"A specialty of India's landscape is that all its physical features such as rivers, mountains and seashores, are associated with myths and stories, ranging from local to pan Indian, from obscure tales to famous legends known throughout the length the breadth of the country," writes Durga Prasad Dash
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 the pagan Gods at the advent of Christianity, it baffled the Europeans who came to India to see a thriving civilization 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 aspects of Indian society such as the caste system, and tried to establish that their own culture was far superior to that of India.
Diana L. Eck’s book, India: a Sacred Geography, does not try to make any such comparison to demonstrate the superiority of the western culture or the monotheistic religions. Instead, it explores delightfully how such a culture survived over thousands of years despite having been under various rulers, some of whom tried to destroy this fabric. The author, a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard University, 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 at having been part of a colonial system that systematically exploited the people of India. However, there is a chance that his sentiments were genuine, since he came from a continent in which each nation was of one language and one religion that recognised only one god. Whatever the reason 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’s book focuses primarily on the sacred geography of the land from the point of view of Hinduism, and there are detailed explorations of the places of pilgrimage and how they are linked to each other across India. Such connections are not only pan Indian; they have local replicas too. There are four principal places of Hindu pilgrimage spread across India known as char-dham, located at Badrinath, Puri, Rameswaram, and Dwaraka. The state of Uttarakhand even 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 one is linked with multiple others. The author observes that Christians and Muslims in India have also tried to create a similar interconnection between sacred places.
Another specialty of India’s landscape, in addition to being diverse and dramatic, is that all its physical features such as rivers, mountains and seashores, are associated with myths and stories, ranging from local to pan Indian, from obscure tales to famous legends known throughout the length the breadth of the country. These are further linked to great epics like the Ramayana or the Mahabharata.
Eck brings out the fact that the word India is a Greek word that referred to the land beyond the river Sindhu, or Indus. The Greek historians wrote works they called Indika to consolidate the 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 subcontinent 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 starts with, “in Jambudwipa, in Bharatkhanda, in so and so city…” in order to make explicit one’s position in the cosmos. This tradition has been followed since time immemorial. Thus the names Bharatavarsha and Jambudwipa are not only ancient, but also very much in use.
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 the desecrations of temples that took place during Muslim rule were due to religious bigotry on the part of the rulers, the author is of the view that these actions had more to do with stripping the conquered people of 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 were destroyed or almost destroyed, such as the Somnath Temple and 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 facts, narrations and insights of the ancient seers. Here is one that I found interesting: the author observes that India’s imaginative world map, as envisaged by the ancient seers, did not make India the centre of the world in the same manner as 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 the Indian subcontinent, 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. 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 (land 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 action” (Mahabharata)
Is the above statement not true even today? Isn’t India today, in spite of all her shortcomings, the place where the serious spiritual seeker eventually arrives?
Eck shows us that it is from these networks of pilgrimage places that 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, the construction of edifices to commemorate these stories, and the association between the geography of the land and the myths of the land.
Durga Prasad Dash is a poet, mystic, and a social critic. He has written a volume of poetry, a book of light essays and three other books which are available on Amazon. A taxman by profession, he blogs regularly.