India; A Sacred Geography

India; A Sacred Geography by Diana Eck. Harmony, 2013, paper.


Mostly a thing of the past in Europe and North America, the pilgrimage tradition continues in India, animating a sacred geography several millennia in the mapping. Vārānasī (Kāshī, Benares) is the best known pilgrimage site in this sacred landscape. But this city on the banks of the Ganga (Ganges) is just one of the sacred places that Diana Eck locates and describes in her fabulous book.


There are, in fact, seven sacred cities: Vārānasī, Ayodhyā, Mathurā, Hardvār, Kāchīpurim, Ujjain, and Dvāraka. Each has associations with particular gods in the Indian pantheon. All have substantial temple complexes and are sites of pilgrimage, though not necessarily tourist destinations or architecturally interesting. I have toured Vārānasī, Mathurā, and Kāchīpurim and looked carefully at their temples.


There are also lists of sacred mountains, forests, and particularly rivers linked to elaborate stories of Hindu gods and heroes. Eck describes the Indian notion of tīrthas, fords or crossing places of rivers. These tīrthas have a spiritual significance. Bathing at these locations affords the devotee liberation from the cycle of birth and death and the attainment of nirvāna.


Rivers are personified as goddesses. Especially sacred are the headwaters of these rivers and the sites of their convergence. The Narmadā, perhaps India’s most revered river, originates in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and flows west to Gujarat and the Arabian Sea. The pilgrimage route, along both banks of the river, involves an eighteen-hundred-mile trek. The pilgrims are much more numerous at the annual Māgha Melā at Allahabad where the Ganga and Yumunā converge. Crowds: we’re talking about millions.


Indian gods are well-traveled and have thus created trails passing through the landscape and hence many sacred sites. Eck points out that Hindu religious life has never had a hierarchy: no popes, bishops, etc. Hence there has never been a sorting out of the miscellany of these narratives about the gods and their habitats. She uses phrases like “is said to be,” “the tale is told,” “so they say,” and “according to tradition” to indicate their tentativeness.


Mention of the great Mughal city of Allahabad above brings to mind the fact that the Indian subcontinent is also home to other religions. Jains, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, and Moslems have shared this sacred landscape with Hindus. Moslems were initially temple destroyers; their most spectacular vandalism was the vast temple complex at Somnāth on the Kathiawar Peninsula in the eleventh century. This Moslem destruction of temples which were the focus of pilgrimage disrupted for centuries temple-based piety, patronage, building and repair. But during the Mughal period in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Empire and its client Hindu kingdoms proved to be great patrons of temple building and reconstruction.


The reverse happened recently when Hindu chauvinists destroyed a mosque at Ayodhyā which was said to have been built on the birth place of Lord Rāma. Though most Hindus are ecumenical. For example, they revere the tombs of Sufi saints scattered throughout northern India and many Buddhist shrines, as well.


Like Islam and Christianity, there are sects within Hinduism. They get along better than have the various Christian churches, however, and are able to share pilgrimage sites. Shivites most commonly return to the circuit of temples associated with devotion to Shiva.  And likewise Vaishnavite pilgrims generally head for the temples associated Vishnu. Kānchipuram, a temple complex in Tamil Nadu, associated with the Shivites and the Jagannātha temple at Puri in Orissa associated with Vaishnavites are, however, sites of pilgrimage for both sects. They are also examples of striking temple architecture.


In my travels around India over three decades, I tended to avoid crowds and therefore a landscape filled with pilgrims. The one exception was attending the Krishna Janmāshtamī, a midnight darshan or auspicious presence of the god at his birthplace near Mathurā, south of Delhi. The temple which contained the image of Krishna was rebuilt in the nineteenth century and is not architecturally inspiring. One gets the impression that a good part of the religious atmosphere of the darshan is the feeling of being a part of a vast gathering.


Indian nationalists in the last century claimed that they discovered ‘Mother India,’ a unity from the Himalayas to Tamil Nadu. Eck reminds us that, in fact, these circuits of temples and pilgrimage sites have provided Indians with a singular religious landscape both inspiring and unifying, and centuries before their struggle for independence.

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