Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Diana Eck: India: A Sacred Geography—Writing at the Intersection of Anthropology and Religion

Lotus; courtesy of Creative Commons
Recently shopping for some light reading for a short vacation, I came across Diana Eck’s India: A Sacred Geography on Amazon.  I was surprised to see Eck's name associated with a book on India, because my knowledge of her was related to work on diversity in the American religious scene.  In fact, at first I thought the odd last name was only a coincidence; but not so!!  Eck's decades long work with Indian religious issues is actually the catalyst for her current work with pluralism and American religious change. 

India: A Sacred Geography is a rich treat.  A book that has been gestating in its author for many, many years.  This long process of production started with her earliest work on Benaras (her dissertation I would presume), and includes many years of visiting India, going to numerous places of pilgrimage, and thinking about landscape, architecture, literature, language—how it all fits together. 

The underlying premise is that India was India long before the latest colonial invasions.  India created itself by foot and pilgrimage, endowing the landscape with a sense of meaning and story that is re-enacted again and again by the constant visiting that crosses various territories.  More powerful than any boundary drawn by British or other parties, India’s sense of consolidation is written on the landscape through the circulation of pilgrims. 

“Many Indian scholars have noted the significance of the network of pilgrimage places in constructing a sense of Indian “nationhood” not as a nation-state in the modern usage of the term, but as a shared, living landscape, with all this cultural and regional complexity,” says Eck (location 365) 
 A landscape that is created in this way is mythic, historical, and contemporary.  It is both natural and contrived.  Of the natural—rivers play a huge role, of which there are many, many crossing the geography of the country.   Of the contrived, temples, buildings, and cities are significant.  Tirthas, dhams, lingas—I began to lose count of the many kinds of constructions that could be linked to weave together this landscape. 

The anthropologic piece, for me, is the way Eck understands this landscape of vast proportions from a kind of participant-observation perspective.  She has walked the ways of the pilgrims…and yet she has also read and constructed a theoretical understanding of the ways goddess bodies are distributed across landscape, the way cities are connected through myth and pilgrimage, and the role that rivers play throughout it all. 

Studying the Indian sense of India as constructed through a religious landscape that has been evolving for centuries is a different kind of anthropologic feat than sitting in “x” village for a year and trying to figure out water rights (although there is nothing wrong with that).  And I am not at all sure that Eck would describe herself as an anthropologist.  But there is something here that is highly anthropologic and deserves to be thought about as a form of qualitative research.  As such it provides insights about how to study things that seem irregular, large, diffuse—not a village, school, or business department.  We need, I think, to make use of qualitative research tools to study the irregular as well as the regular and confined (made strange).  I would assume she has some items that count for traditional data, but I would also assume that much of her thinking is not data-driven in the traditional way we are using it right now—time bound and scientific—but incorporated in embodied memories of visits and time spent watching and thinking.  I think her method required lived experience, and, as she says, it was gestating for a long time. 

As I page through my digitally highlighted notes of the book it’s hard to know what to stop and share—there is so much that I felt was significant.  It is definitely a good read for a qualitative researcher in search of new models. 

 Diana Eck.  2012.  India: A Sacred Geography.  Published by Harmony Books, a division of Random House.  New York. 

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