The capital of Kāsi-janapada. It was one of the four places of pilgrimage for the Buddhists - the others being Kapilavatthu, Buddhagayā and Kusināra - because it was at, the Migadāya in Isipatana near Bārānasī that the Buddha preached his first sermon to the Pañcavaggiyā (D.ii.141). This was the spot at which all Buddhas set in motion the Wheel of the Law (Dhamma-cakka). It is the custom of Buddhas to travel by air from the Bodhi-tree to the scene of their first sermon, a distance of eighteen leagues (MA.i.388; Bu.A.242, etc.), but the present Buddha did all the journey on foot in order to be able to meet on the way the Ajīvaka Upaka.
Benares was an important centre of trade and industry. There was direct trade between there and Sāvatthi (DhA.iii.429), the road passing through Bhaddiya (Vin.i.189), and between there and Takkasilā (DhA.i.123). It was the custom for enthusiastic young men of Benares to go to the university at Takkasilā (E.g., J.ii.4; DhA.i.250), but there seem to have been educational institutions at Benares also, some of which were older than even those of Takkasilā (KhA.198; see also DhA.iii.445, where Susīma, Sankha's son, goes from Takkasilā to Benares for purposes of study).
From Verañjā to Benares there seem to have been two routes: one rather circuitous, passing through Soreyya, and the other direct, crossing the Ganges at Payāgatittha. From Benares the road continued to Vesāli (Sp.i.201). On the road from Benares to Rājagaha was Andhakavinda (Vin.i.220). There seems to have been friendly intercourse between the chieftains of Benares 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 Benares (Vin.i.275). The distance from Kosambī to Benares was thirty leagues by river (MA.ii.929).
The extent of the city of Benares, including its suburbs, at the time when it was the capital of an independent kingdom, is often stated (E.g., J.iv.377; vi.160; MA.ii.608) to have been twelve leagues. The names of several kings are mentioned in the Jātakas, among them being those of Anga, Uggasena, Udaya, Kikī, Dhanañjaya, Mahāsīlava, Vissasena, and Samyama. (The SNA. on the Khaggavisāna Sutta contains the names of several kings of Benares who renounced the world and became Pacceka Buddhas).
The name which occurs most frequently, however, is that of Brahmadatta, which seems to have been the dynastic name of the Benares kings. In the Mahāgovinda Sutta, the foundation of Bārānasī is attributed to Mahāgovinda, its first king being Dhatarattha, contemporary of Renu (D.ii.235). The Ceylon Chronicles (MT. 127,129,130) mention the names of others who reigned in Benares - e.g., Duppasaha and sixty of his descendants; Asoka, son of Samankara, 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 Sutasoma, Sudassana; in that of the Sonananda, Brahmavaddhana; in that of the Khandahāla, Pupphavatī; in that of the Yuvañjaya, Rammanagara (J.iv.119f); and in that of the Sankha, Molinī (J.iv.15). It was also called Kāsinagara and Kāsipura (E.g., J.v.54; vi.165; DhA.i.87), being the capital of Kāsi. The Bhojājāniya Jātaka (J.i.178) says that "all the kings around coveted the kingdom of Benares." In the Brahāchatta Jātaka (J.iii.116), the king of Benares is mentioned as having captured the whole of Kosala. At the time of the Buddha, however, Benares 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 Vanka, Dabbasena and Kamsa, are referred to. The final conquest would seem to be ascribed to Kamsa because the epithet Bārānasīggha (conqueror of Benares) is an established addition to his name (J.ii.403).
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 Benares was wealthy and prosperous and was included in the list of great cities suggested by Ananda as suitable places for the Parinibbāna of the Buddha (D.ii.146).
Mention is also made of a Bānārasīsetthi (E.g., DhA.i.412; iii. 87, 365) and a Santhāgārasālā (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. 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).
Near Benares was a grove of seven sirīsaka trees where the Buddha preached to the Nāga king Erakapatta (DhA.iii.230), and also the Kemiyambavana where Udena met Ghotamukha (M.ii.158); on the other side of the river was Vāsabhagāma, and beyond that another village called Cundatthila (PvA.168).
The Buddha is several times spoken of as staying in Benares, where he preached several sermons (E.g., A.i.110f., 279f.; iii.392ff., 399ff.; S.i.105; v.406; Vin.i.189, 216f., 289) and converted many people including Yasa, whose home was in Benares (Vin.i.15), and his friends Vimala, Subāhu, Punnaji and Gavampati, all members of eminent families (Vin.i.19). 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 (Mhv.xxix.31).
In the past, Bārānasī was the birthplace of Kassapa Buddha (Bu.xxv.33). In the time of Metteyya Buddha, Bārānasī will be known as Ketumatī at the head of eighty four thousand towns. Sankha will be Cakkavatti there, but he will renounce the world and will become an arahant under Metteyya (D.iii.75f). Bārānasī evidently derives its name from the fact that it lies between the two rivers Barnā and Asi (CAGI.499f).