Pilgrims’ India

Print edition : May 17, 2013
The book contends that there is a third dimension beyond the textual and political to both the idea and reality of India.

THOSE familiar with Diana Eck’s earlier work, Banaras: City of Light, which received wide notice, would know that this Harvard professor is a life-long scholar of Hinduism.

Her perspective is not bookish. She explores, first hand, the intersection between text and practice(s). Among texts, too, though she obviously enjoys a command over the Puranas, she draws equally on oral texts or the wide range of folk beliefs, myths and associations that can be picked up at every corner in India, and which enliven a place and may transform it into a tirtha, a site of veneration and pilgrimage. (Many scholars argue that the Puranas are mostly compilations of such popular stories, thereby further fine-tuning our understanding of the dynamics of religion.)

Banaras: City of Light was an intensive charting of the rich mythic and ritual traditions invested and enacted in the urban spread of one of the most ancient cities of the world and the most sacred city of India. In the book under review, India: A Sacred Geography, Diana Eck continues her approach of tracing on the ground the interrelationship of space and faith, but zooms out of the micro, as it were, to the macro picture of pilgrimage across the Indian subcontinent. She argues for a deeply constitutive connection not only between micro and macro pilgrimage but also between the Hindu faith and India as a land.

Diana Eck’s founding premise, which is demonstrated across the 10 chapters of the book, is a simple one: Hindu mythology is profusely linked to India’s geography. In a “joint imaginative and descriptive undertaking”, mythology and geography have produced what she calls a living landscape in which mountains, rivers, forests and villages are elaborately linked to the stories of the gods and heroes. “Every place has its story, and conversely, every story in the vast storehouse of myth and legend has its place…. [Moreover,] this landscape not only connects places to the lore of gods, heroes and saints, but it connects places to one another, through local, regional and transregional practices of pilgrimage” (page 5, emphasis added).

The author cites numerous examples which appear to be unifying networks of mythic association: The articulation of clusters of four, five, seven, or 12 sacred centres, such as the chardham yatra (Badrinath, Puri, Rameswaram, Dwaraka) or the seven mokshadayaka (salvation-giving) cities (Kashi, Ayodhya, Mathura, Haridwar, Kanchi (or Kancheepuram), Ujjain, and Dwaraka) or the 12 jyotirlingas and the many Shakti pithas. These bring into being an all-India symbolic landscape that is characterised, as she is at pains to underline, not by exclusivity and uniqueness of one or the other site (this is where she departs from the pre-eminence of Banaras) but by poly-centricity and duplication of significance at every site. Thus, there is not just one Kashi, that is Banaras, but also a northern Kashi (Uttarakashi), a southern one (Dakshinakashi) and a hidden one (Guptakashi)—all real places named after and invoking the original. Similarly, there is not one holy Ganga but seven, including the Narmada, the Godavari, and the Cauvery, each of which lays claim to the grace and divinity of the one that flows by Kashi. And there is not one Kailash mountain in the Himalayas but any number of them imagined and named into existence by belief and myth at various places in the subcontinent.

At this point, we may note that the observation that there exists a widespread practice of associating local topography and theology (the village deity, for example) with a wider stock of mythic or epic places and gods is not quite original to the book under review. Way back in the 1950s, the celebrated American anthropologist Robert Redfield referred to much the same phenomenon when he spoke of “Little Traditions” and their relationship with the “Great Tradition”. His disciple McKim Marriott formulated that relationship in the twin processes of universalisation of folk traditions and parochialisation of Sanskritic traditions. M.N. Srinivas’ acclaimed theory of Sanskritisation, though applied to the negotiation of socio-ritual status by caste groups in modern India, also operated on the same understanding.

An important difference would be that Diana Eck’s presentation does not have the element of hierarchy, that is, the assumed superiority of the “great” or universal tradition, that underwrites Redfield’s and Srinivas’ formulations; it seems to proceed instead with some sort of parity among the various levels—local, regional, supra-regional. But then the author does not give an alternative explanation, and for that matter does not even go into the question of whither this mass cultural phenomenon of mythic replication, which she is content to catalogue and describe. The reason for this is perhaps the limitations of her discipline, which is religious studies and not history or anthropology. Overall, there is a sense of deja vu in reading India: A Sacred Geography. This is also because the myths and stories about Siva, Vishnu, Krishna, Rama, the rivers of India, and Jambudvipa (the themes of different chapters), recounted in exhaustive detail, have a touch of what A.K. Ramanujan would have said was known “already, always”. In other words, they are mostly well known and a given for most Indian readers, especially but not only Hindus.

What is definitely new to India: a Sacred Geography, however, is the following contention: In the light of this extensively knit network of pilgrim places to which devotees and spiritual aspirants responded as if to a “culturally created mental map”, charting the sacred geography of India means traversing an expanse constituted not by priests and their literature alone, nor by rulers and their empires, but “by countless millions of pilgrims who have generated a powerful sense of land, location, and belonging through journeys to their hearts’ destinations” over millennia (page 5). If this claim appears to be a poetic or rhetorical one, it is precisely Diana Eck’s case that there is a third dimension beyond the textual and political to both the idea and reality of India. This is the pilgrims’ India.

Underlying this “sense of unity construed in and through the diverse imagined landscape” is Hinduism’s highly locative tradition (page 46-8). Drawing on regional studies, where the same locative tendency is visible, if on a reduced spatial scale (for example, the work of Anne Feldhaus on Maharashtra), Diana Eck identifies a fascinating paradox: place matters in the Hindu worldview despite its strongly transcendental spirituality. In her words: “Religious vision... is oriented both to the vastness of space and the specificity of place… the linkage of the two signalled by the… tirtha [literally, a crossing]” (page 452-3). She argues that this sense of sanctified place creates a complex rootedness in the land, which is a precursor of regional and national identity.

Myths and identity formation

While the link between myths and identity formation is well documented for various parts of India and the world, to make this correlation for “Hindu” myths and India as a “nation” suddenly runs into politics. Anxious that her argument about the locative function of Hinduism configuring India into a unity may resemble the Hindutva position, Diana Eck self-consciously distances herself from, indeed expresses dismay at, what she calls modern Hindu nationalism and its exclusivist tendencies. Now, while many may feel uncomfortable at the politicisation of an inherently spiritual and catholic creed, this should not translate, as it often does in some intellectual circles, into a reluctance to explore and articulate Hinduism’s varied historical links with the formation of the idea and identities today known as India. To her credit, Diana Eck shows no such reluctance, and though her book hints in passing at the possibility of alternative Muslim and Christian renditions of sub-spaces within India, it makes a passionate case for a very Hindu Indian landscape.

Also to her credit is the clinical manner in which she tears to pieces the historically myopic and teleological theory that Indians were never a nation and it was the British who, with their locomotive and bureaucratic networks, created a nation out of us. As Diana Eck shows, here was a theory carefully constructed and disseminated by colonial administrators such as Sir John Strachey in the 1880s; it has since been lapped up and regurgitated by some modern Indian academics and politicians. As we know, however, a nation (as different from a nation-state) is a notion first —a notion that people have of themselves as united by something in common, which they name and assert. As Diana Eck mentions, from as early as the Mahabharata (4th century BCE to 4th century C.E.) “Indians” were already naming that land, which they held in common, Bharatavarsha.

The Mahabharata defined it broadly yet resonantly as “the land north of the sea and south of the Himalayas”—a “stable and subcontinental” definition if ever there was one (page 64). To this I would like to add the specific testimony of Vishnu Purana which, no later than the third century C.E., spoke of the different peoples who inhabited the different directions of Bharatavarsha and counted as its children ( bharatasantati).

Thus, the view that India was geographically and culturally too diverse to ever be one nation ignores the fact that the ancient Indian concept of “nation” could well recognise and embrace that diversity. It is this concept of Bharata that has been charted mythically and realised ritually by the footsteps of pilgrims for many hundreds of years. This is at the heart of what the book so devotedly argues.

Shonaleeka Kaul is Assistant Professor of Ancient Indian History in the Department of History, University of Delhi.

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