No one who has ever visited Banaras, the holiest of India's many pilgrimage sites strung along the left bank of the mighty Ganges, the country's most sacred river, is ever likely to forget the experience. There is in fact no place like it in the world with its narrow twisting streets where one jostles for passage with sacrosanct cows, a motley of pious pilgrims, ordinary householders and colorful sadhus; where one can float in the predawn cool of Mother Ganga and from the vantage point of a rowboat or a barge look on scenes of unfamiliar daily ritual that tease and tug at Western perceptions not only of what is religious and holy but sanitary and hygienic as well.

From the river in the early morning the city presents a confused picture of squalor and magnificence: the palaces of maharajas and millionaires, some crumbling away, some sprucely kept, innumerable temples and shrines, large and small, monasteries, hostels, hovels, steep masonry cliffs, countless stone steps and platforms, all dominated by the Cremation Ground where the famed Burning Ghats are located. Pale blue smoke rises into the air from this sacred site where those lucky enough to die in the city of Banaras or have their bodies transported there for burning on the banks of the Ganges are receiving their last rites. There is no obnoxious smell; incense is burned in Hindu funerary ceremonies--this may well be for many onlookers the one redeeming feature.

For many others however, the scene has a curious and powerful fascination. The wide stone steps leading to the river bank are crowded with people descending for their morning ablutions or ascending after their ritual bath, often transporting river water to offer later at a favorite shrine or to carry home for daily use. The river itself is full of people, many immersing themselves (the women fully clothed in their bright saris), others standing in the water devoutly cupping it in their hands as an offering to ancestors, still others, their palms placed together, facing the rising sun while they murmur their silent prayers. In spite of all the lively coming and going there is about the whole visual drama a singular peace and calm; the total inwardness of crowds of people, each individual completely absorbed in his own personal act of private devotion.

From the outsider's point of view, to assimilate all of this--from the burning bodies on the shore, the dozens of praying worshippers in the water, the unexpected smiling face of a dolphin rising alongside the boat, not far from a half-burned body floating out to sea--demands an exceptional effort in open-mindedness. Although this effort may not always succeed it seems safe to say that the picture itself will remain fixed forever in any observer's mind.

In Banaras: City of Light, Diana Eck, a scholar and professor of Hindu Religion in the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Harvard, has written a notable book about this greatest of Indian pilgrimage sites. It is the result of years of studying ancient texts and of interviewing teachers, temple priests, storytellers, pilgrims and just ordinary folk whom she has encountered or sought out during the years when she was a resident here. Her brilliant, comprehensive book seems likely to remain for a long time the definitive work on this great Indian city. The author is not concerned with telling her readers where to get the best curry lunch or the sheerest and finest of Banaras saris. Her aim is rather to give a heightened sense of the still-living mythology of India, a country where the very land itself is perceived as sacred. In Eck's view the Hindu feeling for "sacred living geography" accounts for the phenomenon, still observable in modern India, of countless Hindus making pilgrimages to the great holy places of their homeland, above all to the city of Banaras and the river Ganges. In these many pilgrimages Eck finds "an important unifying force not only for sects and regions but for the wider Hindu perceptions of what constitutes the land of India."

She illustrates this point in a brief but telling description of one of Banaras' innumerable temples, a modern one called Bharat Mata, "Mother India." Here instead of an image of a god or goddess or some iconographic symbol of godly power, this particular temple houses a large map of the subcontinent of India, a map on which every mountain and river and all sites of religious pilgrimage are plainly marked. Today's pious visitors first formally circumambulate the entire map (the prescribed ritual observance for any sacred edifice), then they climb to the second floor for a reverential view, darshana, of Holy Mother India.

During its long dramatic history many gods and powerful kings have claimed the city of Banaras as their own domain. At one point the Muslims came and tried to destroy it only to return quietly later to build among the Hindu temples their own mosques which now serve a large and peacefully coexisting Muslim population. Whatever its past the city is today unquestionably considered a center of Hinduism, a site particularly sacred to the god Shiva since it was here that his linga "as the unfathomable symbol of the Supreme Lord first pierced the earth." (This phallic linga is worshiped all over Banaras in large temples and small shrines. Reproductions of it are even for sale in the many shops that cater to Banaras' fourishing tourist trade.)

The god Shiva is one of the great triumvirate of Hindu deities consisting of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver and Shiva the destroyer. It is important to realize that these designations of contrasting function are not perceived by the Hindu mind as they would be by the Western, for in Hinduism creation and destruction are part of a single whole. Hindus appear to have no trouble condensing this transcendent Whole into any number of worshipable parts without thereby losing the sense of an enduring Totality. Hindu art often visualizes the infinite complexity of the One in a single multi- armed or multi-headed deity; Hindus can depict the entire cosmos in a single circle called a mandala; they can even conceive of the possibility of packing the enormous material of the sacred Vedas into one all-powerful mantra, a phrase to be prayerfully chanted by any seeker of enlightenment. Thus it is that in spite of Shiva's dominant role at Banaras, pilgrims also come here to worship Vishnu and other resident deities such as the elephant- headed Ganesha, the monkey god Hanuman, or some one of the many manifestations of the Great Goddess, the female life energy of the universe, Shiva's consort and shakti, "his enabling power in the world." Hinduism's seeming tolerance for paradox and contradiction in its many varieties of worship and in its loyalties to different gods is consistent with the Hindu view of the whole cosmos "as alive with divine vitality," a belief which makes possible God's appearance in an infinite variety of "names and forms."

This particular aspect of the Hindu religious imagination occasionally provides stories which have for Westerners some of the ribald hilarity of American Indian folk tales like those of the Coyote Cycle. One story recounted by Eck tells of Kedara, a place of Shiva worship on one of the high Himalayan tributaries of the Ganges. In ancient days the Pandava brothers (famed from the great Indian epic the Mahabharata) came to the Himalayas on a pilgrimage seeking sanctification for their sin of engaging in battle with their own kinfolk. They hoped to be saved by Shiva who was then residing in these high mountains. (These were pre-Banaras days.) To avoid the petitioners Shiva--who was of course capable of assuming many different forms at will--turned himself into a bull and dived headfirst into the earth. Just as he was disappearing, however, Brahma caught him unawares (part of an ancient squabble which is quite another story) and as a consequence Shiva was forced to leave his hindquarters protruding from the place of his disappearance. The Pandavas prayerfully and gratefully worshipped Shiva's backsides, and many less famous pilgrims have been doing so here ever since. According to Indian myth it was also while Shiva was in the Himalayas that he performed the great feat of catching in the locks of his hair the Ganges when it fell from Heaven in a fearsome torrent. Later he was to lead the mighty stream across the plains to the site of present-day Banaras.

Eck stresses that one cannot overemphasize the deep Hindu belief in the sanctifying and healing powers of the Ganges, particularly at Banaras. Even accidental immersion in these sacred waters can bring salvation as exemplified in the old story of Vahika, an utterly despicable character who had not only been seen to kick his own mother but who had--most heinous of all sins-- killed a cow! When Vahika died and appeared before Yama the Lord of Death he had not a single redeeming virtue or good deed to his credit. Summarily condemned to Hell his body was thrown to vultures, one of whom flew off with Vahika's footbone. In a fight with a pursuing vulture the first bird was unable to hang on to his choice tidbit; it fell into the river Ganges. As a consequence just as Vahika was being dragged off to Hell a divine messenger appeared to tell him that due to this fortuitous circumstance he had received grace and forgiveness from Mother Ganga herself. ("No child is too dirty they say to be embraced by his mother," remarks Eck.)

This brings us to the question of the purity of Ganges water, a fiercely asserted claim which has for years confounded many skeptics, Asian as well as Western. Why with all the perfectly obvious pollution from the sick who daily bathe in it hoping for a cure and the already dead whose bones and ashes float in it do pilgrims and townspeople so happily, and apparently so safely, immerse themselves, drink the water, use it in their cooking? It has been claimed by some authorities that bacteria die in Ganges water in record time, that even the bones of the dead dissolve at astounding speed. Does the river then contain some innate purifying element, some not yet known, or named, natural antibiotic? Or is it the transforming power of a people's faith expressed in the more than 1 million pilgrims who annually visit the City of Light and pay their personal homage to Mother Ganga? Certainly for centuries belief in ritual purification by water has been one of the consistent themes of Indian religious life. This belief, with attendant practices, has been traced back as far as pre-Aryan days. At Mohenjo-Daro among these most ancient of Indian ruins excavations have uncovered large ceremonial tanks clearly indicating ritual use of water. A little later we find the Vedic hymns of the earliest Aryans praising as "goddesses" the great rivers of the Northwest.

Make of it what you will, Diana Eck assures us that if there is one thing on which Hindu India in all its bewildering and manifold diversity of thought and belief can be said to agree it is on the immense cultural and religious significance of the Ganges, especially at Banaras. Says Eck, "Of the Ganges India speaks in one voice." She tells us that even Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the most Westernized, modern and avowedly secular of Indian leaders, expressed the deep desire to have a handful of his ashes thrown into the Ganges when he died. He said: "The Ganga, especially, is the river of India, beloved of her people, round which are intertwined her racial memories, her hopes and fears, her songs of triumph, her victories and her defeats. She has been a symbol of India's age-long culture and civilization, ever-changing, ever-flowing, and yet ever the same Ganga."