If I were asked to have only one post on the current AtoZ theme, mera gaon mera desh, I would have this one. It is a book review of ‘India: a sacred Geography’. The book was written by Diana L. Eck – an award winning professor of comparative religion and Indian Studies at Harvard University. This book review was first published in the Aug 2019 issue of Bengaluru Review.
There have been numerous western scholars who have written books about India and Hinduism. Most of them have tried to see India through the lenses of either orthodox Christian values or liberal western values. Having done away with their pagan Gods with the advent of Christianity, it baffled the Europeans when they came to India to see a thriving civilization living together with polytheistic beliefs and multicultural identities. However, instead of probing India’s cultural roots and taking a holistic view, some authors focused selectively on only the negative aspect of Indian society like the caste system and tried to establish that their own culture was far more superior to that of India.
But Dian Eck’s book does not try to take any such comparison to show the superiority of the western culture or the monotheistic religions. Rather it tries to explore delightfully as to how such a culture survived over thousands of years in spite being under rulers some of whom tried to destroy this fabric. The author has attempted to establish that the idea of India is ancient in origin and has withstood all the upheavals of history.
This is contrary to the accepted idea of India in the west following the concept propounded by Sir John Strachey (1823-1907), a British Civil Servant posted in India. In one of his reports to Her Majesty, he concluded,
“ ….. India is a name which we give to a great region including a multitude of different countries. There is no general Indian term that corresponds to it….. There are no countries in civilized Europe in which people differ so much as the Bengali differs from the Sikh …. That there is not, and never was an India, or even any country of India, possessing according to European ideas any sort of unity, physical, political, social and religious: no Indian nation, no ‘people of India’ of which we hear so much. We have never destroyed in India a national government, no national sentiment has been wounded, no national pride has been humiliated and this is not through any design or merit of our own, but because no Indian nationalities have existed.”
Of course the British civil servant was trying to justify and rationalize his own guilt of being a part of a colonial system that systematically exploited the people of India. But chances are that his sentiments might have been genuine since he came from a continent where each nation was of one language and one religion that recognised only one god. Whatever it may be, he was wrong – as wrong as he could be. Not only did he miss the sacred geography that united India, but also its inexplicable ‘oneness’ that was deeply felt even by a western educated intellectual like Nehru who was one of the greatest votaries of secularism. Nehru wrote in his Discovery of India,
“It was not her wide space that eluded me, or even her diversity, but some depth of soul which I could not fathom, though I had occasional and tantalizing glimpses of it. Though outwardly there was diversity and infinite variety among our people, everywhere there was that tremendous impress of oneness, which had held all of us together for ages past, whatever political fate or misfortune that had befallen us. The unity of India was no longer merely an intellectual concept for me: it was an emotional experience that overpowered me.”
Eck brings out the fact that the word India is a Greek word that referred to the land beyond the river Sindhu. The Greek historians wrote works they called Indika to consolidate knowledge received from this land. Of course the people of Bharat did not call their own land India. The indigenous term Bharata was derived from the famous son of King Dushyanta. It was also called Bharatavarsha, the land of Bharata. The Indian sub-continent was known as Jambudwipa (Rose Apple Island) or Kumaridwipa (the island of the Virgin Goddess).
I have observed that before offering puja, every Hindu Sankalpa, to make explicit one’s position in the cosmos, starts with, “In Jambudwipa, in Bharatkhanda, in so and so city …….”. This tradition has been followed since time immemorial. Thus the names Bharatavarsha and Jambudwipa are not only ancient, but also very much in vogue.
Eck’s book primarily focuses on the sacred geography of the land from the point of view of Hinduism and there are detailed explorations of the places of pilgrimages and how they are linked to each other across India. Such connections are not only pan Indian; they have their local replicas too. We have four principal places of pilgrimages spread across India known as char-dham located at Badrinath, Puri, Rameswaram, and Dwaraka. The state of Uttarakhan has its own version of char-dham that consists of Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath.
What is unique about India is that there are millions of sacred places and each of these sacred place is linked with multiple others. The author observes that in India even the Christians and Muslims have tried to create similar interlinking of sacred places.
Another specialty about India’s landscape is that in addition to being diverse and dramatic, all its landmarks like rivers, mountains and seashores etc., are alive with myths and stories, ranging from being local to pan Indian, being little known to being part of famous legends known throughout the length and the breath of the country. These are further linked to the great epics like Ramayana or Mahabharata.
The book also explores the impact of Muslim invaders and colonialism on this sacred landscape. No doubt the Muslim invaders destroyed many temples. But, how could they destroy the geographical landmarks like mountains, rivers, and seas which are linked to the great epics?
Contrary to the belief that all the desecrations of temples that took place during Muslim rule were due to religious bigotry of the rulers, the author is of the view that it was more to do with stripping the conquered from their association with the source of power. For many rulers the patronizing of a particular place of worship was closely linked to his extent of power. Of course, many of the places of pilgrimage that they destroyed or tried to destroy – like the Somnath Temple, the Jagannath Temple at Puri, – have bounced back to their former glory.
Prodding through volumes of ancient Indian texts, the author has brought out many interesting facts, narrations and insights of the ancient seers. Here is one that I found interesting. The author has observed that India’s imaginative world map, as envisaged by the ancient seers, did not make India the centre of the world as did Anaximander who made Greece the centre of his world map. In fact, the Indian seers were not only aware of the existence of the other parts of the world beyond Indian sub-continent, but also idealized other parts of the world some of which they named as Ketumala, Uttarakuru, Bhadrashva etc. According to them in many other countries people led far better lives and had more material resources to enjoy life. Then of course the ancient seers emphasized that it was only in India that the ultimate freedom or moksha was possible as it was the karmabhumi (lands of spiritual action) while other countries were bhogabhumi (lands of worldly enjoyment).
“Therefore this Bharata is the most excellent land in the Rose-Apple island, O Sage. For the others may be lands of enjoyment, but this is the land of spiritual action”Mahabharata
Isn’t the above statement true even today? In fact it is so true that sometimes I doubt it was written thousands of years ago. Isn’t it India where the serious spiritual seeker lands up, ultimately? (In spite of all its shortcomings)
Eck shows us that from these networks of pilgrimage places, India’s very sense of region and nation has emerged. This is the astonishing and fascinating picture of a land linked for centuries not by the power of kings and governments, but by the footsteps of pilgrims.
My own view is that you may try to destroy the idea of India by destroying its sacred landscape, but how do you destroy the myths which are harbored in the minds of its people? At a deeper level, perhaps, the idea of India lives in the collective consciousness of its people through the myths that have been handed down since time immemorial, construction of temples and associating the geography with the myths being a part of that process.
PS : This is the ninth post of my April A to Z challenge 2020. My theme this year is ‘Mera Gaon Mera Desh’ where in I explore various facets of India and also some places and events of India I have been closely associated with.
All posts of the AtoZChallenge can be accessed here.