India's 'imagined landscape', where 'geographical landscape is filled with legend and stories'
Diana L Eck, Harvard professor of comparative religion and Indian studies and law and psychiatry, and author of India: A Sacred Geography (2012), Banaras, City of Light (1982) and A New Religious America (2001), discusses India's imagined landscape, the meaning of pilgrimage, and pluralism in this interview during the Jaipur Literature Festival.
You've just returned from a five-day visit to the Kumbh Mela with a group of Harvard students. What was the experience like?
It was a multi-disciplinary group, looking at the Kumbh Mela through many different perspectives, like electricity, sanitation, urban planning, small businesses, environment and, of course, for me from a religious perspective... In Sacred Geography the most significant thing of Kumbh is that there is no temple, no altar, it is the rivers themselves. In India, there are temples large and small but there is an interweaving of narrative and mythology and theology with the places that pilgrims go to. Kumbh Mela is a great example of that.
In your book (Sacred Geography) you write in detail about the imagined landscapes of India. What does that signify?
It is the way in which people hold in their minds a sense of India. It is imagined not in that it is made up, but it is a mental construct of India that is very old. It is an imagined landscape where the geographical landscape is filled with legend and stories. A village temple, a shrine, everything has a story attached to it. And every story has a place. The importance of both is very important to me. I call it a locative landscape, where it is about location and it is not about exclusive locations. I know that personally, as I lived in Varanasi for many years — it has a set of referential meanings to a number of places across the country.