India: A Sacred Geography


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"India" explores the sacred places of India, taking the reader on an extraordinary trip through the beliefs and history of this rich and profound place.

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Mar 28, 2020

An Indian Pilgrimage

In the range of its learning and in its sweep, passion, and insight, Diana Eck's new book, "India: A Sacred Geography" (2012) is a grand meditation on India and religious life. A professor of comparative literature and Indian studies at Harvard University, Eck has written widely on Indian religion and on American religious pluralism. In 1998, then President Clinton awarded Eck the National Humanities Medal for her work as director of the Pluralism Project in the investigation of America's changing religious landscape.

The overriding theme of Eck's study is pilgrimage. She offers a story of pilgrimage to India's many sacred places that is at once mythical, romantic and factual. Eck herself has spent decades in India exploring the sites her book discusses in extraordinary detail. Her pilgrimage extends over millennia and to the millions of people who make pilgrimages to Indian sacred sites each year. As I read, I realized that the pilgrimage was also Eck's own, and it ultimately becomes that of the reader.

Eck writes that she had the idea of writing this book of broad pilgrimages and sites upon writing an earlier book on the city of Benares. Eck came to realize that Benares was not a single sacred city in the manner of, for example, Jerusalem or Mecca, but was instead part of a vast network of Indian sacred places which she set about to explore. Eck argues that pilgrimage rather than sacrifice of the study of sacred texts is the primary expression of Hinduism and that Hinduism and religion, in turn hold the key to understanding the heart of India. The ancient myths of India constitute, for Eck, an "imagined landscape" which has been "constituted not by priests and their literature, though there is plenty of literature to be sure, but by countless millions of pilgrims who have generated a powerful sense of land, location, and belonging through journeys to their hearts' destinations."

Most importantly, Eck finds links in the ancient Indian myths between the transcendent and divine and the specifics of place. She also finds an emphasis of the pluralism of religious vision. In comparing Indian with some Western religious visions, Eck writes:

"[T]he places praised are not unique, but ultimately numberless, limited not by the capacity of the divine to be present at any one of them, but by the capacity of human beings to discover and to apprehend the divine presence at all of them. The dissonance, of course, arises from a discourse of exclusivity and uniqueness, more typical of the monotheistic traditions of the West, now arising in a Hindu context in which patterns of religious meaning have traditionally been constructed on the mythic presuppositions of divine plurality and plentitude."

In her study, Eck commingles a description of geography, contemporary pilgrimages, and in some cases contemporary Indian politics, with the great Indian myths. She draws from a wealth of sources from religious texts to commentators and poets, to legends and popular accounts. When Eck writes of places, concepts, and contemporary matters, she is clear and analytical. The myths themselves tend to be obscure, fantastic, and to blend into each other with their many variants. Eck recognizes the difficulty of the many myths and writes skillfully to produce the effect of plentitude and mystery. The reader would be advised not to linger over each story or to attempt to sort out confusions.

In early chapters, Eck examines the Indian geographical and religious landscape and its relation to myth. She discusses mythmaking as the key factor that unifies the Indian subcontinent, a unity that frequently eluded many earlier observers. She then offers long, chapter exploring India's many gods, the sites sacred to them, the myths surrounding them, and the visits that multitudes of pilgrims continue to make to the site as expressive of their own religious needs. Thus Eck describes the Ganges River and other sacred rivers, the myths and sacred places and pilgrimage sites of Shiva, Vishnu, and Devi, and of Krishna and Rama. The interrelationship of geography, myth, and pilgrimage offers a feel for Indian religious life throughout the ages. It is a travel through place and a travel through time and story.

The terminology of this book will be unfamiliar to most readers. There is a glossary at the end, together with a bibliography that begs for exploration. For the most part, I read the book through and puzzled out the content of unfamiliar words without turning to the glossary until I had concluded. Other readers may want to use the glossary first or with their reading. Each chapter of the book is introduced by a map outlining the various sites to be visited and discussed.

I have never been to India, but Eck's book reminded me, among many other things, that it is possible to travel and understand through the mind, heart, and creativity. With its emphasis of the varieties of place, the focus of the book is internalized. Eck concludes with a quotations from an Indian poet named Dasimayya who wrote that for one who was awake to Shiva, "his own front yard is the true Benares." A fourteenth century poet from Kashmir named Lalla wrote: "I, Lalla, went out far in search of Shiva, the omnipresent lord; having wandered, I found him in my own body, sitting in his house."

Robin Friedman

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