Free Press Journal

A Sacred Geography


In these pages, Diana Eck takes the reader on an extraordinary spiritual journey through the living landscape of this fascinating country.

Perhaps there is no other country in the world, which is home for as many “Holy Cities”, not to speak of ‘Holy Rivers’ as India. One reason for that should be immediately obvious: India is an ancient civilisation. But then, we are told there are just as many old civilisations like the Roman and the Egyptian, not to speak of the Tigris Euphrates “Cradle of Civilisation”. But geographically they are smaller in size and were later swamped by new and overpowering religions and cultures.

India has retained its sanatana dharma and its values to this day. It is an active and living culture, which is what makes it unique. One can’t compare Jerusalem, for example, either with Banaras or Tirupathi, both of which have been attracting pilgrims in their thousands for centuries.

The Nile may have its great history but it can’t stand compa-rison with the seven sacred Indian rivers like the Ganga and Yamuna, the Narmada, the Godavari, the Krishna and the Kaveri. Then we have ‘Thirthas’, literally meaning ‘fords’ or ‘crossings’ but to which pilgrims flock in thousands.

Every one of these holy centres – and there are literally scores of them – have a long history and it is this which Diana Eck has sought to cover with devotion, respect, affection and solemn understanding. The sheer research that she has put in surely has no precedence.

Writes Diana Eck: “The unity of India was no longer merely an intellectual concept for me; it was an emotional experience which overpowered me”. \And let it be said, here and now:

reading this beautiful and endearing book overpowers, the reader. But who is this Diana Eck? She is Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard University. She began her research on Hindu pilgrim centres in the 1980s, she says “driven by the sheer curiosity of a scholar”.

She visited India again and again. She travelled extensively by train and bus, seeking to have a look at India’s “greatest and least known temples”. What she saw and learnt about, sound endlessly fascinating. She got under the skin, so to speak, of India’s spiritual life, reading, listening, and imbibing information about a dead past with sustained passion.

At one stage she quotes Lakshmidhara who has said that the real thirthas are not places alone but in reality are

“truth, charity, patience and wisdom in which one must bathe. She is full of admiration for the Indian with his “detailed sense of geography”. She debunks British writers for their arrogant approach towards India, men like Sir John Strachey. One can’t imagine any other westerner with such understanding and love for Indian culture as Diana Eck has shown.

At the very least she deserves Eck be honoured with a Padma Vibhushan. She exposes Islamic invaders for what they were and has no hesitation in picturing those among them who smashed the images of Hindu gods “to be hauled away to he used as doorsteps in mosques”, “to delegitimise and extirpate defeated Indian ruling houses”.

It was Ghazni Mohammad who smashed the linga of Somnath into pieces, burnt down the temple and killed 50,000 Hindus. It was Mohammad Ghazni again who indulged in the sacking of Mathura. Aurangzeb was to go one step further to raze the Keshava Deva Temple at Mathura, this time in 1669 to use the site “for the construction of a mosque which remains today”.

Diana Eck reminds us of the many names of Ganga. Ganga is Mandakini, Vishnupaadi, Bhagirathu, Jhanavi. Eck also introduces us to the twelve Jyotirlingas located throughout the length and breadth of India. The coverage of ancient temples, many of them in a poor stage of repairs so thorough that it evokes admiration. At least, it seems, there is someone, even if she is a foreigner, who cares. No Indian, to the best of one’s knowledge has undertaken so stupendous a task.

Diana recounts stories from the Puranas, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata to identify place names and their identify with Gods. The chapters on Rama and Krishna, show the richness of Indian civilisation. We learn so much and in such exquisite detail about the many Lilasthalas and the land which Rama and Krishna traversed.

Diana Eck surely has done what few scholars have done to bring alive a dead past, and enthuse Indians of their heritage. She admits to having lived in Banaras “off and on for years”, travelling “many thousands of miles” to seek places associated with all the gods and goddesses. She also admits that for a time she was discouraged to write about her findings lest it “further feed the fervour of an exclusive new Hindu nationalism”.

But than it occurred to her that the “reality” she would describe and interpret would clearly be “one not of religious exclusivity, but rather of complexity, mobility and plurality”. And says she: “The Pilgrims’ India reaches back many hundreds of years and brings to us an astonishing picture of a land linked not by the power of kings and governments, but by the footsteps of pilgrims”.

One can feel Diana Eck’s concerns when she, for example, writes about Pandharpur, Sabrimala, Gokarna, Tiruvannamalai and a host of other places of worship like Udupi and Kedarnath. So vivid is Diana’s description that one almost hears pilgrims shouting “Ayyappo, Ayappo” and chanting “swamiye sharanam Ayyappa!” as they climb the steps leading to the temple.

Diana Eck probably does not realise what she has done to resurrect and enliven an entire culture with its deep and sturdy roots in the past. But in the end Diana says when one is truly awake to the reality of Shiva “his own front yard is the true Banaras” and the thirtha “just might be closer still”, further quoting Lalla, a fourteenth century poet from Kashmir who wrote: “I Lalla, went out far in search of Shiva, the omniscient Lord; having wandered, I found him in my own body, sitting in His house”.

Reading this book is more than pleasure, or even a guide to sacred geography. It evokes the most beautiful thoughts at the wonder that is India. All that one can say is, thank you Diana Eck, thank you.


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