Vishwambhar Nath Mishra swaps selves each time he changes clothes. Wearing trousers and a shirt, he teaches electronics engineering at Banaras Hindu University’s Institute of Technology during the day. In the evenings, he manages the affairs of the city’s famed Sankat Mochan temple as its mahant (head priest) in a simple dhoti and kurta. Like his father Veer Bhadra Mishra, Mishra borrows his rigour from science and his equanimity from religion, but his inheritance also includes a love for music. A day after the pakhawaj exponent was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in Lucknow on June 13, he sat down with Frontline in the baithak of his Varanasi home to discuss matters relating to the Gyanvapi masjid. He argued that solutions to its problems can be found in consensus, not controversy.
How did you respond to the news that a shiva linga had been found in the Gyanvapi mosque?
If the siva linga found inside Gyanvapi is the real siva linga, how does one make sense of the siva linga that is being worshipped in the Kashi Vishwanath temple? These are all tactics to divert attention. Kashi is thought of as Siva’s dwelling space. Dig up this city and you will find siva lingas everywhere. Imagine you own a property that has been taken over by someone. The person constructs a building in that space, but a few hundred years later, your descendants come and claim this land is being unlawfully occupied and that it must be returned to them. That’s not how the world works. Time is a crucial factor.
We say, “Kashi ke kankar, Shiv Shankar.” (Even the pebbles of Kashi are Siva.) But Kashi is a spiritual platform for several other religions, too, be it Islam, Christianity, Buddhism. Kashi can accommodate anything and anyone. This is why Kashi is considered a prototype of India. Every religion can participate in its culture. This city’s fabric is unique. Take the Kashi Vishwanath temple, for example. It was built during the Mughal era. Hindus and Muslims addressed concerns pertaining to this temple through negotiation. The matter is now sub judice, and every party will have to accept the court’s decision in the matter, but there must also be an effort to amicably resolve such issues through public discussion.
According to you, is it too far-fetched to claim that a jyotirlinga was converted into a fountain?
There cannot be two jyotirlingas in the same space. By claiming that the siva linga which has just been discovered is the authentic jyotirlinga, you are trampling on your own culture that has been laboriously built through 350 years of worship. Every siva linga in Banaras has a history that is informed by belief and faith. Most of them have been named in the Kashi Khanda. This new linga has no history.
Has the Kashi Viswanath Corridor exacerbated Hindu-Muslim tensions in the city?
Ever since it was constructed near the Gyanvapi masjid during the British rule, the Carmichael Library helped conceal, cover and thereby protect the mosque. The library once attracted intellectuals and learned people. That is where the elite and literate population of Kashi went to research and study. To expand the Kashi Vishwanath temple, this library was demolished during the construction of the corridor. Now the Gyanvapi mosque is conspicuous. It is no longer hidden. Since you can now see it clearly, it has become a target for everyone. If you wish to poison the air, this is how you start doing it.
Also, it was not just the library. All of 143 Puranic temples were destroyed during the building of the corridor. Nobody is talking about that. Everyone now only seems to be looking for Siva in the masjid. The ambience of the Kashi Vishwanath temple was once very different. The lanes and houses that surrounded the mandir are now all gone. Today, that space resembles a mall. It even has a food court!
Is the Gyanvapi issue now taking precedence in Banaras? Are crucial issues being neglected?
The Kashi Vishwanath temple and the Ganga are the two predominant features of Banaras. We can all see what the authorities have done to the temple. They say the corridor has brought Siva and Ganga together, but Ma Ganga has always been flowing through the locks of Siva’s hair. Who are you to bring them together? Besides, the state of the Ganga has gone from bad to worse. My father began a campaign to save it in 1982 and the Ganga Action Plan was launched in 1986. This government hasn’t done one thing for the river. Like the Ganga, the city is also choked. Traffic, sewage and pollution are crucial issues, but they’re only interested in temples because the subject of religion aggravates people.
Do you think the Gyanvapi case will impact the historic fraternity that Banaras is known for?
The Hindus and Muslims of Banaras are both very intelligent. Despite repeated recent efforts, neither community has once resorted to violence. I believe that the fraternity of Kashi will not be interrupted.
Also Read | In search of the Banaras of Ustad Bismillah Khan
You are both a mahant and a professor of engineering. How can religion and science co-exist?
My life, I feel, is testament to the fact that religion can co-exist with science and technology. Science gives you the capacity for rational thought. Science precludes sycophancy. It forces you to apply your rational mind and understand reality. I believe that we are all practising Hindus, not radical Hindus. We don’t sprint behind someone aimlessly. If we see someone running, we will ask, “Why is he running?” And if we see that he is running for the wrong reasons, science gives us the courage to pull him back.