starting, see the men borrow their wives overcoats to bring in the goods before get destroyed.

However, it is strange to be a world where everyone knows the molad of Rosh Hodesh. Both Hindus and Muslims use a lunar calendar. But Diwali was Sunday in the North-East of India and Saturday elsewhere. And Muslim Eid was one day in Arabia and a day later here. It is exactly the discussion by Rabbi Zerachiah HaLevi (Baal Hameor) in Rosh Hashanah explaining the arrival of the molad in india vs Jerusalem.

I am surprised by how much disdain there is for capitalism, work or globalization. The combination of Gandhism and Marxism leaves itself open to avoid dealing with social problems. For those in US who want a place without regulations, this is it. Uttar Pradesh, the state that I am in, has no nasty restrictions by health, education or welfare. No commerce or trade regulations. No one is providing education or work, or helping the afflicted. I have been told that it is completely different in the state of Kerala that has a 95% literacy rate but up here in Uttar Pradesh with a 40% literacy rate life looks different.

They are convinced they have no interfaith problem in the country because everyone is free to observe their own religion. Yet recently, a Muslim man harassed a Hindu girl and the girls two brother avenged her by killing the harasser. But the Muslim community then killed the two Hindu brothers. By the end of the cycle 17 people were killed.

The philosophy department library goes back to the founding of the school and contains a rare assemblage of personal libraries donated to the collection. Somewhat like the collection of retired rabbi libraries at the old Yeshurun Synagogue library in Jerusalem or the old Hebrew College library before they were dissembled. The library does contain Rev Michael Freidlander book on Judaism and even the more recent work Faith by Louis Jacobs. (They will soon have a donation of Scholem, Soloveitchik, Heschel, and Kook among others; we are encouraged to leave our teaching books).

The local academic bookstore that has everything you could want on India, Hinduism, and Buddhism, has two works of Judaica- Martin Gilbert, History of Israel and Shlomo Sand’s The Invention of the Jewish People.

Back in the 1970’s Americans noted how India still treats Whitehead as if it was contemporary, Well nothing has changed. Bradley, Bertram Russell, and Royce, are still studied as contemporary thought.

I was here for the Diwali, the feast of lights which every community and religious group interprets in its own way- even Indian Jews take part. But for the Brahmans at the University, it is only a business class/ caste holiday of external activity and public show. What kind of holiday is it where you eat sweets, have family gatherings and light fire crackers to make noise?


During my holiday boat ride to see the city lit up as the city of lights, I finally watched the cremation of the dead on the river bank. There were two ways of doing it, the old way with wood and the new way with a modern crematorium that takes only an hour. The wood for the old way is provided as pre-cut cords of wood, so it looked like illustrations of the offering of Isaac/the ram in kids books, a perfect box fire- flame ascending with pious supplicants attending. The new method of a crematorium facing the river – besides the Holocaust image of it- is of a professional maintaining the machine while fighting off the pariah dogs desperately driven by the smell- leaving one only with the after-image impressed by the dogs of their desire to acquire cooked meat.

On the tourist things I have little to say. There are many blogs with travelogues and pictures on the attractions- see here, here, and here for some good critical comments at the end.

Benares was a hub of American graduate students seeking degrees in South Asian studies in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Now they are senior professors with a love of this town. For the best and most comprehensive romantic account of every ghat, temple, street, and cow, see Diana Eck, Banares: City Of Light (Princeton University Press).


I wrote this post last week and did not have connectivity. Tonight, the phone company replaced my non-working portable hotspot for a new one and asked me to wait in a busy traffic circle for a messenger on motorbike for a one minute trade-off. While waiting, I notice on the left side of the side a billboard with a missing poster leaving only the uncovered re-bar looking like a monkey bars, the other side had a Samsung ad. Among comes a troop of monkeys who actually start to use it as a monkey bars swinging around bars. My phone trade-off occurs without problem, but then the neighborhood loses power- a daily occurrence. Since it was after nightfall and I was sweating from the wait, I figure I will sit out the darkness in a nearby American style coffee bar with emergency power. I drink my ice tea, light comes back on, I leave coffee shop situated on a second floor landing, but the same troop of monkeys has taken over the staircase looking for victims for robbery or at least the extortion of trading your laptop or eyeglasses back for some fruit. I am pointed to a back door to escape. Time for a bit of Shabbos shopping. Why is there in an OU on a product that says for local India use only? Most likely it is sold under a different label at many times the cost in the US. The shopkeeper offers me the raisins from Afghanistan to buy as better than those of India. Bananas are 12 for 50 cents, papayas are seedless and about $1.10, and little lemons are 8 for 30 cents.

After, I take an auto-rickshaw home. The driver noticing when I step out of the vehicle that I wear a kippah, asks with a point to my head covering: “You Parsee?” I say “No, I am Jewish.” He smiles and explains that he is Muslim. He desperately hunts his mind for some English words to ask a follow-up question. You can tell by his face and his long pause that he had many things he wanted to ask. There is a moment of frustration, I wished him a Salaam-Alaikum, he answers “Alaikum Salaam” and he speeds off.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s