Eck’s perspective has significant political implications. It arguably refutes the widely held notion that India was merely a confusion of diverse kingdoms, cultures and languages until it was politically integrated by the British Empire. Some scholars hold that the idea of Hinduism, too, is the modern tracing of a circle around a diversity of ancient religious beliefs never self-consciously systematized into a whole. This idea struggles to hold up against the layered evidence supplied by Eck’s book, the synthesis of three decades of work on the myths, rituals, cosmology and everyday life of Hinduism.
But the appeal of the book lies in the fact that its emphasis is not political, but aggregative and connective, making a forest out of a mass of trees. Eck offers an exceptionally rich account of how, throughout India, the cosmic is mapped onto the local in a tradition formed, revised and renewed over the centuries by thousands of discrete phenomena and often anonymous actors.
This map of myth, as it were, radiates a worldview very different from the assumptions of modern cartography. Cartography invests each place on a map with a name and an unassailable specificity. But sacral maps, Eck notes, are marked continuously by “patterns of duplication and condensation,” demonstrating an ability “to see a world in a grain of sand,” in William Blake’s unforgettable formulation. For instance, thousands of rivers and water bodies across the country are said to be linked to or fed by the holiest river of Hinduism, the Ganges. The Ganges is, depending on what lens one brings to it, both somewhere and everywhere.
“As arcane as lingas [pillars] of light . . . and sacred rivers falling from heaven may seem to those who wish to get on with the real politics of today’s world,” Eck writes, “these very patterns of sanctification continue to anchor millions of people in the imagined landscape of their country.”
She devotes entire chapters to regional variations in the worship of the great generative god Shiva, the creator of the universe, or the myth of the Mother Goddess, who is consecrated and remembered in thousands of local incarnations as “the goddesses of earth and village, glade and river, hilltop and mountaintop.” In doing so Eck demonstrates how, just as novels are fully realized only in the minds of their readers, gods are made present in the world by the stories and footsteps of the faithful.