Posted on: 18 April 2016

Harvard scholar says the idea of India dates to a much earlier time than the British or the Mughals

Book Review:
Harvard scholar says the idea of India dates to a much earlier time than the British or the Mughals.
By Mridula Chari - April 18th 2016

It wasn’t just a cluster of regional identities, and it wasn't ethnic or racial, says Diana L Eck, as she talks about her latest book, 'India: A Sacred Geography'.

Did the British really invent India or did Indians always have a sense that this land was united? It is a question that has puzzled nationalists and historians alike, with ideology often feeding into the answer.

Diana L Eck, a professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at Harvard, wanted to change that. In her newest book India: A Sacred Geography, published in 2012, she turns her attention to how Hindus in India evolved a cultural imagination of a land unified through pilgrimage and myth despite political and regional separations over time. She drew on texts with the dry eye of a scholar, but also travelled on old, arduous pilgrim routes, gathering pamphlets and talking to people about what these stories meant to them.

Eck is perhaps best known for her seminal book Banaras that maps in painstaking detail the myths, rituals and sites of worship in the north Indian city. She began research for her latest book India: A Sacred Geography in the 1980s, when studying Varanasi, before Hindu nationalism had begun to redefine how Hindus looked at sacred spaces. This was in part why she finished it only three decades years later.

In conversation with, Eck speaks of how this old idea of a "sacred geography" collides with Hindu nationalism and why it really should not.

Read more: It wasn’t just a cluster of regional identities, and it wasn't ethnic or racial, says Diana L Eck, as she talks about her latest book, 'India: A Sacred Geography'.

Comments from Facebook

That's right!

Hmmm, I have obviously not managed to convince you with my Mauryan evidence so you need Eck!! :)

What the Eck is going on?

Sumedha: Eck only validates what you have always stated. You could call it a second opinion. :)

Ha ha !

Do we need foreigners to remind us of the phrase aasetuhimachalam

Don't blame eck,if at all make fun of mridula

that wasnt hinduism


it was tantra

Duh! What is so novel about this!

It is a pity that we always need a foreigner to endorse our achievement.

I love her book "Darsan"

Why do people object to "foreigners" showing interest and having opinions? I shouldn't imagine that there are many countries on earth which haven't been loved and written about by persons from elsewhere.

Kalidasa in his kumarasambavam too defines the borders of Bharathavarsha

They all mony hungry seagulls; they are bullshitting for hundreds of years

There are many who are not biased. I apologize for those who do from my nation. I really appreciate those who have written on Hinduism from Grimes to David Frawley and Kinsley. Its also because of the nefarious activity of certain evangelical groups that such a reaction occurs. Their pointed ridicule of a subtle philosophy which they don't understand has been happening for many decades even after colonization is over. Add to that conversion which are really done by inducement or coercion to take forward a political agenda, the suspicion and resentment only flares.

By Mridula Chari.. That name tells it all ... Should I still believe it .. ya .. Why because the keepers of knowledge as claimed by them have convinced or bought a Caucasian to say what they want to say and so to be used in Indian media ..

It might have to do with the frustration with our own who value a foreigner's research over what's already been done by one of us, I mean without bringing in question her obvious scholarship, Ms. Eck is essentially stating the obvious here.

Any way it is sold in the U. S.?

That's a fair point. May I dare to suggest that some of the scholarly work produced by your own can sometimes be lost amidst the less good, prejudiced offerings? Of course, in the end, any opus is dependant on its readers ... there are so many who believe what they read without being furnished with the ability to think things through and come up with their own interpretations. And many who are unprepared to read round a subject, and discover what other views there are, before finalising their own opinions. And who then have the flexibility and humility to be able to alter their opinions later.

I agree with Gopal K Athilah... why do we need foreign validation? But, 'O Boy' am I glad to see the west waking up and acknowledging India beyond Brits and mughals...!!! Recently read an article on "sound therapy".....about all the recent "re"-discovery by just simply forgets to acknowledge the theory behind mantra chanting and significance of 'OM'....!!!

Thanks Phillppa for understanding. My irritation comes from reading some westerners (on history and philosophy and science) who seem to jump from Europe, to middle east and then straight to far east, skipping the great things that were happening in the Indian sub-continent altogether. We educated, secular, Indians don't need validation, but we do need to vent our frustrations once in a while. But all's well that ends well :) as long as you understand where we come from.

Nimisha Bhat have you seen this book? Some of the things she says I can shoot down right away.

It's because EVERYTHING has to align to Western standards. The UN, the Olympics, the Nobel.... Only when the West validates something, is it considered 'worthy.' This could be subliminal - unconscious bias and prejudice. Sad but true.

While I don't object to "external " validation, I am tempted to say we very well knew this ;)

And when we see that this same "Western standard" awards an Arafat and overlooks the Mahatma we realize how worthy of scorn its ideals and ideas are.

United india was scripted already in bhavishya puran. This is gods will nothing else

I actually don't think that is true. It must be a perception from you (Indians I mean - am not being personal in any way!).. There are many, many things in India which follow Indian standards, and do not consider the west to be the 'leader'. Sounds to me as though there is an inability to shake off the colonial yoke - which certainly does not exist any more, and which won't go away in people's minds unless it is put to bed. Seventy years must be long enough to establish strong national identity without always applying the caveat. I worry sometimes when I am in schools, and am asked by pupils why they have to speak English rather than Hindi (or Marathi or whichever local language applies to them). I have been known to respond by suggesting that if the French had beaten the British in the 18th Century, then they'd be speaking French!! However, English is now universal and if they ever need to take a 'plane anywhere, then a non-English-speaking pilot would be a liability. I try to explain that although the British may have been oppressive, they also introduced some long-lasting good things. And that we're not all bad. But that middle level of teaching does tend to rewrite history which contributes to widespread introspection.

A refreshingly new voice from the west, and makes a lot of sense.


Buy this book:

Thank you soo much Diana for telling us Indians what allot of us already know. The concept of India as as a single united civilization has existed for thousands of years. It was first unified by the mighty Emperor Chandragupt Maurya, even before him kings like Ajatshatru attempted to unify it. India may be a name given by the British, but the concept of Bharatvarsh existed for millenia.

JUST READ WHAT MOST FAMOUS SCIENTISTS, LEADERS, PHILOSOPHER & MANY MORE HAVE TO SAY ABOUT INDIA. ASHOKA THE GREAT DEVOTED HIS LIFE SERVING MENKIND THROUGH BOUDDH DHARMA . BUDDHA & ASHOKA ARE THE ONLY MEN IN THE KNOWN HISTORY OF MENKIND WHO SPREAD RELIGION WITH LOVE & PEACE RATHER USING SWORD. JUST READ WHAT AN EX AMBASDOR FROM CHINA & OTHERS HAVE TOTALLY SAY ABOUT INDIA. Hu Shih, former Ambassador of China to USA: "India conquered and dominated China culturally for 20 centuries without ever having to send a single soldier across her border." Max Mueller, German scholar: If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions, I should point to India. Romain Rolland, French scholar : "If there is one place on the face of earth where all the dreams of living men have found a home from the very earliest days when man began the dream of existence, it is India." Max Mueller, German scholar: If I were asked under what sky the human mind has most fully developed some of its choicest gifts, has most deeply pondered on the greatest problems of life, and has found solutions, I should point to India. Henry David Thoreau, American Thinker & Author: Whenever I have read any part of the Vedas, I have felt that some unearthly and unknown light illuminated me. In the great teaching of the Vedas, there is no touch of sectarianism. It is of all ages, climbs, and nationalities and is the royal road for the attainment of the Great Knowledge. When I read it, I feel that I am under the spangled heavens of a summer night. Will Durant, American historian: "India was the motherland of our race, and Sanskrit the mother of Europe's languages: she was the mother of our philosophy; mother, through the Arabs, of much of our mathematics; mother, through the Buddha, of the ideals embodied in Christianity; mother, through the village community, of self-government and democracy. Mother India is in many ways the mother of us all". Albert Einstein, American scientist: "We owe a lot to the Indians, who taught us how to count, without which no worthwhile scientific discovery could have been made." YOU FEEL ELATED TO READ ALL QUOTES. LET US FORGET DIFFERENCES & CONTTIBUTE OUR BEST TO MAKE IT'S GREAT AGAIN . LET THERE BE DIFFERENCE OF OPINION BUT I THE SHOULDN'T LEAD TO ANIMOSITY.

Well said bro. Vande mataram

Duh! Someone actually needs to say this?

Honestly, I personally have moved away from the colonial imbalance. In fact, westerners back then having freshly discovered the the baby discovers his big toe....did show enough curiosity and excitement to understand the Sanskrit literature and philosophies therein as to go through the pain of learning the language (I gave up in 8th grade :) ) and I appreciate that very much, in spite of those who would defame them. However, there are some in the present times who have a mind fog going on and somebody needs to reteach them. On the lighter side....I was just reading about Samuel Taylor Cooleridge, before I logged in.....wanted to know why he did not complete most of his poems.....and came across a letter he had written to a friend that put a smile on my face. I think my friends on this discussion forum will enjoy reading what I just discovered, so sharing: “Coleridge did write to John Thelwall, 14 October 1797, to describe his feelings related to those expressed in the poem:[12] (Kubla Khan) “I should much wish, like the Indian Vishna, to float about along an infinite ocean cradled in the flower of the Lotos, & wake once in a million years for a few minutes – just to know I was going to sleep a million years more .....”” From Wikipedia.

There is a plan to remove the word 'India' from history books in California, and replace it with 'South Asia'. Claim is that the concept of India didn't exist before the British. It's abominable, and many of us have signed a petition. So, sometimes, a non-Indian perspective is valuable on a topic we consider a non-issue.

Wow. We are now called Indians

Scholarship should be encouraged by India. Stating the obvious, still when it is in black and white on paper validates notions in a definitive way

Why Indian people r so obsessed with foreigners.... This is called Gulami of Dimag ...

"Cultural imagination of a land unified through pilgrimage and myth,despite political and regional separations over time" is a beautiful definition of that unique geographical entity called Bharatvarsh.

one more commentator with no connection whatsoever India or its roots or culture, just money making tools

It's elaborating on the obvious - with due respect. Anyone who lived or lives in India would know the common thread running through Indian culture albeit very diverse.

I don't know why some western academics always have to validate indigenous knowledge or culture !! Like the existence of consciousness or neuro plasticity... Honestly..!

Deepak Dogra. Good observation.

Nishita Alagh

After a long time with my head buried, and not joining in discussions on here, I am much enjoying reading the comments, and realising that this page is host to such a varied and interesting membership. Many thanks to RBSI for your hard work!

Very nuanced view. Quite contrarian though. Should read it.

Unfortunately, the colonial mindset has NOT gone - on both sides. Check out readers' comments on any such topic in the Guardian (a liberal medium) and you will see what I mean.

India,that is Bharat is the most ancient ideal of nationalism. It is referred to as a nation in oldest treatises of the land.The oldest of Puranas,the Vishnu Purana defines the geography of Bharat and says,"the children of this land are Bharatis." We never hear of a Greek or Roman nation.Instead we come across phrases like "the Hellenic World", and the "Roman Empire". Rise of national states in the west is a late medieval or early modern phenomenon and describes only lingual or racial solidarity.On the contrary,Bharat represents unity in diversity.Yakshas,Nagas,Nishadas,Kinnars,Bhots,Pishachas all lived here in harmony.

All said and done ..why are we obsessed with the past...everybody will have his views and beliefs...can be debated till cows come millions are dying without food, healthcare system is a shame, wealth is in hands of a few politicians are only making money, education system is in shambles, reservations as political tool is a catastrophe in the making ...we are talking of an Ashok, Ambedkar ,bose,...long gone and dusted...

It is not at all new! Nationalist historians repeatedly showed it? But they are Indians and Marxist historians never found history in their writings. Now it came from a Harvard scholar. Let us see how it is rated!

if we do nit take stand for ourselves than why they ?

If the colonial mindset endures in Britain, it is in extremely rarefied circles. Don't forget that those who contribute to the "Letters to the Editor" columns are the intellectually- (sometimes) active with-time-on-their-hands citizens. And have a need to express their personal views (prejudices). Very seldom speaking for the majority it seems to me! Within a generation, or so, I think it will more or less disappear completely - those whose childhoods were spent in India, and for whom it was a much-loved homeland, are now beginning to drop off this mortal coil at a rate of knots. As for the mindset in India - I think it falls into several categories. Those who are aware of it and who choose to move on - in some cases making it a positive experience. Those who are aware of it, and who use it as a negative tool to promote nationalism (unnecessary in my view - how can modern-day Indians not be passionate and nationalistic. There is so much to be proud of, and no need for negativity).

when we pray in the morning in the water we use for worship we request the presence of rivers from Sindhu to Kavery and thus sanctify the waters.this practice itself will prove that India is seen as a single unit from time immemorial.

Rutwij Apte....see the book name and chk if u get to read it

Yess i.already have it..

Philippa Waterfield - But are Fanny Parkes reborn. :)

The Mauryan empire was literally longer lived than India (About 150 years at full power) and laid the basis of much of the modern Republic. Plus Imperial symbols (Such as the Lion Capital of Ashoka) from the empire are still used in modern governance. And to boot it was larger than any known empire in the subcontinent so far.

Philippa Waterfield majority is too busy trying to earn a living.....this job of preservation of culture and history and legacies, falls to the retired with time on doubt. Nonetheless, those who use the colonial divide to promote nationalism are on both sides...and till certain apologies don't happen some will keep it alive into the future. Apologies have been demanded and have happened in many other cases around the world. I think somebody needs to be humble and apologize to India too.....or in the least admit and give due credit to India for all she has given to the world. To my knowledge, all the western philosophers that i have read about were exposed to India and her Box of philosophical treasures and they have admitted it. I mean ask NASA...they are finding a wealth of information for their new rocket launchers...its being researched...just acknowledge...that will make us happy.

Nikhil Jaisinghani Palwinder Dhillon Dameron Alexandros Booth-Rothschild Pritish Chakraborty

The Imperium of Indh when ????


We must end the Red Menace to assert our dominion over all South Asia.

Gain the technological upper hand, the the economical. Everything else will follow. We must form the alliance with the Adeptus Mechanicus !

You must BE the Adeptus Mechanicus.

I am become The Omnissiah, destroyer of xenos.

But even an apology, forget reparations for centuries of looting, is not forthcoming.

We are the Omnissiah. We are one. We are many.

An apology for colonising?? I don't necessarily feel comfortable with it - but why should those of us of today judge the actions of those of yesterday? I just don't get it. Are the Mughal's also being asked to apologise? Moving forward is quite possible. Sorry - I am obviously not in tune with today's intellectuals. We shall have to agree to disagree on this one.

Yeah, true why should today's generation have to apologize. I agree totally. It was not them who messed up the world. However, and unfortunately, today's generation will have to make an effort to understand where the rest of the people they share the world with...come from. That's the burden our ancestors left us with. I cant seem to remember the names right away....was it Algerians that France apologized to? Did the world apologize to the Jews? I think everybody is apologetic about that piece of history. Who else? The blacks in the US, Martin Luther King....and what is the name of that black lady who was not offered a seat on the bus....was it in Little Rock, Arkansas? She too was offered an the new generation too. I don't think anyone has offered a formal apology to Gandhi for being thrown off the train in S. Africa. Have they? I mean, with my age I do tend to forget things. So, Philippa, this double standard hurts pretty deeply ☹️☹️☹️☹️☹️☹️ and what's funny is that I wasn't even born then...!!!!!!!!

So, looked up some facts on Wiki. The brain is foggy sometimes....cannot quote wrong. I was talking about Rosa Parks...and that was Montgomery, Alabama and she actually refused to vacate the seat on the bus that was meant to be for whites. And this was as late as 1955.

Anyway, this has gone too far for my liking. I did not mean to start another I apologize. Only one thing is true....this history does make me emotional even when I have not been directly wronged or slighted by any white ever.....!!!! Philippa, have you read about what happened in Jalianwala Bagh, Amritsar, in 1919? I provide you a Wiki link...just in case you have not read about it, Farewell :

We are defined by our past....our thoughts, our culture.....and we need to know the truth so we do not form misinformed opinions. I think that is why.

I agree..history teaches lesson..but today the historical characters are becoming political tools..being used by political entities to serve their interests..

there is no doubt abput indias,history.the oldest in the our vedas and upanishad say.

Her writing is really stupendous ! Read her on Benares!

The question of forgiveness :

Why else will a company be called "East INDIA Company"??

Vinay Sah...sahaab All the evils you have mentioned are because... WE forgot our TRUE History....

I agree with Philippa Waterfield here. The present generations should not be held responsible for the actions of their ancestors. Past is past and one has to learn from history and move on. The constant study of history is for us to learn the many perspectives it provides for greater understanding. Historical events by their very nature are the result of the complex dynamics of the times. How much ever we try... our understanding of the past would be biased as we would be seeing from the lens and value systems of the present.

Suresh Narayanan Thanks for sharing the article....wasn't aware of some things mentioned there.

Rare Book Society of India I agree....past is there to learn from......and hopefully not repeat the mistakes made earlier.

To answer the question posed...what would it take to forgive and move on.....answer is apology. who should apologize? The way we Indians think....chalo, mei hi maang leti hoon. May all souls find peace...Amen.

Rita Dhawan To forgive and move on should not be dependant on an apology. It will be dependant on generosity of spirit and a desire to be part of a better world for our children, grandchildren and future generations. I'm confused as to why you ask me if I've read about Jallianwala Bagh. Any of us can find a single example to back-up our arguments ... In which part of India do you live?

" forgive and move on is the other option....which we Indians have always done. So far twice on my part. I am hoping you understand Hindi Philippa, ....because I gathered from our conversation you might actually be stationed in India. But how does it matter where I live? Is that going to colour my lens?

To Vinita - if we don't always delineate between east and west, and maybe look at the totality of human institutions and contributions, then the validation from western institutions would not seem so offensive. Many people seem like they are always looking for a counter to anything western. Why is that? Is there still oppression, subjugation, colonization? In 2016 no there isn't.

Hear hear!!