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India: A Sacred Geography
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32 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on May 28, 2012
India's culture, traditions, history, lands, and religions are way too complex to ever get your arms all the way around. But if you've ever wished for something to help you at least get a bit of handle on it all, Diana Eck's wonderful tour through the sacred geography of India is a great place to turn. Actually, it is several tours. You will crisscross this land repeatedly as you visit sites and specific features of the landscape associated with the traditions and stories of:

* Siva
* Shakti
* Vishnu
* Krishna
* Rama
* rivers in general
* the lands of India as a whole

In these traditions, even the smallest details of the landscape - specific rocks, springs, trees, etcetera - can be imbued with cosmic significance. Many of these traditions/stories overlap at various points and features of the geography, which only adds to their richness. There is some kind of intuitive genius at work in how, together, these stories form a huge interconnected web, making the entire land a kind of 3-D, interactive scripture that answers the human longing for a life of larger, deeper meaning. Overall, the geographical approach to these traditions brings them - and the land they relate to - alive in a unique way that will stay with me and that makes me more thoughtful about the ways that spiritually sensitive and open humans can relate to the land they inhabit so as to reinforce that sensitivity and openness.

One of the most fascinating things brought out in Eck's presentation is that many sacred sites are repeated throughout India. As she puts it, there is a "distinctively Hindu tradition of multiplicity: Any place that is truly important is important enough to be duplicated and sited in multiple places." Hence, there can be several places all over India designated, as, say, the source of the Ganges river; or as the birthplace of one or another deity. This may be one of the more difficult concepts for a westerner to comprehend. To our much more literal mentality, this may seem to be "proof" that these mythical stories are just "made-up nonsense." We do tend to look down with self-righteous pity on those "simple" people who continue to believe in and live by such stories. But a larger theme running though the book is that, "Myths are `real' and `true' in quite another way: They are true stories by which cultures pattern their distinctive values and by which people live their lives." In other words, in this mythical world, the "truth" of a story has nothing to do with the historical-archeological-scientific evidence that backs it up, but with the psycho-spiritual effect that it has on the person who wholeheartedly enters into the story and lives accordingly. Although here Eck happens to be addressing the relatively recent, politicized, violently literal-minded conflict over "the" supposed birth site of Rama in the city of Ayodhya, I see a valuable lesson here for westerners too - both for our secular-scientific types who dismiss all religion as nonsense as well as for our religionists who seem to care more about "proving" that their religion's stories are literally true than simply living those truths in their daily lives.

The one drawback I would point to is precisely that the book is written in that secular, scholarly, sometimes dry voice of the modern west - which is fine for intellectually discussing these themes, but which is not the voice that best communicates the underlying spiritual awareness that gives rise to "true myths" and that can enter into them and keep them alive over the millennia. But this is 5-star quality scholarly writing, so even with this one criticism, I highly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Hindu traditions in particular or spiritual traditions in general.
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35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
In the range of its learning and in its sweep, passion, and insight, Diana Eck's new book, "India: A Sacred Georgraphy" (2012) is a grand meditation on India and religious life. A professor of comparative literature and Indian studies at Harvard University, Eck has written widely on Indian religion and on American religious pluralism. In 1998, then President Clinton awarded Eck the National Humanities Medal for her work as director of the Pluralism Project in the invesitigation of America's changing religious landscape.

The overriding theme of Eck's study is pilgrimage. She offers a story of pilgrimage to India's many sacred places that is at once mythical, romantic and factual. Eck herself has spent decades in India exploring the sites her book discusses in extraordinary detail. Her pilgrimage extends over millenia and to the millions of people who make pilgrimages to Indian sacred sites each year. As I read, I realized that the pilgrimage was also Eck's own, and it ultimately becomes that of the reader.

Eck writes that she had the idea of writing this book of broad pilgrimages and sites upon writing an earlier book on the city of Benares. Eck came to realize that Benares was not a single sacred city in the manner of, for example, Jerusalem or Mecca, but was instead part of a vast network of Indian sacred places which she set about to explore. Eck argues that pilgrimage rather than sacrifice of the study of sacred texts is the primary expression of Hinduism and that Hinduism and religion, in turn hold the key to understanding the heart of India. The ancient myths of India constitute, for Eck, an "imagined landscape" which has been "constituted not by priests and their literature, though there is plenty of literature to be sure, but by countless millions of pilgrims who have generated a powerful sense of land, location, and belonging through journeys to their hearts' destinations."

Most importantly, Eck finds links in the ancient Indian myths between the transcendent and divine and the specifics of place. She also finds an emphasis of the pluralism of religious vision. In comparing Indian with some Western religious visions, Eck writes:

"[T]he places praised are not unique, but ultimately numberless, limited not by the capacity of the divine to be present at any one of them, but by the capacity of human beings to discover and to apprehend the divine presence at all of them. The dissonance, of course, arises from a discourse of exclusivity and uniqueness, more typical of the monotheistic traditions of the West, now arising in a Hindu context in which patterns of relgious meaning have traditionally been constructed on the mythic presuppositions of divine plurality and plentitude."

In her study, Eck commingles a description of geography, contemporary pilgirmages, and in some cases contemporary Indian politics, with the great Indian myths. She draws from a wealth of sources from religious texts to commentators and poets, to legends and popular accounts. When Eck writes of places, concepts, and contemporary matters, she is clear and analytical. The myths themselves tend to be obscure, fantastic, and to blend into each other with their many variants. Eck recognizes the difficulty of the many myths and writes skillfully to produce the effect of plentitude and mystery. The reader would be advised not to linger over each story or to attempt to sort out confusions.

In early chapters, Eck examines the Indian geographical and religious landscape and its relation to myth. She discusses mythmaking as the key factor that unifies the Indian subcontinent, a unity that frequently eluded many earlier observers. She then offers long, chapter exploring India's many gods, the sites sacred to them, the myths surrounding them, and the visits that multitudes of pilgrims continue to make to the site as expressive of their own religious needs. Thus Eck describes the Ganges River and other sacred rivers, the myths and sacred places and pilgrimage sites of Shiva, Vishnu, and Devi, and of Krisna and Rama. The interrelationship of geography, myth, and pilgrimage offers a feel for Indian religious life throughout the ages. It is a travel through place and a travel through time and story.

The termininology of this book will be unfamiliar to most readers. There is a glossary at the end, together with a bibliography that begs for exploration. For the most part, I read the book through and puzzled out the content of unfamiliar words without turning to the glossary until I had concluded. Other readers may want to use the glossary first or with their reading. Each chapter of the book is introduced by a map outlining the various sites to be visited and discussed.

I have never been to India, but Eck's book reminded me, among many other things, that it is possible to travel and understand through the mind, heart, and creativity. With its emphasis of the varieties of place, the focus of the book is internalized. Eck concludes with a quotations from an Indian poet named Dasimayya who wrote that for one who was awake to Shiva, "his own front yard is the true Benares." A fourteenth century poet from Kashmir named Lalla wrote: "I, Lalla, went out far in search of Shiva, the omnipresent lord; having wandered, I found him in my own body, sitting in his house."

Robin Friedman
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18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on August 8, 2012
Diana Eck's latest book is in the line of her first, rightly celebrated, description of Kashi (Benares) as the "City of Light", but with twenty or thirty years of research added. Admittedly, this is not a book for beginners. It presupposes at least some basic knowledge of the Indian "Weltanschaung" : if you have no idea who Krishna, Rama or Shiva are, you are unlikely to be able to enjoy Diana Eck's superbly perceptive description of what she calls the sacred geography of India. She means by that the subtle connexion between the geographical landscape, the history of certain famous places - Ayodhya for instance - and the underlying religious visions of a sub-continent where ever year tens of millions of pilgrims travel to what we would call holy places. Diana Eck talks from experience: it is obvious from her descriptions that she has been there and the reader is thus treated to a superb mixture of impressive erudition with practical experience. Furthermore the author is very good at describing what she saw: her writing is clear and elegant, never repetitive, yet precise. The book is divided by divinities, so to speak: Shiva's pilgrimages and sacred lanscape, Vishnu, Devi, Krishna, Rama, etc. Diana Eck deals splendidly with the complexity - and the sheer volume - of information available. She is sometimes a little light footed where one would have expected less diplomacy: for example, the scandalous neglect of the Indian government(s) for their "sacred" rivers, most of which are sewers, totally poluted, filled with human and industrial waste, endangering the life of the worshippers who bathe in them is evoked several times, but one would have expected a stronger call for action. But these are minor deficiencies in an otherwise superb book. Anyone with an interest in India should read it and it is sure to remain THE reference on this subject for many years.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
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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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on September 19, 2012
This great scholarly work took almost thirty years for the author to complete, and the detail, knowledge and coherence derived from such hard work is evident in this book. For a westerner to have such detailed and intricate knowledge of Hindu mythology and religious belief is astounding.

She demonstrates how religious belief and mythology of Hindus is linked to specific geographies and physical locations. Every caste, every community under the broader umbrella of Hinduism has its own pious and sacred "sthan" or location. At a broader level are the more homogeneous 'tirths' and 'peeths' that are revered by most Hindus irrespective of their caste or community. Because of the existence of such sacred sites, the cities and towns containing them also become sacred sites themselves. Additionally, there are countless and numerous regional sacred sites revered by local communities and customs. They too over time come to define the geography of the region.

In the process, it emerges that even at a time "India" was not "India" (since India as a politically coherent and distinct concept emerged only upon independence in 1947) and consisted of hundreds of smaller and distinct princely states, there was nonetheless a commonality shared by Hindus across the south Asian peninsula. This shared bond was not a making of political affiliations, but sacred and religious belief. A north Indian and an east Indian shared a thread of togetherness even hundreds of years ago, since there was shared reverence for holy sites in each other's regions.

Only word of caution- India is not only Hindus, so to that extent, this work is more of sacred geography of Hindus rather than India per se. But overall, fantastic work!
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on June 24, 2012
I grew up in a Hindu family in India (and moved to the US several years ago) so I am familiar (but not an expert by any means) with Hindu tradition and customs. What I liked most about this book is the scholarly detail and novelty with which it links ancient Hindu mythology and belief to geography. I've been looking forward to traveling across India and this book has provided me with a blueprint - both in the real and imagined landscape! Great work.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on October 16, 2012
This exploraton of India's sacred sites and their interconnectedness takes an academic approach so is sometimes over-long and repetitive but is readable and thorough. Diana Eck obviously has a deep understanding of and respect for the Hindu tradition so there is also real spiritual insight to be found amongst the background and myths associated with India's many sacred sites and pilgrimages. It has suggested some new destinations to me for my next trip to India and has deepened my understanding of many stories and places that were already familiar. It's probably not the best book as an introduction to India's sacred places but is rewarding for anyone who wants to look deeper into the fascinating mythology that is still part of living reality and daily inspiration for many Indians (and quite a few westerners!)
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on December 4, 2012
When I saw that Diana Eck had this new book I had to get it immediately. She brings dimensions of insight to aspects of Indian thought and culture that are otherwise hidden to outsiders. I spent time in Varanasi with her book, Benares, City of Light, reading it and following pilgrimages. It made the difference between just seeing things and experiencing them, understanding the meaning expressed in the symbols and rituals. The Indians in Varanasi praised this book to me saying that Diana Eck knew more about Varanasi than they did.
Similarly with this latest book, she unfolds layer upon layer of the Indian vision of the divine earth. I read this book slowly, only a sub-chapter at a time. It's very rich and deserves a lot of quiet consideration as you go along with it.
I think this book is a must read for any student of Indian culture. Who should read this book: every native of India, every student and teacher of yoga, every student or teacher of Buddhism, including Tibetan Buddhism, especially Vajrayana practitioners. Every student of Vipassana and Theravada Buddhism should read this, including Thai, Sri Lankan and Burmese monks.
There are about 10 people that I am going to give this book to for Christmas.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 2013
I approached this book with a skeptical mind mind, and some small measure of curiosity. I was soon hooked onto the book, and it was very clear that Diana Eck approached the subject with a lot of respect and, I would even say, love.

The book is very well written, and in my opinion, quite accessible to anyone interested in Hinduism. I really like the way that she constructed the myths around each God, and avataar, and linked the geography of India to the myths.

This is an innovative approach to the treatment of Hinduism, and I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about India and Hinduism.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon February 11, 2014
To read this book is to begin to understand the all-pervasive nature of Hinduism in India, not only culturally and politically but also geographically. India serves literally as a spiritual map for pious pilgrims for whom daily life is constant ritual. Perhaps more than any other religious practitioners, Hindus see divinity virtually everywhere, so they can worship a bewildering array of gods and goddesses, with their multiple names and personalities every day, no matter where they happen to be situated in that vast, variegated nation.

Hindus don't have to leave India to do pilgrimages because the entire country is a pilgrimage site. Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma are everywhere. Using the ancient scripts and old-fashioned detective-style footwork, Diane Eck explores the macro- and micro-geography of Indian Hinduism, piecing together its numerological system as well as examining mythical and real mountains, rivers and other geographic features that Hindus employ to navigate their spiritual lives. And she explains what lingums and yonis really represent as opposed to the popular understanding of these omnipresent symbols.

This is the first Diana Eck book I've read, and I must say I find her thorough, passionate, lucid, and poetic. She embraces a vast subject and explicates it well, whetting your appetite for more, although at times I said to myself, too much information! It is not a judgmental book, but she also touches on more disturbing aspects of Hinduism, like the caste system and animal sacrifice, that (in my opinion) are no longer acceptable in our arguably more humane world.

In short, this is a book to be consumed in small bites and read more than once. But it is apparently the culmination of a life-time of studying Indian spirituality, so it is dense with fact and myth. As someone who plans a prolonged trip to India soon, I appreciate Eck's efforts to elucidate what makes India India, so distinctive from any other country.
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