Saturday, August 25, 2012

Guttersnipe Bookshelf: India: A Sacred Geography

Diana L Eck
India: A Sacred Geography
Random House, 2012

An alert to all lovers of India: you must read Diana Eck's masterpiece -- thirty years in the making -- INDIA: A Spiritual Geography. Rich and detailed, it is also inviting, full of brilliant stories, and accessible even if you're someone who confuses Shiva with Vishnu. The great Ms. Eck has come as close as anyone ever has to creating a readable love-struck overview of the Hindu traditions of India and how they are rooted in the land itself.

Diana Eck set herself an impossible task – and created this great-hearted book, a testimony to decades of research – and risking her life on Indian buses.  It is no wonder the task took nearly thirty years. Considering the immensity and multiplicity of her subject, the length of this book – 456 pages of the main text – is rather modest.

One of Eck’s aims in this book is show how what is most important in the spiritual landscape is repeated over and over again.  7 Sacred Rivers, 12 Jyotirlingas, 51 Shakti pithas, et cetera.  It is an essential theme – and could have made for a excruciatingly boring book!  Modern people seldom share the love of lists that is found in the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain scriptures and cosmologies.  However it seemed to me that she nearly always found the right balance between overview and a more detailed look at specific temples and traditions.    

This book will no doubt serve as the textbook for a generation of Religious Studies students.  However, it deserves to be read much more widely.  Its audience ought to include everyone who ever took a trip to India and came home enchanted, and exhausted, and more than a little confused.  “What the heck was that all about?”  Read this book.

I am especially interested by how this book could become a resource for ecologists, for anyone seeking to understand and preserve a world where each individual thing is precious and important – and utterly connected to everything else.  Eck writes about Virabhadra Mishra, who is both chief priest at Sankat Mochan Temple and a professor of hydrology at Benaras Hindu University.  We need ten thousand more of him – and soon.  Just as religious people will need scientific knowledge to fight for and preserve their sacred world, scientists may find, in spiritual traditions, an understanding of radical interdependence that could prove vital to their own urgent investigations.

I was constantly impressed, reading this book, by the unexpected perspective it gave me on my own life and environment – in 21st century Tokyo, a world that seems light years away.  For example, one of the most delightful sections in the book was about the Pushti Marg, one of the traditions which reveres Krishna.  Eck describes how small images of Krishna are bathed, dressed, entertained and adored.  I found this fascinating – and I admit I also found it a little odd, even childish.

That afternoon I found myself in a gleaming technology mall, on a floor where everything was devoted to the mobile phone.  You could buy games for your phone and ornaments for your phone and garments for your phone, and be with other phone devotees, other people who could hardly take their eyes from the gleaming vision they held in their hand. 

In my mind I was saying, “Allow me to take this opportunity to apologize deeply to all followers of Pushti Marg, and the bhakti tradition.  Obviously you are onto something!”

Now I have a complaint, addressed to Random House.  This is a beautiful and expensive book.  I read it slowly.  I’d like to reread it, share it with other people, and have it in my library for the rest of my life – what a shame that this hardcover edition was printed on the cheapest possible newsprint, as if it were a cat mystery purchased at an airport!  This book deserves to be read for a generation or more– it ought to be printed on paper that will look decent in six months.

For many years, I have been an ardent fan of Diana Eck’s book “Banaras” – rereading it is one of the pleasures of returning to that city.  Ideally, Ms. Eck should write a book like that one – for every sacred city and holy town in India.  That’s what I want.  However, since she is presumably unable to live as long as the gods themselves, I am very grateful for this graceful and warm-hearted overview.

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