Dr R Balashankar
India A Sacred Geography, Diana L Eck, Harmony Books, the Crown Publishing Group, Pp 559 (HB), $ 2 7
… In a small temple in Sarojini Nagar, South Delhi, a priest sits down at dawn to perform the daily Ganapati Homam (havan). The first words he chants are to locate himself in this vast universe. He mentions the plateau, the land mass, the nation, the precise geographical location, the time, and the star positions. This forms part of the invocation of deities. Like him, hundreds of Hindus begin their day with a worship of the seen and the unseen, the defined and the indefinable, the known and the unknowable. To the Hindus, it is the punya bhoomi, deiva bhumi.
Diana L. Eck in her fascinating book India A Sacred Geography takes a complete pradakshina, a circumbulation of this blessed land, learning, imbibing and marvelling at the richness of culture, spirituality, folklore and faith. “It became increasingly clear to me that anywhere one goes in India, one finds a living landscape in which mountains, rivers, forests, and villages are elaborately linked to the stories of the gods and heroes. The land bears the traces of the gods and the footprints of the heroes. Every place has its story,, and conversely every story in the vast storehouse of myth and legend has its place” says Eck.
In one volume, the author packs the rich Indian literature, the pilgrimages, the sacred rivers and mountains and all their living connection with the people of the country. For us Indians, these things seem ‘normal’ while for an outsider, it must be appearing as a miracle. One massive well-synchronised campaign whose control is unseen. The legends and stories overlap and yet, seemingly there is no contradiction. The same set of heroes appear in local folk stories in the north, south, east and the west and no one disbelieves the other. For instance, Eck gives the story of Ravana carrying the linga form of Shiva (gifted to him by God himself) to be taken to Lanka on a condition that it would get attached to the very first spot if put down. Lord Ganesha appears on the way and manipulates Ravana to give it to him and places it on the ground. This story appears with minor variations in at least three places.
Eck first came to Varanasi and stayed there, in the belief that it is the holiest Hindu site, as Mecca is to Muslims and Jerusalem to Christians. Slowly she realised that Varanasi is among a string of pilgrimage centres and that there are several of them strewn across this geography. “The critical rule of thumb is this: Those things that are deeply important are to be widely repeated” says the author.
To the uninitiated on India, this book is a great guide. The list of sacred mountains, the seven holy rivers, the divine cities, the major pilgrimages and the stories behind almost all of them form the bulk of the narration. Quoting ancient sources Eck says according to Hindu belief, there are other lands like Ketumala, Uttarakuru and Bhadrashva, where people are gold-skinned and live a life of pleasure and live a thousand years. On the other hand, people born in India have a shorter life span of about a hundred years and they are not uniformly beautiful. They live a life where all emotions and troubles and pleasures come in turn. “And yet, without exception or hesitation, Bharata is said to be the best place to live in this wide universe, despite the abundant blessings of the other petal continents and the distant ring-lands. They may be bhoga-bhumi, but Bharata is karma bhumi, the “land of action.” If one had to attain moksha, the ultimate liberation from the cycle of birth and death, he or she had to be born in India.
Eck discusses Shiva, Shakti, Vishnu, Krishna and Rama as the major legends who dominate the mind and conscious of the Hindus. In a contemporary touch, she quotes the letter Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to Chou En Lai during the India-China border dispute. In that Nehru invokes India’s ancient texts, like the Vishnupurana and Rigveda, which are dated thousands of years old. These mention Himalaya as the frontier of India in the north and the oceans in the south.
One of the major intentions of this book is to convey that the idea of India as a nation is not a gift of the West, especially the Brits. Since thousands of years ago, India, Bharata, has been a geo-cultural entity, where people living in different regions, ruled by different kings, shared a common heritage, a beautifully woven matrix, bound by an unbroken lineage of memory. Call it spirituality, if you will.
Diana L. Eck’s approach to India is one of utmost love, as though she had been part of this land. A connection of the previous birth, may be. She is a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University and is master of Lowell House and director of the Pluralism Project. She is the author of several books on India, including at least two on Varanasi. The book is engrossing as Eck connects, reconnects and cross-connects the places, the myths, the legends and the religion. One can get introduced to India, the great conundrum.
(Harmony Books, the Crown Publishing Group, 1745 Broadway, New York 10019)