Diana L. Eck

in Religion and Society
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  • 1 Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies and Frederic Wertham Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society, Harvard University, USA
  • | 2 Claire Tow Professor, Religion, Barnard College, Columbia University, USA jsh3@columbia.edu
  • | 3 Graduate School of Design, Harvard University, USA mehrotra@gsd.harvard.edu
  • | 4 University of Oxford, UK sondra.hausner@theology.ox.ac.uk

The study of religion is a challenge. It means trying to understand the energies and visions that have created, undergirded, and sometimes disrupted the great civilizations and cultures of the world. It means studying the history and diversity of the ways people have shaped worlds of meaning in response to or relation to what they may call the ‘transcendent’, or in response to science and technology, or in response to other traditions of meaning. It means studying the many ways people have given an account of the transcendent and the ways some traditions have gotten along quite well without an understanding of the transcendent. It means studying the symbolic, interpretive, scriptural forms over which traditions of faith and practice have argued through the centuries and continue to argue today. It means studying the construction of words like ‘religion’, ‘faith’, ‘tradition’, ‘theology’, and ‘spirituality’.

Autobiographical Reflections on Anthropology and Religion

Diana L. Eck

The study of religion is a challenge. It means trying to understand the energies and visions that have created, undergirded, and sometimes disrupted the great civilizations and cultures of the world. It means studying the history and diversity of the ways people have shaped worlds of meaning in response to or relation to what they may call the ‘transcendent’, or in response to science and technology, or in response to other traditions of meaning. It means studying the many ways people have given an account of the transcendent and the ways some traditions have gotten along quite well without an understanding of the transcendent. It means studying the symbolic, interpretive, scriptural forms over which traditions of faith and practice have argued through the centuries and continue to argue today. It means studying the construction of words like ‘religion’, ‘faith’, ‘tradition’, ‘theology’, and ‘spirituality’.

We all need to take account of who we are and where we begin. For some of us and for some of our students, the study and interpretation of religion means grappling with our own tradition of faith and interpreting that faith in the context of today's world. For some, it may mean taking it as a matter of scholarly inquiry to try to understand worlds of faith that are not our own. For still others, it may mean approaching the whole spectrum of human religious life with the skepticism of a secular worldview.

My intellectual trajectory in the study of religion began with my own tradition—Protestant, Methodist, Christianity. Growing up in the mountains of the American West, this was the tradition I knew. It was a social-gospel Methodism deeply engaged with civil rights and human rights and deeply concerned about America's military involvement in parts of the world we knew almost nothing about. It was Vietnam in those days, and it was out of the turbulence of my own faith that I set off as a student to study in India and, as a consequence of that study, to become a student of religion.

Landscape: A Sense of Place

As I scan the decades now, I see that landscape and the sense of place have shaped my life and work. I grew up in the Gallatin Valley in Montana in what was then a small college town, Bozeman. My father, Hugo Eck, was an architect and a professor of architecture at Montana State University. Our family outings, camping trips, and weekend hikes were many, and both my mother and father would point out the names of the mountains surrounding our valley—the Spanish Peaks, the Bridger Range, Ross's Peak, Sacajawea. Down the valley from Bozeman was the confluence of three rivers—the Madison, Jefferson, and Gallatin. I would never have imagined then that my work in India would take me deep into the mountains and rivers of India, each with its name and story and each the focus of pilgrimage.

From my mother, Dorothy Eck, I inherited a gene of activism. She took me to meet Eleanor Roosevelt when I was in grade school. My first protest was against the decision of the Montana governor to cancel United Nations Day. My mother worked as a leader of our state Methodist youth group where she organized a bus trip, a ‘citizenship tour’, with our sister group in Calgary, Alberta, to visit Ottawa, Boston, New York, and Washington, DC. Mother eventually moved from church work to the League of Women Voters as part of a small and effective lobby to call for a new constitutional convention for the state. It was an uphill battle against entrenched industrial interests that essentially ran the state from smoke-filled rooms. She won and participated in writing a new constitution for the state of Montana that emphasized freedom of information and open government. Then, for 25 years she was a state senator, and a very good one.

There were church workcamps, too. One high-school summer it was at Babb on the Blackfeet Reservation, where we lived in tipis and worked with tribal young people to finish the construction of a church. The summer before college, both my parents led a workcamp in Pátzcuaro in Michoacán, Montana's sister agricultural state in Mexico. Twenty of us from the Montana Methodist Youth Fellowship traveled in an old yellow school bus from Bozeman to Pátzcuaro, camping along the way. In six weeks, we built a stone silo on a UNESCO development farm. In the morning, we sang a hymn and had a prayer. Then my particular job was holding an iron spike to a rock outcropping for my friend Gary, who would pound it with a sledgehammer. After a while, Gary would hold the spike and I would pound. A risky business! When the hole was deep enough for a stick of dynamite, Francisco, the master mason from the nearby village of Huecorio, would light the fuse, and we would run like mad to the cowshed. Blast by blast we leveled the ground. When we took a break from blasting rock, we mixed cement by hand and shoveled it into wheelbarrows, which we pushed to the site where Francisco helped us fit the stones together. The silo was a masterpiece of stone masonry built from the rocks right there at the site—no doubt the most monumental silo in Mexico.

Later that summer, with students from a Methodist Youth Movement meeting in Ohio, I drove through the night to the March on Washington, to stand with tens of thousands at the Lincoln Memorial and hear Martin Luther King Jr. I was basically on my way to Smith College, arriving by bus and by myself at a place I had never seen. During spring break my freshman year, I was back in Washington with some of those Methodist friends to lobby for the Civil Rights Bill. All this is to say that the world of the church—the liberal Protestant social-gospel church—was one of the first worlds in which I lived. It is one reason that throughout the decades I have taken the church and its arguments seriously while recognizing that for many young people and many scholars Christianity has been toxic, and that the churches they have known could well be accused of religious malpractice. I experienced the parts that were about leveling the ground, perhaps blasting a bit of dynamite, to create a world of hope and healing.

This was the sixties, a time of civil rights activism and a time of social and political unrest because of the war in Vietnam. I was restless. With junior year coming up, I wanted to get out of New England, out of America, and study abroad, but the programs offered by my college were in Europe. While I had never been to Europe, I was more interested in what we then called the Third World. I looked for something in Mexico, but couldn't locate any kind of program that would satisfy my college. On a bulletin board, I saw a flyer for the College Year in India program of the University of Wisconsin. I knew nothing of India, but I had read Thich Nhat Hanh's Lotus in a Sea of Fire. I had seen the newsreels of the monk who sat in meditation at an intersection in Saigon and then set himself on fire. I knew nothing of Buddhism either. India wasn't Southeast Asia, but it was Asia and seemed like a good bet. America was violently involved in a part of the world most Americans knew nothing about, so India it was.

That year in India changed my life, as study abroad often does. I had never encountered a religious tradition so different from my own that also had a strong social justice stream. My independent project was to cycle around the city talking to ‘intellectuals’ about their religious commitments. I had read Chicago scholar Edward Shils's book The Intellectual between Tradition and Modernity: The Indian Situation, and I had an eye on religious intellectuals in Banaras. During my travels around the city, I met journalists, lawyers, professors, and poets who talked about the influence of Hindu ideas and ideals. I met a renowned and cordial Brahmin scholar who apparently had someone wash out his sitting room with Ganga water after I had been there. I met a Gandhian activist who had spent time in jail during the independence movement. I met a poet who had hosted Alan Ginsberg when he came to town. It was an experience of learning on the ground from elders, more or less in the kinds of communities I knew at home, but whose religious grounding was quite different. Perhaps most important, I met Jiddu Krishnamurti who was lecturing at Rajghat and who challenged those of us whose minds were busily taking notes, comparing, and arguing to listen—simply listen. He used the term ‘choiceless awareness’. It was my first taste of what I later came to know as ‘mindfulness’.

In Banaras, I also encountered a tradition with a rich daily ritual life—bathing in the Ganga, offering morning prayers, and visiting shrines to a multitude of gods, imaged in forms I had never encountered. Shiva, Vishnu, Devi: Why so many gods? Why does each have so many forms and names? Why are they given form in multi-armed images? What kind of theology accounted for such diversity and materiality? Weren't these the kinds of images the biblical tradition would have described as ‘idols’, ‘graven images’? When Hindus speak of ‘seeing’ the gods, having darshan of the gods, what does this mean? These questions would involve exploring a different ritual grammar. Not surprisingly, the first book I eventually wrote years later was Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India.

And as a twenty-year-old, I lived in a city in which death was fully incorporated into the rush of everyday life. The cremation grounds were right in the center of town, and funeral processions were unavoidable even when I was on the most mundane errands in the city. This sustained encounter with death was a kind of protracted rite of passage into adulthood. The challenge of all this led me into the terrain of religious studies. How can one ‘understand’ the life of someone else whose perspective is different from one's own? This is certainly the challenge of the humanities and, in particular, the study of religion.

I changed my major from government to religion when I returned to college for my senior year, and the following year I went to England on a Fulbright scholarship to the School of Oriental Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. Religion was not really a subject of study, but there was a rich curriculum on India: anthropology courses with Christoph von Fürer Haimendorf, tutorials in economic history with K. N. Chaudhuri, political science courses with Hugh Tinker. I loved SOAS primarily for the Common Room in what was then the main building. It was filled with students from around the world, with smoke, coffee, and discussion. Despite the fact that the viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, had praised the school as a necessary part of the “furniture of Empire” when it was founded in 1905, by the 1960s the Empire had come home to London and taken over SOAS. While I might have stayed for doctoral work, the violence and turbulence of 1968 in the US drew me back home and then to Harvard for doctoral studies.

Religion, Voice, and Dialogue

At Harvard, my most important mentor in the study of religion was Wilfred Cantwell Smith, the director of the Center for the Study of World Religions, a residential academic community where most students in the comparative study of religion lived. I had known Smith primarily through his work on Islam in Pakistan, but the first book I pulled off the shelf when I entered graduate school at Harvard was The Meaning and End of Religion, a study of the many ways the very term ‘religion’ is inadequate to the study of religion. The categories and frames of reference we in the Western academy have brought to bear are not generally applicable, let alone universal, but rather quite particular and more or less Christian. In the language and thought worlds of China and India, ‘religion’ is not a conceptual category, however it might be translated. As an English noun, it is not really applicable to what we call Judaism or Christianity either. The adjective ‘religious’ might describe the quality of a whole range of life's endeavors, but the noun ‘religion’ is too thingish, as if it could be circumscribed.

Smith also scrutinized the names of the various ‘religions’. Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Judaism—these too are constructions for what adherents would rather call ‘a way of life’. Islam had a name for itself, which set it apart. Conceptual categories are among the first subjects of the serious study of religion. How do we use these terms? Where they are wholly inadequate? Smith went on to investigate the ways in which terms such as ‘belief’, ‘faith’, ‘tradition’, and ‘scripture’ must be questioned as ways of approaching the wider realms of what we have called ‘religions’. His books on belief were especially significant since scholars had often approached various religious traditions as if they were about ‘believing’ certain things. Smith pointed out that even in early Christianity ‘belief’ (credo) had been an active verb meaning, “I faith …” or “I give my heart.” It did not have to do with a list of propositions that were to be affirmed as ‘beliefs’, but with an orientation of life and heart. Even in Middle English belief was ‘belove’. Gradually, the term came to have the more propositional meaning common today that contains a sense of uncertainty or error, such as “I believe Chicago is the capital of Illinois.”

W. C. Smith also helped me discern the interrelation of religious traditions. Students often think of the ‘religions’ as they are too often presented—stitched together in a textbook with one chapter on each. But in reality, these chapters overlap in complex ways. If we think of our religious traditions as rivers—ever changing, moving, flowing—we realize that no religion has been confined to its own riverbanks. Religious traditions have new tributaries; they have split into streams, merged in confluence. If historical study means finding the sources, the beginnings, it also means following the springs and streams of the living waters that emerge. Understanding origins and beginnings is only one aspect of historical study. As Smith often said, “Time's arrow is pointed the other way.” Today we see plainly that the history of religions is not in the past but is still taking place, and before our very eyes. Migration and communications have supercharged a dynamic, ongoing history full of the turbulence of adaptation and interpretation, criticism and argument as people who claim different worlds of meaning compete for power and resources; as they encounter people of other religious traditions; as they encounter worlds of meaning called ‘biophysics’, ‘neurophysiology’, ‘nationalism’, and ‘secularism’.

Working with Smith also gave me a new perspective on what ‘comparative’ study might mean. It was a crude term, really, conveying to some the idea of comparing this with that, ‘baptism’ with ‘bar mitzvah’. I began to see that it meant something more immediate, that there are always at least two perspectives involved in our work: the perspective of the people one studies and one's own. I could not study Hinduism from a neutral standpoint. I would always be the Montana Methodist whose experience and perspective could not be deleted from my mind as I pursued academic interests. The point was to become increasingly self-conscious of one's own perspective, to be aware of the nature of our own awareness. In this sense, study is inherently dialogical. It is a process that demands the openness, the critical awareness, and the mutuality that are part of dialogue. Our work necessitates an ever-more refined understanding of one's own presuppositions and one's own voice in the enterprise of scholarship. Indeed, this critical self-consciousness is key to moving beyond ‘Orientalist’ perspectives so that our own categories are not universalized unwittingly in our work.

Banaras: Text and Context

When I started doctoral work, I knew Hindi well enough, but I finally had to study Sanskrit. It was required. I plunged into classes with Daniel H. H. Ingalls, a Virginia patrician and an elegant translator of Sanskrit poetry. I came to love the hours around the table in the Sanskrit Room of Widener Library. I loved Sanskrit too but was never very proficient. Nonetheless, when I decided to return to Banaras and write a PhD thesis on that city, it became clear that some of the greatest sources were the Sanskrit puranas, the ‘old stories’, and mahatmyas, the literature of ‘praise and encomium’, which could provide a glimpse into the temples, the ghats, the theologies and spiritual benefits of the city that the devout knew by the name of Kashi, the luminous. Ingalls really thought that the puranas were the equivalent of popular magazines or detective stories; nonetheless, he was supportive. But could one really write a thesis about a city? When I applied for funding from the Social Science Research Council, it was Susanne Rudolph, a distinguished professor of political science at the University of Chicago, who essentially told me what I was doing: a text and context study.

For all of us, our studies begin where we are, with the particular projects we choose, the questions we ask, and the challenges we face. Mine were about this city on the banks of the Ganga in India. The only English-language books on the city were written in the nineteenth century by missionaries who described it as “wholly given over to idolatry,” the heartbeat of paganism. I thought I could do better and moved back to Banaras. Sitting with Pandit Ambika Datta Upadhyaya, I made my way through the Sanskrit texts that praised the temples and ghats of the riverfront, the myths that told the tales of the gods, and indeed the histories that described the city's eras of prosperity and destruction. In Banaras, there were plenty of ruins and temples built over and over on top of ruins. This city was called a tirtha, a critical conceptual category that did not match anything I knew: a place of pilgrimage, a ford at the riverbank, a spiritual crossing place when one can get across the river to the far shore of immortality.

I took it as my task to try to understand what this tirtha meant and continues to mean for the Hindus for whom it is powerful and who have come to this place as spiritual seekers. Some come as once-in-a-lifetime pilgrims, perhaps to bring the ashes of their beloved dead to the Ganges. Others come in their aging years to live out their lives in a place that they affirm will bring liberation at the time of death. That, of course, meant talking to people, hearing their voices, asking questions, and being asked questions by them. Mapping temples and talking to people, I had no more elaborate word for it than what Susanne Rudolph had proposed: text and context.

The texts covered a medley of subjects. There were long sections on the myths of the city, how it had been populated by the gods, and how the gods had particular roles in the administration of the city, from the great Shiva and Vishnu to the circles of guardian Ganeshas and the ‘sheriff’ Dandapani. There were the stories of the Ganga, the River of Heaven that had descended to earth to raise the ashes of the dead to life. Each of the ghats along the Ganga's riverfront got its due, especially Manikarnika, the cremation grounds. There were seemingly endless descriptions of temples, each with its own founding myth and special powers, and each painstakingly located in relation to its neighbors. The text obviously invited contextual study: How did the texts I read, some of them a thousand years old, map onto the city today? Did the temples whose locus and lore were hailed in the texts even exist today? Did people even know the myths and legends? Some of the texts were theological in nature, exploring the meaning of liberation, the significance of dying in this place, and the rites for the dead to be performed here. Were there still people who came here to live out their lives and to die here? Were there hospices for the dying?

My book Banaras: City of Light was an attempt, then, to work out in my own way what this tirtha means to the Hindus who have cherished it over the centuries. In America, the reviews were good, but I did not know how it would be received in India. But in July of 1984, I was invited to receive an award given by a Calcutta literary society. The event was hosted by the Maharaja of Kashi and held at the Chet Singh Palace on the Ganga. This was a gathering of the scholars, literati, and religious leaders of the city. I gave an address in Hindi, explaining what I had tried to do, and I heard many people, including Maharaja Vibhuti Narayan Singh, praise the book. One after another, they said that they could not quite believe that it had been written by someone who was not a Hindu. I am certain that this is a book no Hindu scholar would have written, not quite in the way I did. But methodologically, I carried with me the sense imparted by W. C. Smith that what we write should be recognizable by the people about whom we write, whether they agree with our work or not. It might even be illuminating to them. That, to me, is an important purpose of our study—to write something understandable to at least two communities: our complex, critical community of scholars and the complex, and also critical community of those about whom we write.

As if to affirm this principle, I received a letter from a gentleman in Calcutta who had his own answer: “I believe you have been destined by Lord Shiva to perform this Herculean task and it was he who gave you that perseverance and patience through so many years of your toil.”

Theologies: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras

My intellectual trajectory from Banaras led in two directions. The first was theological. In writing Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras, I asked a different set of questions, not what does Kashi mean to Hindus, but what does it mean to me? And what about Lord Shiva? After all, over the years I worked in Banaras I did not leave my perspectives and faith somewhere else. They were still with me, even as I tried to lean into another vocabulary of faith. The dialogue within was very much alive: not what the intellectual dialogue of comparative studies means for the study of religion, but what it means for the shape and language of my own faith.

Inevitably, in a city filled with what Emerson called the “immense goddery” of Hinduism, I had to ask, how do I understand this god-language? How do I understand the god-language of my own tradition? Or the universal providence of the one I call God? The accompanying presence of God in Christ? The utter freedom of God in the Holy Spirit, the one represented by the flame, the wind, the bird, the breath? Given all this, what does it mean to speak of God as One? What does it mean to speak of ‘salvation’? And what about prayer, spiritual discipline, and the practices of meditation aimed at the stability of mind that eludes so many of us in the maelstrom of our active lives? Clearly, the dialogue that produces a new relationship with our neighbors of other religious traditions also precipitates a dialogue with the terms and visions of our own tradition—at least if we are people who live within a family of religious practice. How is a Christian theological stance shaped by the dialogical encounter with people of other faiths? And how about that dialogue within ourselves—that inner dialogue that Hannah Arendt refers to as the solitary dialogue we call “thinking”?

In those years, following my Banaras work, I was also invited as a relatively young lay Methodist to participate in some of the ecumenical work of the World Council of Churches, namely, its working group on Dialogue with People of Living Faiths. Here I worked with Christians, many of them from the churches of Asia, to see how Christians might live richly in community with Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim neighbors, and how we might better understand not just the rituals and social forms of our neighbors, but their faith—that which brings coherence to the whole of their lives. And, inevitably, how we better understand our own faith in light of the religious claims of our neighbors. My constant companion in this work was Wesley Ariarajah, a Sri Lankan theologian and student of Stanley Samartha. Both were involved in the progressive reshaping of Indian Christian thinking in relation to Hindus and Buddhists.

W. C. Smith was also engaged in this work as a scholar of Islam in particular. He had lived in Lahore in the period before the partition, and his colleagues and students had been Muslims and Sikhs. When he came to Harvard to teach in 1961, he challenged the Divinity faculty in his inaugural lecture, calling for new theological thinking that would take seriously the voices and visions of equally rigorous thinkers who are Muslim, Hindu, or Jewish: “From now on, the articulation of our faith must take into account the world of religious vibrancy and intellectual depth that the study of the world's religions reveals. I don't know how we will contend with these questions, but I do know that from now on these are the questions with which we must contend.”

He was right, of course. Now, almost 60 years later, the world of theology has changed. Religious pluralism is not only the practical struggle of societies, nations, and cities, but also the challenge of religious people of every tradition to make sense of the world of religious difference—not simply from the point of view of their lives as citizens, but from the perspective of their religious faith. Does the serious encounter with other religious traditions destabilize one's own? Threaten one's own? Relativize one's own? Enrich one's own? Today there is no getting around these questions.

Pilgrimage: A Sacred Geography

The second stream of my research after Banaras was a much wider look at the sacred geography of Hindu India. In Banaras I had gradually discovered something that most Hindus already knew: this sacred city does not stand alone as the great center of pilgrimage but is part of an extensive network of tirthas stretching throughout India. The very names of the temples, the ghats, and the bathing tanks of Banaras are derived from this broader landscape, just as the names of Kashi and its great Shiva temple of Vishvanatha are to be found duplicated all over India. I began to realize that the entire land is a great network of tirthas—inter-referential, ancient and modern, complex and ever-changing. Kashi is not the center but one of multiple centers in a polycentric landscape, linked with the tracks of pilgrims. Each part of it seemed to point to the larger landscape. How do people imagine and enact their collective identity in pilgrimage? Here, Benedict Anderson's “imagined community” seemed pertinent, as did the growing body of work on nationalism. Hindu India's ‘imagined community’ seemed to enact a sense of cultural belonging for centuries before the nation-state emerged.

The same is true of the Ganga. In Banaras, it was clear that, from the daily rituals of bathing to the rites of cremation, the Ganga is the ritual theater of the life of the city. So too in wider sacred geography. The Ganga was not alone, but part of a network of seven sacred rivers. I went to the source of the Ganga at Gangotri in the Himalayas and sought out the headwaters of the other great rivers of India—the Narmada, the Godavari, the Kaveri. Of course, there are innumerable great temples along their banks, but the rivers themselves are India's cathedrals. And today, there is intense competition for their waters, which have been dammed and siphoned off for irrigation. The Ganga continued to move my intellectual imagination, and having been to Gangotri, I eventually took a boat from the other end of the river at Calcutta, up the Hooghly and into the main channel of the Ganga, huge and unruly, going as far as Patna.

This wider India project took a very long time during the decades of the 1980s and 1990s and could have taken a lifetime or more. I climbed to hilltop goddess temples—a few of the 51 Goddess temples that constitute the power places of the Devi, each linked to a part of the body of the Goddess. I made my way to the great shrines of Shiva, especially the twelve that are said to be Shiva's places of power, his earthly jyotirlingas, lingas of light that erupt through the surface of the earth toward the heavens. In this wider network of pilgrimage, I found that nothing, not even the great city of Banaras, stands alone. Each place is part of a living, storied, intricately connected landscape. Each is shaped not by its unique features, but by the duplication and repetition of its features. As a whole, the landscape constitutes a ‘sacred geography’ as vast and complex as the whole of the subcontinent.

I was a pilgrim studying pilgrimage, and my intellectual companions in those years were Victor and Edith Turner, who were also on the road as pilgrims, thinking all the while about the meanings of pilgrimage. I had met them years ago through my interest in ritual, and I loved their energy and spirit. They spoke of the “anthropology of experience” that took them into the liminal aspects of ritual and of the pilgrim's journey. In their major pilgrimage book, Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, they wrote that “the cosmos can be seen and ritually represented as plural and complex; it is also very simple and deep, nondualistic perhaps, and always exceeds any representation of it.”

I was also thinking about a wider question that concerns us as individuals and as scholars: our worldview, the lived-in map of the world of meaning we inhabit, the landscape, its peripheries and borderlands, its centers and mountaintops. In India, the pilgrims who set out from home and village on a journey compose a map with their very footsteps joining the places where they begin to the destinations they seek. That map becomes a kind of cultural knowledge that is embedded in the day-to-day life of society. For a village, a region, even a wider transregional India, this is an ‘imagined landscape’ that generates a powerful sense of location and belonging.

This too was a study that involved texts—old Sanskrit texts and popular pilgrimage penny-pamphlets; it involved maps and images, the local representation of this place and that; it involved the narratives of priests and pilgrims. Above all, it involved the constant curiosity of seeing what is actually there—in that great Shiva temple on an island in the Narmada, on that hilltop in Gujarat, and at the land's end of South India. In India: A Sacred Geography, I attempt to give expression to a landscape that brought a sense of imagined belonging to Hindu India.

These were times in the 1990s that also coincided with a resurgence of Hindu nationalism as the tensions over the “birthplace of Lord Rama” in Ayodhya erupted and expanded. Did my work somehow support this? I don't think so, since the whole of India: A Sacred Geography emphasizes that it is the insistence on multiplicity that gives lie to religious exclusivism. The movement to build Rama's temple “at this very place” partakes of this narrow exclusivist mindset. The Hindi term for ‘at this very place’ is yahi, not just ‘here’, but ‘right here’, and yet even within Ayodhya there have been multiple places claiming to be Rama's birthplace. There is a kind of plenitude in sacred geography: sacred places are known not by their singularity, but by their duplication.

Kumbha Mela

‘Interdisciplinary’ is a term often invoked by those of us in the humanities or social sciences to express the crossing of what often seem to be arbitrary boundaries in order to explore new challenges. I discovered a more radical interdisciplinarity in my most recent India project—the study of the greatest pilgrimage of them all, the Kumbha Mela, which takes place every 12 years where the rivers Ganga and Yamuna join in confluence, in sangam, with a third river, the spiritual and invisible Sarasvati. The ancient name for the place is Prayag, the great place of sacrifice, renamed Allahabad by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in the sixteenth century.

There, as the flood waters of the Ganga and Yamuna recede in the late autumn, a great tent city is built to house the millions of pilgrims who will come during the month of pilgrimage in January/February. I had been to the annual mela encampment at Prayag, when pilgrims come to spend the entire month, but the Kumbha Mela was of a far greater magnitude, and I wanted to be there. I was thinking primarily of pilgrims—who come in their tens of millions to bathe in the sangam and seek the darshan of the ascetics—the sadhus and sannyasis who camp at the Kumbha Mela.

But my Harvard colleagues who joined in this project had a host of other questions and perspectives. I led the project with Rahul Mehrotra from the Graduate School of Design. Rahul was fascinated with studying a “pop-up megacity.” It is an enormous human achievement: building a tent city two-thirds the size of Manhattan with more than a hundred miles of steel plate roadways, 18 pontoon bridges, an electrical grid and water supply, a sanitation system, police and fire departments, and telecommunications. How does all this come about? As the floods recede and the sandy delta of the sangam becomes visible, how on earth do people get organized to create a temporary city that will, on the great bathing days, bear the weight of as many as 25 million people?

Only in mid-October of 2012 was the land exposed as the river receded, and only then could they begin laying out the roads, bridges, and neighborhoods of the city. Amazingly, all the buildings were built with only five components: bamboo poles, rope, canvas, corrugated tin, and nails. It was rapid and flexible construction that could be deployed to build assembly halls, kitchens, dining facilities, sleeping tents. It immediately brought to mind the construction of vast refugee camps around the world.

Working with Rahul, I became acutely aware of how contextual the study of religion must be, how isolated we often are. There are countless questions that attend such a mass gathering—not only my questions as a scholar of religion, but also questions relevant to understanding this massive pilgrimage. As we settled into our tents at the Kumbha Mela, we had team members from Harvard's School of Public Health, Business School, and School of Engineering. Each contributed to the study of the largest human gathering on the face of the planet and brought essential perspectives to my understanding of pilgrimage.

Landscape Again: A New Religious America

One of the great changes in the geo-religious reality of our world today has been the massive movement of peoples as economic migrants and political refugees. This has created increasingly diverse and complex societies. Exhibit one, the United States.

The passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationalities Act eliminated race-based exclusion of immigrants and eventually created a living bridge between India and America with an almost constant two-way traffic. South Indian Tamil and Telugu Americans consecrate temples in suburban Nashville and Kansas City, fly home for family weddings, and import sacred images from the artisan workshops of Mahabalipuram. Indian scientists in the Silicon Valley check the cricket scores on their cell phones. Gujaratis hold their garbhas, or dance events, in rented VFW halls. Bengalis order up Durga Puja images from Calcutta and erect huge altars to the goddess in suburban high-school gymnasiums. While Diwali is celebrated in India, American Hindus create new versions of this festival of lights in Salt Lake City and lobby the federal government to issue a Diwali postage stamp. The Sikh Coalition documents discrimination against Sikhs and meets with the National Transportation Safety Board about travel restrictions relating to turbans and short swords known as kirpans. It is, indeed, a new world. When I began my academic life studying the religious traditions and communities of India, I never imagined how much my own country would be changed and enriched by their presence here.

This new reality opened new areas of research, new pedagogies, and new collegial connections. I launched the Pluralism Project in 1991 to study America's changing religious landscape. History was certainly part of it. It meant reading our own history through the lens of religious diversity, religious discrimination, and religious minorities, beginning with the vast diversity of native peoples who were here before the arrival of the Europeans. The seventeenth-century Puritans who settled the Boston area, for example, sought religious freedom for themselves, but did not imagine it to be the foundation of a complex society that promised religious liberty for everyone. Immigration studies were also critical, although few of the sociologists who studied immigration paid much attention to religion. Even so, the US today is home to Protestants, Catholics, and Jews; Buddhists, Muslims, and Sikhs. For political scientists and legal scholars, the so-called church-state raises the questions posed by civic and workplace encounters, by turbans and hijabs.

The Pluralism Project has engaged students and colleagues, taking as our research agenda the dynamic life of religious America in our time. We began with Boston, and then other cities. First, who's here in our city? Second, how are religious communities changing as they put down roots in new places? Third, and perhaps most important, how is the United States changing as we begin to appropriate a new religious reality, in which “we the people” are diverse in ways that our founders—and even our own grandparents—could not imagine. Where are the tensions? The fault lines?

The growth of America's religious diversity has taken place slowly, locally, step by step, in a thousand micro-histories that are primary sources in a new era of American history. The Sikhs of Charlotte, North Carolina, buy land, construct, and dedicate the Gurdwara Sahib of Charlotte. A two-car garage in Claremont, California, becomes a Vietnamese Buddhist temple. A Knights of Columbus hall in Cambridge, Massachusetts, becomes the Islamic Society of Boston; with the hall bursting at the seams, a new mosque is built in Boston that now stands as a landmark mosque for the entire Northeast. This study of America's changing religious landscape is not just about real estate and snapshots of communities. Behind each garage door, each storefront mosque, is the story of a community encountering an American neighborhood, bridging somehow the place from which they came and the place they now inhabit. Their local histories and struggles, mostly unwritten, are the very things we most need to know to assess the prospects for creating a society of pluralism out of this new religious diversity. Students and colleagues in the Pluralism Project became the historians of our changing nation.

I wrote my first ‘America’ book in the decade of the 1990s. It is called A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation. I wrote it, as I have tried to write all my books, in a voice that put not only my research but also my own experience ‘on the page’, so to speak. I thought of it as an invitation to readers, general readers, to come along as I wrote about America's diversity, our repeated attempts to exclude those who are ‘different’, and our ongoing struggle to claim E pluribus unum as a call to common and equal citizenship. And I invited readers to come with me into places most had not been and might be reluctant to go—Hindu rites bathing the divine image of Vishnu, Buddhist observances of the Buddha's birthday, Muslim Friday prayers, a Sikh all-night reading of the Guru Granth Sahib. And writing in the five years before 9/11, I discovered the alarming ways in which new communities had already been the targets of violence—the gangs of so-called Dot Busters in New Jersey who beat and even killed Hindu immigrants; the vandalism of the Hindu Jain temple in Pittsburgh, where the images of the deities were smashed and the word “leave” was painted across the altar; the desecration of a small Cambodian temple in Portland, Maine, where the Buddha hall had been vandalized and its contents strewn across the street.

Our new era of anti-immigrant nationalism and strident Christian nationalism will require a continued focus on pluralism: not mere diversity, but engagement with that diversity. Not mere tolerance of difference, but the attempt to reach across lines of difference toward relationship. Not simple, ‘anything goes’ relativism, but the encounter of real commitments. A hopeful part of America's changing religious landscape has been the rapid growth of various interfaith initiatives, what I call the ‘interfaith infrastructure’. My own sense is that we, in the global sense, still understand one another and ourselves too little. The globalization of our conscience and consciousness is still underdeveloped. Our ignorance and prejudice circle the globe along with our credit card numbers and our greenhouse gases. Creating the human and moral infrastructure that enables us to live creatively with difference is the challenge of today and tomorrow.


John Stratton Hawley

Every human person is unique and inimitable, even twins, but I can think of no one for whom this is more true than Diana Eck. It seems a grand conundrum. This, after all, is the person who so loved the “pressing crowds” she encountered in north India that my wife Laura Shapiro sometimes found herself x-ing out a few when Diana asked her to give her Harvard dissertation a pre-submission edit. These Banaras crowds might press upon the reader once or twice, Laura felt, but should they do so again and again? Still, it did make sense. Diana perceived that a deeply Indian way of honoring the singularity of things was precisely to celebrate their multiplicity. If one was so miraculous, how much better to have it many times over! Or as she put it inversely early on, “the bodies of the gods sometimes convey multiplicity in oneness” (Eck 1981: 22, 28).

Then there was the Pluralism Project, which Diana founded to reflect back America's own religious diversity to a nation resistant to seeing it. So many of her fellow citizens seemed determined to celebrate the unum part of e pluribus unum rather than the pluribus. Not Diana. Yet this was the person whom fate had conspired to name ‘Eck’. It's Swedish, of course—Ek (meaning ‘oak’) before the American immigration officials told her grandfather they thought that was a little short for a proper name—and Diana would often celebrate both her Swedish ancestry and the fact that her Americanness came so late in the game. But the true meaning of her name was revealed only once she got to India. In Hindi the syllable ek designates the number 1. Diana loved it if a gaggle of children shouted out hopefully “one rupees!” as she passed. Well, they got it right: Diana Ek, one without a second.

But it doesn't take India to see her in the midst of those swirling crowds. It could also happen at home. For 20 years, Diana and her partner-then-wife Dorothy Austin shared the title of Master at Lowell House, one of the undergraduate complexes that have given Harvard College its special flavor since the 1930s. Each such ‘house’ is a house, in fact—the master's house—and for two whole decades, when school was in session, Diana and Dorothy could be found in their dining room every Thursday pouring tea from a giant silver urn for hordes of students. They loved them all and took an interest in each one of them—all 400—to whatever extent was humanly possible. Five years ago the title Master was revised to Faculty Dean, but I like to recall that Diana and Dorothy were Harvard's first lesbian Masters.

We see Diana again amid the pressing crowds when we catch a glimpse of her every June at Harvard graduation. There she is on a little platform high in the trees that hover above a Harvard Yard jammed with students, parents, and dignitaries. Like a sports announcer she's interpreting the proceedings over a local-access television channel so that fans unable to join the throng can tune in. And who better? Diana had a well-practiced, professionally developed taste for public ritual, and she knew everyone—every single one—who played on the team.

Personally, though, I like to think of Thanksgiving—pluribus of a different sort. Often this took place at Lowell House, where there was room to seat some 25 at the table. A few Lowell students might appear, unable to travel as their peers dispersed, but the rest were family—not perhaps family in the usual sense, but family because Dorothy and Diana had made them so. Laura and I and our daughter Nell were often among them, and Diana and Dorothy took particular delight in welcoming Laura's almost 100-year-old father, a longtime veteran of the Boston Symphony and teller of many Boston tales. Yet the diversity that came so naturally, even essentially, to Diana's world wasn't just generational. There were different races, different nationalities, different religions—and none. All of us were family by adoption, and some even more so than others. Here I'm thinking of the Zejnullahu children—Amella, Aida, Kreshnik, and Sokol—since Diana and Dorothy became their legal guardians when the four of them were orphaned in the Kosovo war of 1999. In time they were joined at the Thanksgiving table by their mates and their mates’ families. Thanksgiving at Diana and Dorothy's has been a Pluralism Project all its own. When the plates and glasses are filled, Diana or Dorothy will tap a glass and raise a toast and ask everyone to say something about what has happened in her or his life since the Thanksgiving before. No silent partners allowed. Around the table we go until the circle is complete, and so is the year.

This singular instinct for manyness—plurality in every color and form—has been the generating force of Diana's intellectual and institutional life. I've often asked myself where it came from. Surely her parents had a great deal to do with it. Her mother, another Dorothy, was a prominent leader of Montana's Democratic Party and utterly committed to causes of social inclusion and justice. She served in the Montana State Senate from 1980 to 2000. Was there anyone in Montana who did not know her? And there were crowds at home, too. Dorothy Eck's natal family, the Fritzes, fitted themselves (again some 20 of them) into a house and barn on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State every summer for the sheer joy of mixing it up together. They called it The Hills, and there too you had diversity. I recently came across a letter from July 19, 1973, in which Diana remarked that “Aunt Irene is coming up tomorrow and is having 30 Republican country chairmen up here Sat. for a get together. Alas! I think we'll disappear for a hike.”

Diana's father, Hugo Eck, taught architecture at Montana State University and took family and students year by year to Pátzcuaro, Mexico, to participate in a bilateral, bilingual UNESCO-sponsored project on community development. There Diana discovered the Virgin of Guadalupe, forecasting Hindu goddesses to come. Hugo was a great builder with massive hands who, by late afternoon on the day before Diana sent me a letter from The Hills, “had the scaffolding up on the little barn and we had torn half the old mossy rotten shakes off the roof. The roofing project began full scale this morning, with daddy nailing, cousin Steve holding, Ike supervising and Letty and I carrying shakes and hoisting them up on the roof. And I spent a good bit of time clambering around the rafters, washing off the old shakes, pulling out 70 yr. old nails and whisking away the squirrelings of a dozen generations of squirrels.” Diana went on to generalize as follows: “I couldn't help thinking you'd have enjoyed a day like today as much as I did—a nice substantive project with immediate results—for once!”

Looking back, I would generalize a little differently—toward the Diana who was yet to be. Here was a person who loved to see life as a project of gathering, repairing, and rebuilding. Here was someone who took strength, even then, from a certain inbred fearlessness (“clambering around the rafters”) and exhibited an intrinsic fascination for a geographically sedimented past. No wonder that, when she pursued her “spiritual journey from Bozeman to Banaras,” as she put it in the subtitle of Encountering God (1993), it was the structure of this ancient city as understood by those who lived there that captured her attention—that and its endlessly unfolding pageant. No wonder she went on to contemplate India in 559 pages as A Sacred Geography (2012: 452) where “the term tirtha … signals the linkage of place and space,” the one being “finite and specific” while the other is “wide, expansive, and ultimately ungraspable.” Then too there was the whole world, as we see in the vast terrain she surveyed in her Gifford Lectures of 2009 on “The Age of Pluralism.” The house kept growing and needing repair.

Two images come to mind as I conclude. One is of Diana's distinctive handwriting, gently tilted and effortlessly proportioned, marching confidently forward with plenty of circular motions to suggest a generous sense of life along the way. If you'd like to see a sample, you can turn to the cover page of India: A Sacred Geography. Someone on the staff of Harmony Books, New York, had the brilliant idea of reproducing Diana's signature beneath her printed name. It's beautiful and legible—values she never doubted in an age when other scholars in the humanities often stood for very different things. If it draws attention to itself, it's not because this was its purpose.

The second image is rather different. This is Diana the warrior (her Greek goddess legacy, I suppose) getting ready to play Holi in Banaras in the spring of 1974. She's going over to the home of the Mankhands, whom she's known since 1972, where she'll join family members in throwing colored powder and squirting colored water from the syringes that are special for the season. And be powdered and squirted back, of course. Diana can't very well play Holi out in the streets: that's a man's game, and it can be truly dangerous. Still, she has to get from her apartment in Gurudham Colony over to where the Mankhands live in New Colony. Well, she'll take her bike. The neighborhood boys are sure to be waiting for her to emerge on this day of upside-downs, though. They'll be ready to attack the well-connected, wealthy, feminine foreigner they've seen so many times. Nonetheless, she sets out. She pedals off to the crossroads, and sure enough there's a gang of three or four. They have handfuls of colored powder ready to throw, and a determined look in their eye. What's a foreign woman doing out on the streets of Banaras on a day like this? What chutzpah to show herself in public!

Diana is prepared. She has carefully filled a little mountain of balloons with water before leaving home, and has stuffed them into the basket in front of her handlebars. The boys don't suspect, and certainly have no inkling of the baseball arm that's ready to lob them in their direction. I'll never forget the stunned expression I saw when the first of these balloons hit its target. Holi ki jay! Victory to Holi! These boys received a liquid blessing, a true abhishek, from the person who would go on to write their city's best-known biography, Banaras: City of Light (1982). Diana L. Eck, it says on the cover—Diana Ek, one without a second.


  • Eck, Diana L. 1982. Banaras: City of Light. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Eck, Diana L. 1993. Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras. Boston: Beacon Press.

  • Eck, Diana L. 1998. Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. 3rd ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Eck, Diana L. 2012. India: A Sacred Geography. New York: Harmony Books.


Learning to See from Diana Eck

Rahul Mehrotra

Diana Eck has been both my teacher and colleague. I first met Diana in 1986 when I enrolled for her class on religion at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. While it focused on Hinduism, it never claimed to explain Hindu life but rather to explore the Hindu world of art and culture. I signed up for the class as an elective merely to be able to experience teaching outside the professional graduate program in which I was enrolled. Having grown up in a Hindu family, I had assumed Hinduism was a singular way of life or belief. And I had taken for granted the complexity and virtual imagination that is critical in understanding the pantheon of Hindu gods and their interrelationships, and the nesting of stories within stories that weave together a rather complex context through which to communicate the simplest ideas.

Diana's teaching style, passion, and insights opened a whole new world for me—a world where I understood the role of religion in objective terms and for the first time was able to place the religion I had grown up with into a broader landscape of religious thought and meaning. This was perhaps my first introduction to the idea of pluralism, an idea that would open up for me many subsequent research and writing projects to understand architecture and cities in contemporary India. In any case, this one class motivated me to ask Diana if she could advise me on an independent study on traditional Hindu cities, for which I would produce an annotated bibliography. It was a fantastic task that allowed me to rummage through a wealth of scholarship on the subject, but the truth was that the annotated bibliography was actually an excuse to engage in conversations with Professor Eck.

The exercise of carrying out an independent study with Diana was seminal in my own formation as an architect and urban designer. It introduced me to the idea of how crucial the purpose of the city is to its form. It made me see that cities have their underlying logics—sometimes tangible and often intangible—and understanding this principle is critical in sustaining change in robust ways. This exercise also introduced me to Diana's critical work on Banaras (now Varanasi). Through her book Banaras: City of Light (1982), as an urban designer I came to understand a completely different way to navigate and experience a city. It is a dramatically different understanding from the Eurocentric imagination of the city as an absolute idea. Diana's description of Banaras and its incremental growth, structured by a complex logic of movement and circumambulation at the urban scale, displays a pattern far removed from both the rationale and the clearly perceivable urban grid that emanate from modernity in Europe. This new understanding of the city—as an artifact that is made additively through privileging the experiential act of moving through space—is in fact an abstract representation of the city as sacred geography. Through Diana's eyes, the city became a place where architecture is not the only spectacle or instrument by which it is perceived or structured, but rather the very form through which the beliefs and the associative values that people hold in their relationship to urban space is molded.

This exposure exponentially expanded my training as an urban designer. It prepared me to engage with my own city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay), where I went back to practice after graduating. The insight I had gained from Diana allowed me to discern the patterns I saw in Mumbai in completely different ways. It propelled me to write extensively about the city in which I lived and worked. It inspired an alternative formulation to describe the city in India—as the Kinetic City! This interpretation is the counterpoint to the Static City, which is familiar to most of us from conventional city maps. Instead, I argued that the city should instead be perceived, read, and mapped in terms of patterns of occupation and associative values attributed to space. Such a framework accommodates a better understanding of the blurred lines of contemporary urbanism and the changing roles of people and spaces in urban society. Clearly, this was the culmination of a process I had started in my conversations with professors at Harvard and specifically with Diana, whose insights enabled me to ground these thoughts in the context of India and its historic cultural continuum.

Jump to 2010 when I returned to Harvard University as a professor of urban design and planning at the Graduate School of Design. Naturally, one of the first professors I reached out to was Diana—now a colleague. Our paths then continued to cross as we both served on the steering committee of the South Asia Initiative at the University. I learned more about her Pluralism Project at the University and was once again inspired to work with her. In 2011, after reading somewhere about the forthcoming Kumbha Mela occurring in January 2013, I sought an urgent audience with Diana and made the audacious proposition to her that we take a group of students and faculty to the Kumbha Mela to map this ephemeral megacity. I will never forget the way her face lit up and how she said it would be a dream come true! This encouragement and endorsement of the project gave it great traction and support from around the University. I finally had a project that brought my association with Diana full circle, and I could re-engage with her to study what I had started in 1986: Indian urbanism, albeit in this case an ephemeral megacity!

The next year, leading up to the site exploration in 2013, we taught a seminar class together to prepare students for the visit to the site. The students came from the Faculties of Arts and Sciences, Divinity, Public Health, Engineering, Business, and the Graduate School of Design—a truly interdisciplinary group. After this intense preparation, we finally spent two weeks on the ground in mid-January 2013 at the start of the festival and the occupation of this ephemeral megacity that we were there to study. On arriving at the site, it was mind-blowing to see that in a matter of weeks, an entire temporary megacity had been constructed for the biggest public gathering in the world. This was a city that deploys its own roads, pontoon bridges, cotton tents serving as residences and venues for spiritual meetings, and a spectrum of social infrastructure—all replicating the functions of an actual city. It houses 5 to 7 million people who gather for 55 days and an additional flux of 10 to 20 million people who come for 24-hour cycles on the five main bathing dates. Once the festival is over, the whole city is disassembled as quickly as it was deployed, reversing the constructive operation, disaggregating the settlement to its basic components, and recycling a majority of the material used. This is the biggest impermanent megacity in the world.

While we were on the ground, it was amazing to see how Diana moved easily between questions about religious practices and the implications of this gathering on the environment. She focused a great deal of her energy engaging with groups as well as religious leaders who were campaigning for sustainable practices on how this ground for the city was occupied and how waste was managed, and so on. What was remarkable was her interest in placing the practice of religion in the context of contemporary questions: she wanted to understand the challenges that societies in the world face today—problems that might somehow be addressed through religion as an instrument.

Working on mapping the Kumbha Mela with Diana Eck was the most profound experience in my career, as both an architect and an academic. It taught me a great deal about life. And in the same way that studying traditional Indian cities with Diana had made me expand my own view as a student of how cities are made and remade and perceived, the Kumbha Mela project opened up even more expansive questions. Fresh perspectives on the notions of attachment and reversibility raised the question, does permanence even matter? For an architect this is indeed a challenging lens insofar as we are taught to see permanence as a default condition. And it is for these new perspectives that I am indebted to Diana. The only way I can accurately express what I have learned from her is to borrow her own words:

The pursuit of wisdom, jnāna has always been an important strand of the Hindu tradition. Jnāna is not conventional knowledge, but liberating insight, the deep-seeing that changes one's entire consciousness of oneself and the world … and the philosophies that emerged from them were called darshanas, “points of view” or “perspectives.” Darshana comes from a verb meaning “to see,” and it conveys the understanding that any philosophy is one way of seeing a truth that can be viewed from different angles.” (Eck 1982: 58–59)

It is this for this multiplicity of perspectives and ways of seeing that I will always be grateful to Professor Diana Eck.


Eck, Diana L. 1982. Banaras: City of Light. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Diana's Tīrthas, Revisited

Sondra L. Hausner

How do you describe a landscape that is living? A river who is a goddess? A skyline that speaks to the heavens? How do you explain that a mountain is not only a formidable geographical landmass, but the home of revered deities? Somehow Diana Eck knew how to translate these concepts from one cultural medium to another, in such a way that everyone—students and scholars, devout practitioners and staunch atheists—could understand them. Diana's language makes sense, on both an intuitive level and an empirical one: people who knew those rivers and landscapes from experience recognized her explanations, and those who had never heard of the possibilities that rivers and landscapes could be alive were able to consider the earth anew.

Gone is the sacred and profane distinction in these cases: the Ganga is both a river—you can wash your clothes in her—and the goddess Ganga, swooshing her way down from the mountains the way a Himalayan daughter should. She is no less a goddess for being able to wash clothes in her waters; she is no less a river for being a goddess. She is alive, in myth and on earth, condensing all of human experience in her flow.

Diana's ability to tell us of these realities—these lived realities, as scholars of religion like to say—evokes a Hinduism that is not only connected to or constituted by the earth, but also one that explains how people live their religion. I have had students decide to write theses on Indian ways of seeing, inspired by Diana's work on darśan (Eck 1998). I have had others who write on Banaras, inspired by her work on Kashi (Eck 1982). And I have had many students learn about the concept of pilgrimage as moving through living space by reading Diana's shimmering discussions of what it means to experience the body through its engagements with terrain and territory, inspired by her work on the all-important concept of the tīrtha. Materiality and embodiment are no longer abstract ideas for Diana: they are real-life ways people engage with their environments—and we understand them in fresh, vibrant language that makes sense in any cultural context, although Diana is focused on the Indian one. In her interpretation, materiality is divine in Hindu life: not only can the material world express divinity, but nature herself is the very way that transcendent principles take form.

The concept of the tīrtha—so beautifully explored by Diana as the place where one traverses—perhaps does more for the study of space and place in Indian religions than any other, and I have taught it to enraptured students many times. My students revel in this metaphor of place that somehow speaks to all human conceptions—and practices—of pilgrimage. Why should a place be so unique that religious aspirants would risk life and limb to travel there? In Diana's translation, the reason is simple: tīrthas are important because they help us cross over to the other plane. They have qualities that are just out of reach for normal places. They hold special capacities—and by virtue of these unique characteristics, they can bring us to planes of knowledge, understanding, and experience that other places cannot. In Diana's words, these locations “of earth that give ready access to the heavens are tīrthas. They are thresholds, doorways upward, where one's prayers are more quickly heard, one's desires more readily fulfilled, one's rituals bound to bring more abundant blessings” (Eck 1996: 142). Over time, with accrued generational knowledge, the legends that tell travelers about the wonders of tīrthas strengthen not only our collective conviction about the power of these places, but also their capacity to transport.

From here, so much can be done, so many places reached. I like to think about tīrthas not only as crossing places but as ‘crossing points’, so as to incorporate the temporal elements. We can move upward, downward, and laterally from Diana's understanding of the tīrtha. We can add the concept of time, the concept of form, the concept of action, from life to death, as in Diana's famous study of Banaras. Tīrthas show us a wonderfully cyclical relation with the material world: our willingness to be transported through ritual action enhances a tīrtha's power to bring us to new levels of religious knowledge.

But it all starts with place—which can then become a point, both in place and in time. Pilgrimage transports us physically and religiously because we consciously combine those precious three axes of body, place, and time. The tīrtha is the mappable point that produces the spatio-temporal capacity for a practitioner to traverse the realms of normal perception and awareness and move, quite literally, into a realm that is out of the ordinary, a consciousness that is greater-than-usual. The centrality of place inspires the vitality of movement.

Diana knew how to describe a place—a landscape, a location, a spatial nexus, a tīrtha—in ways that nobody else did. Why does place matter? Diana knew. What can place enable? Diana explained. Can places facilitate religious experiences? Oh yes, Diana told us. And how. Somehow Diana knew how to take the texts that described actions and places and bring them to life in a contemporary context, showing her readers how images and mythologies of the past can be invoked and imbued in contemporary everyday life. And the easiest, most straightforward, smoothest way for a human pilgrim or practitioner to reach those higher levels is through grappling with—encountering—places in a landscape. Understanding our need for places and pilgrimage became easy once Diana explained it. No wonder we approach pilgrimage with such hope, such ardor. No wonder right-wing movements try to reappropriate or reclaim so-called holy lands on such an enormous scale. Place is integral to who we are, and the way we see ourselves in the world.

All religions are malleable, and all religions change. And yet the way Diana describes Hinduism—the centrality of rivers and mountains; the way landscape breathes (and the respect even the deities have for their precious terrain); how pilgrims and practitioners alike see their surroundings, experiencing both daily activities and worshipful moments as grounded in them—seems to capture a constancy in the orientation of Hindu Indian and diasporic religious life, whether at the level of practice or politics. Understanding Hinduism in this way helps explain an individual hermit's practice high in the Indian Himal at the source of the Ganges, just as it helps explain the Hindutva nationalist insistence on claiming holy ground. Place is central to our beings and to our practices. In Diana's language, we come to know what Hindu mythology sounds like and what Hindu practice looks like at its core: we are humans acting in a god-given material realm. Whether it be Banaras, the Ganga, or the local temple, Diana helps us see it, and be there.


  • Eck, Diana L. 1982. Banaras: City of Light. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Eck, Diana L. 1996. “Gaṅgā: The Goddess Ganges in Hindu Sacred Geography.” In Devī: Goddesses of India, ed. John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, 137153. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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  • Eck, Diana L. 1998. Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. 3rd ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

Contributor Notes

DIANA L. ECK is Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard University and Frederic Wertham Professor of Law and Psychiatry in Society. She is also Founder and Director of the Pluralism Project. As a scholar of India, she has published Banaras: City of Light (1982), Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India (1998), and India: A Sacred Geography (2012). With the Pluralism Project, she has turned her attention to the United States and has produced the most extensive web-based resource for basic religious literacy, On Common Ground: World Religions in America. On the subject of pluralism she has written Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras (1993) and A New Religious America: How A “Christian Country” Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation (2001). In 1998, she received the National Humanities Medal from President Clinton for her work on religious pluralism in America, and in 2011 she delivered the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh on “The Age of Pluralism.”

JOHN STRATTON HAWLEY—informally, Jack—is Claire Tow Professor of Religion at Barnard College, Columbia University. His most recent books are a revised and expanded version of Sūrdās: Poet, Singer, Saint (2018), featuring a new hundred-word chapter titled “An Afterlife in Art,” and Krishna's Playground: Vrindavan in the 21st Century (2020). Jack has received multiple awards from the NEH, the Smithsonian, and the AIIS. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow, was recently a Fulbright Fellow, and is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. E-mail: jsh3@columbia.edu

RAHUL MEHROTRA is the Founder Principal of RMA Architects. He divides his time between working in Mumbai and Boston and teaching at the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University where he is a Professor of Urban Design and Planning and the John T. Dunlop Professor in Housing and Urbanization. E-mail: mehrotra@gsd.harvard.edu

SONDRA L. HAUSNER is Professor of Anthropology of Religion at the University of Oxford. She has published widely on South Asian religion and culture, and is co-editor of Religion and Society: Advances in Research. Her monograph, Wandering with Sadhus: Ascetics in the Hindu Himalayas (2007), won the Joseph W. Elder Prize in the Indian Social Sciences from the American Institute of Indian Studies. E-mail: sondra.hausner@theology.ox.ac.uk

Religion and Society

Advances in Research

  • Eck, Diana L. 1982. Banaras: City of Light. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Eck, Diana L. 1993. Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras. Boston: Beacon Press.

  • Eck, Diana L. 1998. Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. 3rd ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • Eck, Diana L. 2012. India: A Sacred Geography. New York: Harmony Books.

  • Eck, Diana L. 1982. Banaras: City of Light. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Eck, Diana L. 1982. Banaras: City of Light. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

  • Eck, Diana L. 1996. “Gaṅgā: The Goddess Ganges in Hindu Sacred Geography.” In Devī: Goddesses of India, ed. John Stratton Hawley and Donna Marie Wulff, 137153. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    • Crossref
    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Eck, Diana L. 1998. Darśan: Seeing the Divine Image in India. 3rd ed. New York: Columbia University Press.


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