India A Sacred Geography by Diana L Eck
Long time back I had read a book by Osho that spoke about India being a sacred space. And not a country defined by the borders drawn by man. As I read this book India A Sacred Geography, that thought kept coming back to me as the author goes on to define the geography of India as a sacred space. Bound by the Himalayas in the North Indus and the Brahmaputra on two sides and the three seas providing boundaries to the peninsula. She examines how the various regions within this geography have been bound by common beliefs and pilgrimages over the ages. She looks at the literature of the regions. And finds the description of the Tirthas from across the geography. And she says that ‘India is a land linked not by the power of the kings and Governments. But by the footsteps of pilgrims’.
She also mentions that Hindu mythology is profusely linked to India’s geography – its mountains, rivers, forests, shores, villages, and cities. On a lighter note, she quotes Chinese traveler Fa Hien who describes India as country triangular in shape. And observed that people’s faces are of the same shape as a country.
Tirthas have been explained as not grand temple complexes that usually came as a demonstration of power and wealth of the rulers. But as ordinary shrines or natural elements like hilltop or confluence of rivers that were invulnerable to destruction. This is probably the reason these shrines that are natural sites and not man made temples have survived despite the power changing hands every now and then in this land. She says – Tirthas endure while temples come and go. In the chapter Rose Apple Island, she describes how Jambudweep or Rose Apple Island is sitting on the southern petal of a lotus. And how the other islands are located on other petals and they together are surrounded by ring shaped islands of milk and honey.
She goes onto say that Bharata is the Karma Bhumi or the land of action while the other islands are Bhoga Bhumis or lands of enjoyment, but still, it is the best place to live.
She devotes a chapter to Ganga and other rivers. And joins the dots with respect to the waters of India. Ganga is considered the holiest of the rivers. And every region has a river that is considered Ganga of that region. The famous seven Gangas or saptanadis are Ganga, Yamuna, Sindhu, Narmada, Godavari, Krishna and Kaveri. All these seven rivers are invoked in many rituals. River waters are said to be purifying. And rivers are worshipped in the form of a mother. The author also calls rivers the Liquid Shakti. She looks at the tradition of worshipping the confluence of two rivers and sometimes the presence of a third mythical river. Almost always the confluence is treated as a Tirtha. And it becomes a place of worship or of the fairs and festivals.
Triveni, as this is called, is akin to the vital channels in the body Ida and Pingala along with the subtle one Sushumna, used by Yogis for their awakening. She, of course, talks about the Kumbh Melas at four riversides and the story behind it.
In the Chapter on Shiva author takes you through the sacred places associated with Shiva, the mountain God. And how at most places the hill or mountain itself is considered Shiva. And the temple that is built is just a representation of the God himself. She takes you around his 12 jyotirlingas around the country. Besides telling the story of each of them, she draws the parallels in the story. How in each story Shiva came to the place to answer a devotee in the form of a Linga and then refused to move from there. This is a common link – ordinary devotees through extraordinary acts of devotion evoking the presence of Shiva that joins all these special spaces of Shiva.
Similarly, through the story that puts the body of the Sati or Shakti across the country, the places get related to each other. Some hill has her eyes, some her ears, some her breasts and some her toes, so the whole geography becomes her body. And hence one for her worshippers.
She then takes you through the sacred spaces associated with Vishnu and his two popular Avatars – Rama and Krishna. Like Shiva has getting stuck theme in this Jyotirlingas, Krishnas images across the country have a lost and found theme. Interestingly she puts the Vishnu legend to a later date. And says all the places associated with Vishnu were initially Shiva places and you can find his marks in places like Mathura and Ayodhya. I did not know that Narasimha avatar is worshipped in some parts of Andhra Pradesh. And Pushti Marg tradition in and around Gujarat. Time to explore these cults. She also talks about the absence of any mention of Tirthas in Ramayana. While Mahabharata has a complete Tirtha Yatra Parva in it.
You would have heard about most places she mentions in the book India A Sacred Geography. But what Diana does brilliantly is, connect the dots for you. And see how these places are intricately connected through myths and legends despite being separated by distance, culture, language etc. She tells you stories from an angle that you can see how the sacred spaces are intensely linked through stories.
India A Sacred Geography is a must read for those who want to understand India as a spiritual space.