Born and brought up in a somewhat conservative family, I had heard about Kasi even in my childhood.
Kasi is so much part of the tradition and culture that a ritual symbolic of pilgrimage to Kasi is part of Upanayana.
Yet it is common practice to talk ill of these pilgrim spots which is said to be spoiled by human filth. I have heard such talks even in the midst of pilgrimage to such places!
My ‘scientific’ mindset has been skeptical of purification of mind by the mere act of taking bath in a river. How can physical act of taking bath in a river, howsoever pure it is, cleanse the mind … leave alone the question of providing ‘moksha and liberation from cycles of rebirths‘
Philosopher in me was curious even as I tried to convince myself that there is something deeper, and I got a hint of that while reading ‘Kasi Panchakam’ composed by Sankaracharya…And, my quest continues…
My understanding of the message of key verse of’Kasi Panchakam’, which is written in admiration of Kasi, is as follows:
a) Verse 1
ManO Nivruthi ParamOpa Saanthi
Saa Theerthavaryaa Manikarnika Cha
Saa Kasikaham Nijabodharoopa
Which roughly translates to mean (in my knowledge): (Self) withdrawal of mind leads to absolute peace. That space (within Self) is Manikarnika. Flow of knowledge is the pure and original Ganges. That Kasi is Self which is pure awareness.
My understanding is: True Kasi is within Self, and pilgrimage to Kasi is journey within Self. Withdrawal of mind leads to a blissful state which relieves you of all influence of great illusion. Divine knowledge/enlightenment that flows in that state is Ganges and self-aware existence of Self is Kasi. Cremation of body in Manikarnika represents destruction of Ahamkara, the illusion of subjective experience of mind that emerges out of identifying with body as self
b) Verse 2
Charaacharam Bathi ManOvilasam
Saa Kasikaham Nijabodharoopa
Which roughly translates to mean (in my knowledge): The Self, which has imagined this illusion of world through mind, is of the same form (is the same as) Paramaatma. I am the Kasi which is that self-aware existence of Self.
My understanding is: Self which has imagined (through mind) the illusion that we experience is, in fact, that pure self-aware existence and I am that kasi.
c) Verse 3
Kaasyaam Ki Kaasathe Kaasee
Saa Kasee Vidithaa Yena
Thenapraptaa Hi Kaasikaa
Which roughly translates to mean (in my knowledge): Kasi is illuminated in Kasi. Kasi illuminates everything else. Only those who have seen that Kasi can reach Kasi.
My understanding is: As discussed earlier, mind withdrawn leads to the blissful experience of self-awareness. This experience illuminates and brightens everything else (as great illusion withdraws). This experience can be realized only in that state, and only those who have realized that reach the true Kasi (realization of Self)
I have left out a couple of verses here which elaborates this further