India: A land for time immemorial….

India: A Sacred Geography

India: A Sacred Geography

A special piece on the occasion of India’s 68th Independence Day that is being celebrated today, August 15, 2014.

Some people, both within and outside India, tend to argue that India is not a historic entity and that the Indian nation is rather a creation of the British. While this claim has been refuted – in my opinion convincingly – elsewhere, see e.g. articles by Sankrant Sanu (“Why India Is A Nation“) and Prof. Makkhan Lal (“Is India Not a Nation?“), I recently came across a very interesting piece of information in a book called “India: A Sacred Geography” by Diana L. Eck, Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies at Harvard. Prof. Eck narrates how Alexander the Great actually discovered from people about the land called India that was not limited to a kingdom and that in its geographic dimensions was pretty close to what we know as India today. She writes (p. 68 f.):

“[…] according to the historian Strabo, Alexander ’caused the whole country to be described by men well acquainted with it’. What the Greeks learned from them, as it comes to us in the writings of Strabo, Arrian, and Eratosthenes, was the extent and dimensions of the land into which they were venturing. […] According to these Greek historians, the land described as India was a rhomboid, an ‘unequal quadrilateral, in shape, with the Indus on the west, the mountains on the north, and the sea on the east and the south.’ It was sixteen thousand stadia (1,838 miles) from the Indus in the west to the mouth of the Ganges in the east. From the mouth of the Ganges, along the eastern coast, it was another sixteen thousand stadia to the southern tip of India. It was said to be 19,000 stadia (2,183 miles) along the western coast from the tip or cape to the mouth of the Indus. The western border along the course of the Indus from its mouth to its headwaters was estimated to be 13,000 stadia (1,496 miles). […]

“It is striking that in 326 B.C.E., before the rise of the Mauryan Empire, there were informants, found apparently without much trouble, who could describe a land corresponding to what we call ‘India’ to Alexander and, twenty years later, to Megasthenes, the ambassador of Seleucus I Nicator to the court of Chandragupta Maurya at Pataliputra. They also attested that India was roughly quadrilateral in shape, with the Indus river forming the western boundary, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush stretched along the north, and the seas skirting the other two sides. They even cited its measurements: the length of the River Indus, the distance from the Indus to Pataliputra and from there to the mouth of the Ganges, the distances along the eastern and the western coasts. […] More than two thousand years later, in 1871, Alexander Cunningham, then major-general of the Royal Engineers and, later, director of the Archaeological Survey of India, wrote what seems to be a footnote to Megasthenes: ‘The close agreement of these dimensions, given by Alexander’s informants, with the actual size of the country is very remarkable, and shows that the Indians, even at that early date in their history, had a very accurate knowledge of the form and extent of their native land.’

“Ancient India’s sense of geography is indeed remarkable. For historians, who have long complained that Hindus had no sense of ‘history’, it is remarkable to discover that they had a detailed sense of geography. […] It is remarkable that, even in a time when travel throughout the length and breadth of the land must have been very difficult, there were traditions of geographical knowledge to suggest that such travel was indeed undertaken. And it is remarkable that even in a time when the subcontinent had no political unity whatsoever, those who described this territory to Alexander’s company thought of it and described it as a single land.”

(Quoted here for non-commercial, information purpose; footnotes of the original work documenting bibliographic sources have not been listed here, the interested reader can find them in the original source.)

Having read this, I also tried to ascertain the opinion of some other scholars and found two interesting pieces of commentary on Diana L. Eck’s book. In one, William Dalrymple, historian and the celebrated author of The Last Mughal, writing a review in The Guardian (July 27, 2012) cites an incidence involving Jonathan Duncan, an East India Company Orientalist, who had encountered a holy man in the Varanasi of 1792 AD. Puran Puri, the holy man “attended by 16 disciples” had measured out “the sacred geography of India with his footsteps” and “was by no means unique” in his endeavor. Dalrymple goes on to state that Duncan, or for that matter the British in the 18th Century, were not the very first Europeans to find out India as a single land. In his own words:

“In the fourth century BC when Alexander the Great first marched his armies over the Pamirs and across the Indus, he arrived at the great city of Taxila, near present-day Islamabad, and questioned the holy men of the town about the land they came from. From personal experience on the pilgrim roads, they were able to give remarkably precise information.”

Chandrahas Choudhury, writing a review of Prof. Eck’s book in the Washington Post (April 13, 2012) states:

“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.”

This is a wonderful piece of information and ought to be known to all those who feel connected to India, but also for those who consider India an artificial entity.

Compiled by: Rajnish Tiwari



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