Washington: Can geography be imagined in the mind and enacted? By billions of feet trekking to sacred rivers and mountain tops over thousands of years?
Diana Eck, an eminent scholar of Hinduism, says this is the real idea behind India or Bharat, a geography carried in the imagination over generations and one that lived much before invading armies or British colonialists tried to define it. Mythology and geography were married in the Hindu imagination, conceiving as it were the land of India. The marriage has lasted for millennia.
The pilgrims’ map largely resembles the borders of the modern Indian state. They “knew” the geography from the frozen peaks of the Himalayas in the north where Shiva resided to the four “dhams” threading the east, west, north and south. The seven sacred rivers, the many “sangams” and the veneration of every spot where the gods touched ground created a unity, a map.
India, thus defined, stays bound despite the unimaginable diversity of language and culture, defying the dire predictions of many westerners. British civil servants of the colonial era believed and haughtily declared there was no India. As they understood it, perhaps. The narrative of India having been a jumble of kingdoms, until the British beat it into a united country, survives. Until the 1980s, British and American diplomats would frequently refer to the possibility of India’s breakup. It was just plain logic since the country was an artificial union, they would say earnestly.
Eck has challenged the dominant narrative in a way that may disturb the left-leaning historians and will warm the right-leaning ones. She says a certain glue holds India together and that glue is Hinduism. India is an integrated space of culturally diverse Hindus who have a spiritual relationship with the land. So deep is this feeling that other religions of India have absorbed the idea and have their own string of sacred sights – the many dargahs – and their own pilgrimages.
Listening to Eck trace her journey and talk about her latest book India: A Sacred Geography was a rare pleasure. She was a little apprehensive while writing it because her ideas could be used to bolster exclusivist thinking about a “Hindu India,” providing fodder to the wrong set of people. Fortunately, no frenzy has developed since the book’s publication earlier this year and she has continued to travel to India unhindered to pursue her research. The book is about the “practical everyday pluralism” of Indians and the thrust is not political.
(As an aside, Eck was among those who initiated the effort last year to get Harvard University to discontinue two of Subramanian Swamy’s economics courses at the university in response to his op-ed in DNA that, she argued, “demonised an entire religious community”. More on that here.)
Eck says that India in the end is “more than a map” and it lives as a “three-dimensional sacred landscape, linked by its storylines.” Every place has a story, and every story a god. The temples to Devi are scattered around 108 sites, where parts of Sati fell as a grief-stricken Shiva carried her body back. Most of these temples are rocks covered in sindoor and decorated with flowers but the presence of the devi is felt deeply by the faithful.
Shiva’s 12 jyotirlingas knit the length and breadth of this space. The sacred rivers provide the background and life-blood to the cosmic game. The Ganga, the most sacred of them all, is believed to feed many other rivers and water bodies. In a sense it may begin at Gangotri but it is everywhere. Millions of pilgrims have visited the sacred spaces over centuries and created the geography.
It is a lived landscape. And was lived centuries before Google Earth came along. Eck’s argument about Hinduism as a binding force is made after a lifetime of scholarship and formidable research on India’s myths and rituals. She illustrates her thesis with numerous examples and stories, connecting the multi-layered argument into a seamless whole. All through India, the divine is felt and received by the local, accepted and renewed over the ages by everyday people, not necessarily the pundits and the official keepers of the faith.