Varanasi, a city renowned for its ancient history, spiritual aura, and the sacred Ganges River, holds a unique place in the hearts of millions across the globe. Amidst the ghats and winding streets, lies a haven unlike any other – Mukti Bhawan. For many, this hostel represents the last journey of their earthly life, a place to attain ‘Moksha’ or liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth. In a world obsessed with the material, Mukti Bhawan stands as a testament to the spiritual journey that transcends this life and leads to ultimate freedom.
An Overview of Mukti Bhawan
Located in the spiritual epicenter of India, Mukti Bhawan is a sanctuary for those in the final stages of life. Contrary to the stereotype of old age homes, this establishment is devoid of luxurious facilities. With a modest 12-room structure, a small Hindu temple, and a resident priest (Pujari) who performs daily rituals, it provides a serene environment for individuals seeking solace and peace in their final days.
Unlike traditional hospice care, Mukti Bhawan operates on a unique policy – if a resident does not pass away within 15 days or shows signs of improved health, they are kindly asked to vacate the premises. This policy aligns with the belief that dying in Varanasi grants ‘Moksha,’ freeing the soul from the cycle of life and death.
Varanasi: The City of Death and Liberation
The mystical aura of Varanasi is palpable to anyone who visits. It is a city where the energy of life and death coexist, making it a magnet for Hindu monks (‘Sadhus’) and spiritual seekers. The belief that dying in Varanasi leads to ‘Moksha’ has drawn nearly 20,000 people annually to spend their last days at this sacred location.
The Origins of Moksha in Varanasi
According to the “Matsya Purana,” Kashi was created by Lord Shiva, who declared it to be his secret. It is a place where all individuals, regardless of their religion, color, or caste, can attain “Moksha” and liberation from this materialistic world. Whether one is a Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, or Sudra, anyone who comes to Kashi will achieve “Moksha.” However, there is a lesser-known tale, known only to a few, about “Rishi Markandeya.”
The Story of Rishi Markandeya
Rishi Markandeya was born after his father, Rishi Mrikanda, devotedly worshipped Lord Shiva for a year, seeking a child. One day, Lord Shiva appeared before him during his prayers and agreed to grant him a blessing. However, Lord Shiva presented him with two options: a son with a long life but without intelligence or a son with a lifespan of 16 years but with high intelligence. Rishi Mrikanda chose the latter, and his wife, Mata Manasvini, gave birth to Rishi Markandeya.
Rishi Markandeya was highly intelligent and well-versed in the Vedas and Hindu religious texts, “The Shastra.” He became a devoted follower of Lord Shiva and was aware of his future. As he grew older, he realized that his death was imminent. He immersed himself in the worship of Lord Shiva, and when Yamaduta came to take him at the end of his life, the devotion of the Shiva devotee was so profound that Yamaduta left without him. Then, Yamaraj himself came to claim Rishi Markandeya. In fear, the sage clung to the Shivlinga and pleaded for his life. Yamaraj threw his death whip at the sage, but Markandeya, along with the whip, struck the Shivalinga.
Lord Shiva, enraged by this incident, appeared himself and killed Yamaraj with his trident to save his devotee. Yamaraj was defeated in the presence of a Shiva devotee. However, after Yamaraj’s death, the balance of life and death in the world was disrupted. No one could die except by Yamaraj’s hand, leading to chaos as the Asuras, Rakshasas, and Demons grew increasingly tyrannical.
All the gods then collectively requested Shiva to restore Yamaraj’s life. Lord Shiva agreed but imposed two conditions: first, the life of Sage Markandeya could not be taken, and second, Yamaduta and Yamaraj were forbidden from entering Kashi. As a result, the soul of anyone who dies in Kashi does not go to Yamaloka but is instead freed from the cycle of life and death, achieving moksha. This belief is why many think that dying in Kashi leads to salvation.
The Dark Side of Salvation
During the tumultuous period of the Kali Yuga, people began to exploit the sanctity of Kashi. The common belief emerged that regardless of the sins one committed during their lifetime, all would be cleansed simply by dying in Kashi. This led to widespread chaos and anarchy. To counter this, the avatar of Kal Bhairav appeared.
Kal Bhairav is a fearsome manifestation of Lord Shiva, characterized by fiery eyes, dark skin, a snake around his neck, and a garland of human skulls. Legend has it that Kal Bhairav was so formidable that he severed one of Lord Brahma’s heads. Lord Shiva appointed Kal Bhairav as the gatekeeper of Kashi, responsible for obliterating sins.
If you’ve committed numerous sins and seek solace in Kashi, you’ll have to pray to Kal Bhairav. Shortly before death, as your entire life flashes before your eyes, Kal Bhairav will make his presence felt. During this moment, you will briefly experience the tortures of Yamaloka, referred to as “Bhairavi Yatana – The Ultimate Suffering.”
This earthly experience of Yamaloka’s torments is known as Bhairavi Yatana. At this point, the dying individual will undergo various forms of pain and punishment in multiple corporeal manifestations, enduring all karmic retributions simultaneously. It is said that the agony felt at the time of death is akin to being bitten by 40,000 scorpions, but the suffering of Bhairavi Yatana far surpasses even that. Thus, after enduring punishment for the sins of each lifetime, the individual finally attains moksha.
Manikarnika Ghat: The Final Rite
The journey towards ‘Moksha’ culminates at Manikarnika Ghat, where the mortal remains are cremated. It is believed that even after death, some life force (‘Prana’) remains in the body for 12 days. The act of cremation at Manikarnika Ghat releases this energy, allowing the soul to embark on its journey towards liberation.
Despite the somber nature of death, it is celebrated with joy and reverence at Manikarnika Ghat. The Aghori Sadhus, who meditate here, view death as a natural part of life and a step closer to ultimate liberation.
In a world dominated by material pursuits, Mukti Bhawan and the city of Varanasi offer a different perspective on life and death. For many, it is the final journey towards liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth, a journey that culminates in the sacred act of cremation at Manikarnika Ghat.
While the concept of seeking death may seem morbid to some, the spiritual significance of Mukti Bhawan and Varanasi provides a sense of solace and acceptance for those on the brink of the afterlife. Ultimately, it is a reminder that life and death are but two sides of the same coin, and in embracing one, we come to understand and appreciate the other.