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Bārāṇasī (Benares)

The capital of the country of Kāsi. It was one of the four places of pilgrimage for Buddhists — the others being Lumbinī, Buddhagayā and Kusināra — because it was at the Migadāya in Isipatana near Bārānasī that the Buddha taught his first discourse to the Pañcavaggiyā.¹ This was the spot at which all Buddhas set in motion the Wheel of the Dhamma (Dhammacakka). It is the custom of Buddhas to travel by air from the Bodhi-tree to the scene of their first discourse, a distance of eighteen leagues,² but the present Buddha did all the journey on foot in order to be able to meet on the way the Ājīvaka Upaka.

Bārāṇasī was an important centre of trade and industry. There was direct trade between there and Sāvatthithe road passing through Bhaddiya,⁴ and between there and Takkasilā.⁵ It was the custom for enthusiastic young men of Bārāṇasī to go to the university at Takkasilā,⁶ but there seem to have been educational institutions at Bārāṇasī also, some of which were older than even those of Takkasilā.⁷ From Verañjā to Bārāṇasī there seem to have been two routes: one rather circuitous, passing through Soreyya, and the other direct, crossing the Gaṅgā at Payāgatittha. From Bārāṇasī the road continued to Vesāli.⁸ On the road from Bārāṇasī to Rājagaha was Andhakavinda.⁹ There seems to have been friendly intercourse between the chieftains of Bārāṇasī and the kings of Magadha, as shown by the fact that Bimbisāra sent his own physician, Jīvaka, to attend to the son of the Treasurer of Bārāṇasī.¹⁰ The distance from Kosambī to Bārāṇasī was thirty leagues by river.¹¹

The extent of the city of Bārāṇasī, including its suburbs, at the time when it was the capital of an independent kingdom, is often stated ¹² to have been twelve leagues. The names of several kings are mentioned in the Jātaka stories, among them being those of Aṅga, Uggasena, Udaya, Kikī, Dhanañjaya, Mahāsīlava, Vissasena, and Saṃyama.¹³

The name that occurs most frequently, however, is that of Brahmadatta, which seems to have been the dynastic name of the Bārāṇasī kings. In the Mahāgovinda Sutta, the foundation of Bārāṇasī is attributed to Mahāgovinda, its first king being Dhataraṭṭha, contemporary of Reṇu.¹⁴ The Ceylon Chronicles ¹⁵ mention the names of others who reigned in Bārāṇasī — e.g., Duppasaha and sixty of his descendants; Asoka, son of Samaṅkara, and eighty-four thousand of his descendants; also sixteen kings, ancestors of Okkāka. The city itself had been known by different names at different periods; thus, in the time of the Udaya Jātaka it was called Surundhana; in that of the Mahā Sutasoma, Sudassana; in that of the Soṇānanda, Brahmavaḍḍhana; in that of the Candakumāra, Pupphavatī; in that of the Yuvañjaya, Rammanagara;¹⁶ and in that of the Saṅkha Jātaka, Molinī.¹⁷ It was also called Kāsinagara and Kāsipura,¹⁸ being the capital of Kāsi. The Bhojājāniya Jātaka ¹⁹ says that “all the kings around coveted the kingdom of Bārāṇasī.” In the Brahāchatta Jātaka,²⁰ the king of Bārāṇasī is mentioned as having captured the whole of Kosala. At the time of the Buddha, however, Bārāṇasī had lost its great political importance. Kosala was already the paramount power in India, and several successful invasions of Kāsi by the Kosalans under their kings Vaṅka, Dabbasena, and Kaṃsa, are referred to. The final conquest would seem to be ascribed to Kaṃsa because the epithet Bārānasīggha (conqueror of Bārāṇasī) is an established addition to his name.²¹

Later, when Ajātasattu succeeded in establishing his sway over Kosala, with the help of the Licchavis, Kāsī, too, was included in his kingdom. Even in the Buddha’s time the city of Bārāṇasī was wealthy and prosperous and was included in the list of great cities suggested by Ānanda as suitable places for the Parinibbāna of the Buddha.²²

Mention is also made of a Bāṇārasīseṭṭhi ²³ and a Saṇṭhāgārasālā (Mote Hall), which was then, however, no longer being used so much for the transaction of public business as for public discussions on religious and philosophical questions.²⁴ Near Bārāṇasī was a grove of seven sirīsaka trees where the Buddha taught the Nāga king Erakapatta,²⁵ and also the Kemiyambavana where Udena met Ghoṭamukha;²⁶ on the other side of the river was Vāsabhagāma, and beyond that another village called Cundaṭṭhila.²⁷

The Buddha is several times spoken of as staying in Bārāṇasī, where he taught several discourses ²⁸ and converted many people including Yasa, whose home was in Bārāṇasī ²⁹ and his friends Vimala, Subāhu, Puṇṇaji, and Gavampati, all members of eminent families.³⁰ Isipatana (q.v.) became a monastic centre in the Buddha’s time and continued so for long after. From there came twelve thousand monks under the leadership of Dhammasena to be present at the ceremony of the foundation of the Mahā Thūpa.³¹

In the past, Bārāṇasī was the birthplace of Kassapa Buddha.³² In the time of Metteyya Buddha, Bārāṇasī will be known as Ketumatī at the head of eighty-four thousand towns. Saṅkha will be Cakkavatti there, but he will renounce the world and will become an Arahant under Metteyya.³³ Bārānasī evidently derives its name from the fact that it lies between the two rivers Barnā and Asi.³⁴

¹ D.ii.141. ² DhA.iii.429. ³ MA.i.388; Bu.A.242, etc. Vin.i.189.

DhA.i.123. E.g., J.ii.4; DhA.i.250.


KhA.198; see also DhA.iii.445, where Susīma, Saṅkha’s son, goes from Takkasilā to Bārāṇasī for purposes of study.

Sp.i.201. Vin.i.220. ¹⁰ Vin.i.275. ¹¹ MA.ii.929.

¹² E.g., J.iv.377; vi.160; MA.ii.608.

¹³ The SNA. on the Khaggavisāna Sutta contains the names of several kings of Bārāṇasī who renounced the world and became Pacceka Buddhas.

¹⁴ D.ii.235. ¹⁵ MT. 127,129,130. ¹⁶ J.iv.119 f. ¹⁷ J.iv.15.

¹⁸ E.g., J.v.54; vi.165; DhA.i.87. ¹⁹ J.i.178. ²⁰ J.iii.116. ²¹ J.ii.403.

²² D.ii.146. ²³ E.g., DhA.i.412; iii. 87, 365.

²⁴ E.g., J.iv.74; ascetics who came to the city found lodging for the night in the Potters’ Hall (e.g., DhA.i.39).

²⁵ DhA.iii.230. ²⁶ M.ii.158. ²⁷ PvA.168.

²⁸ E.g., A.i.110 f., 279 f; iii.392 ff., 399 ff; S.i.105; v.406; Vin.i.189, 216 f., 289.

²⁹ Vin.i.15. ³⁰ Vin.i.19. ³¹ Mhv.xxix.31. ³² Bu.xxv.33.

³³ D.iii.75 f. ³⁴ CAGI.499 f.