By Diana Eck
Harmony, $27.00, 576 pages

Somewhere I read that ‘the Western world has been fascinated by India since the age of the Beatles.’ Apart from being nonsense, if taken seriously the comment would be an insult to the author, Harvard Professor Diana Eck, who has spent years studying, interpreting and now sharing her knowledge of India’s sacred places. Although for centuries westerners have explored and plundered India, they exhibited little involvement with the people among whom they have planted themselves. Eck’s scholarship is compelling as she draws the sacred imprint underlying –and overlaying – the country’s history. The book travels chronologically and physically across India’s widely varied landscape, detailing primarily Hindu religious practice, but also describing customs similarly observed by other religions.

Eck’s focus on pilgrimage is a metaphor, embracing the geopolitical no less than the religious implications of the sacred sites. In 1936, as India’s independence movement gathered momentum, Gandhi spoke at the inauguration of a new temple, expressing a hope it would become a communal platform for people of all religions, castes and creeds and promote religious unity. Now, although visited mostly by tourists rather than pilgrims, its sacred identity remains uncompromised.

Reviewed by Jane Manaster