Banaras: City of Light – Diana L. Eck

Banaras: City of LightBanaras: City of Light by Diana L. Eck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I remember reading this book cursorily many years back, when a friend lent me a copy with high recommendations. After an unplanned and brief first visit to Banaras earlier this year, I realised that I really knew very little about the great city, even though I spent days browsing the internet before the visit. I obtained this book among several others on return, and have thus far read the majority of them carefully, making profuse notes. This review is the result of this near – simultaneous and detailed reading of several well-researched and remarkable books.

The first thing that strikes the reader is about the present book is the meticulous research that has gone in and the sincerity with it has been presented in the book. This makes it a very important primary resource to go to for the serious tourist, even though it does not appear to have been revised after the first printing (1983). However for the serious Indian reader many inaccuracies and incorrect or untenable premises reduce the value of the book significantly. I have listed below a few to illustrate the problem:

– The Rudram is claimed to be part of the Shatapatha Brahmana (pp 69)! In fact the Rudram consists of the 5th and 7th Prapathakas of the 4th Kanda of the Taittiriya recension of the Black Yajur Veda (I am less sure where it occurs in the White Yajur Veda). Some hymns are repeated in the Shvetashvatara Upanishad.
-It was Sultana Razia who built the Razia Bibi Mosque at Chowk on the supposed site of the original Moksha Lakshmi Vilasa temple (pp 132). In fact, the mosque was supposed to be built by a princess Razia of Jaunpur, to forestall the reconstruction of the temple.
– Jagannatha Panditaraya was patronised by Shah Jahan and Dara Shikoh (pp 217). In fact Jagannatha’s original patron was Asaf Khan, the uncle of Noorjahan, the chief queen of Jahangir. He was at the court of Jahangir, and moved from the Mughal court soon after the latter’s death (please see my blog HTTP://bsvprasad.wordpress.com for a post on Jagannatha and his works)

The book is clearly the result of an academic research project, and it shows. Even though the author says that she was “close enough to the Hindu tradition to see its religious significance” in the Preface (pp xiii), several incorrect, contentious, even fanciful conclusions are drawn bacause of adopting conjectural academic viewpoints, such as the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT). A few examples:

– The belief on pp 200 that the Birs of Banaras are Yakshas, whereas they are quite clearly hero-stones (Viragals) of great antiquity
– “Non-Aryan” deities (Ganesha, Hanuman, Nrisimha and others) can be identified by being part animals and by the vermilion coat they get (pp 200 and elsewhere)! This is very contentious and very difficult to prove; I know that the vermilion coat is common to all deities who are Rudras.
– The conjecture that sun worship is borrowed from Zoroastrianism in the first centuries of the CE (pp 76). The 12 solar deities called Adityas are very ancient Vedic deities. They are considered to be aspects of Vishnu/Narayana, the Maintainer. The concept that Narayana is stationed at the centre of the sun is familiar to all Hindus, and is recited as a creed in daily rituals such as the Sandhyavandana by the devout.
– Theory that the Dikpalakas such as Indra and Agni have been “pushed to the corners” by later Hindu thought (pp 295). This is an untenable premise; the Dikpalakas are as important as they have always been. This is attested to by the standard Pooja process which involves inviting all the Dikpalakas and offering them the upacharas before the actual worship starts.

However, this does not diminish the value of the huge amount of information, painstakingly collected and systematically presented. The sincerity and feeling for the subject are unquestionable. Anecdotal parts and quotations from traditional texts (such as the Kashi Khanda) are presented with great feeling and lyricism. The book contains some of the finest elucidations of Advaita Vedanta and the Indian culture and attitudes I read anywhere. The author was also fortunate to attend the lectures of the great Karpatri Swami.

All this makes it all the more intriguing that the book has not been revised in any way after the first printing in 1983; quite clearly this is a successful book that has gone through multiple reprints. The lack of updation also reduces its value somewhat for the tourist. Most of the photographs have a 1970’s appearance. The acknowledgements section misspells the name of the first person acknowledged (pp 407) and it has never been corrected through all these years!

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