One of the oldest references of Kasi – ‘The city of eternal divine light’ emanates from the legacy of King-Sage Divodasa, whose lineage finds a special mention in the Rig Veda and in the oldest Upanishads. From that time of remote antiquity, the line of kings which ruled Kashi and the Mauryan dynasty, an empire that ruled the Indian sub-continent from 320 BCE to185 BCE claimed descent from Kusha, who descends from the Ramayana. The Rig Vedic Kaushitaki-Brahmana Upanishad refers to a dialogue between a Gargya generation Brahmin named Balaka, and an older King named Ajatsatru, the then emperor of Kashi. The story is also mentioned in one of the most antique of all Upanishads, the Sukla Yajur-vedic Vrihad Aranayak Upanishad 2.1 and the place ‘Kashi’ is re-mentioned in the same Upanishad 3.8.2. Additionally, the Atharva Vedic Pranagni-hotra Upanishad bears a direct reference to Kashi in the name of ‘Varanasi’. Thousands of years, another emperor by the same name Ajatsatru, rules parts of greater Kasi, who was also contemporary to Gautama the Buddha and Mahavira the Tirthankara.
The Adi Parva of the Mahabharata narrates about Amba's swayamvara, who was the eldest daughter of the king of Kashi (Varanasi), who organized a swayamvara (a ceremony of choosing a husband from among assembled suitors by the bride) for his three daughters which was organized by Bhishma, the son of the Kuru King Shantanu of Hastinapur and his wife Ganga, the living goddess - the spirit of river Ganges (called Ganga in India). Of the later Puranas, there are special mention in the various chapters of the Agni Purana (119); the Padma Purana (14.191); the Kurma Purana (1,31,35); Matsya Purana ( 191); Linga Purana ( 92); and particularly, at length, in the entire fourth chapter of the Skanda purana, which is called ‘Kasi Mahatyam’ (the Glory of Varanasi).The Buddhist Anguttara Nikaya (100 BCE), at several places gives a list of sixteen great nations or regional confederations of which one is Kashi. The Digha Nikaya or ‘Collection of Long Discourses’ is a a Buddhist scripture, the first of the five nikayas, or collections, in the Sutta Pitaka, which is one of the ‘three baskets’ that compose the Pali Tipitaka of Theravada Buddhism, also mentions Kashi as a predominant confederation. The Jaina Bhagavati Sutra (300 AD) also mentions Kasi as one of the sixteen Mahajanapadas.
One very important event is to recollect the coming in of Siddhartha the Gautama to Varanasi to revive its sacred cosmic geography, and its green paradise for the Sages (Rishipatana), called ‘Saranath’ (Mrigadave or Deer’s park), named after the Unicorn Sage of Ramayana, Saranganath or Rishya-Sringa. From that time, till to today’s Varanasi, India’s celebrated Spiritual Capital, unfolds in one fold the uninterrupted and sustainable urban lineage many layers, many traditions, and many schools of spiritual and intellectual legacy. As celebrated American Humorist-explorer Mark Twain commented after experiencing Varanasi:
''Varanasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.''
Now, a Pan-IIT-SPA joint initiative is heading forth to take up Varanasi: a mega-exploratory project. The goal is to explore in full depth having stepped a four phased recovery, and thereby encompassing an entire flow of Varanasi’s unique land-river interface in all its levels of eco-innovation.