Book Review: ‘Sacred Geography’ tests relevance of Places of Worship Act, 1991

Book cover of Kashi The Valiant History of a Sacred History

Image credit BluOne Ink

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US-based historian asserts Places of Worship Act is convoluted

By S Jha

New Delhi: Amidst the ongoing court litigation over ‘Gyan Vapi’ dispute at Kashi and the Hindu claim over it for being a temple, a latest book, tracing history and culture of the city, has sought to brush aside ‘Places of Worship Act of 1991’, saying Kashi is part of “sacred Geography” of the country and it should be ‘legitimately restored’.

The book – Kashi: The Valiant History of a Sacred Geography — by a US-based author Aditi Banerjee who has also penned other books on Hindu religion and culture, dilates on the concept of what she says “entire territories, kshetras, being holy and needing to be kept intact to preserve and channel spiritual  energies”.
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While tracing the history and culture of Kashi and detailed mention of city’s religious and spiritual birth from ‘Skanda Puran’, the author focuses on continuity of ‘sacred geography’ of the city and it being one of the seven sacred cities (Saptapuri) spread across India.

‘Kashi Khanda’ of Skanda Purana describes the ancient city by names such as Kashi (the city of light), Rudravasa (abode of Rudra), Avimukta (never forsaken by Shiva), Anandakanana (forest of bliss), and Mahasmashana (great cremation ground).

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“The very idea of the Places of Worship Act of 1991 is convoluted – the idea that a law can arbitrarily freeze the religious classification of site based on a date picked out of a thin air,” contends Banerjee.

Passed by the Congress government under late PV Narsimha Rao, former Prime Minister, Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, prohibits conversion of any place of worship and provides for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on the 15th day of August, 1947.

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Banerjee argues that the concept of ‘sacred geography’ may be alien to the West, but it is a part and parcel of Sanatan philosophy, Hindu religion and integral to the spiritual journey of the country, “particularly Kashi with unbroken history of last 2000 years”.

“One cannot hide behind the banner of secularism to wave away and dismiss the fact that in Hinduism there is a concept of the sacred kshetra, which cannot be reduced to title deeds and property maps, which cannot be distorted and conformed into Abrahamic worldviews that are fixated on historical dates and human-centered history,” says the author of the book that touches on the ‘destruction’ of temples in Kashi by Muslim rulers, beginning with Mahmud Ghazni and Qutb-ud-Din Aibak to Aurangzeb.

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“It is a world view that at least acknowledges the concept of sacred geography, it is very obvious that entire Gyan Vapi site, which obviously bears its name from the Gyan Vapi well and the Kashi Vishwanath compound has been one of the most sacred sites of Hinduism… wherever  the archaeological evidence may or may not uncover, the sacred geography as captured in the lore or oral tradition of Hindus as sanctified by the footsteps of pilgrimage taken generation after generation, as documented meticulously by the works of numerous Pandits and Acharyas, who tirelessly worked for the preservation and restoration of sacred sites, and pilgrimage circuits, cannot be denied,” says the book.

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The author rues that the current debates do not acknowledge the concept of sacred geography.
“Gyan Vapi and Vishwanath are just reduced to the status of a singular temple or building with no independent significance that ties it to the Kashi Kshetra. This is Eurocentric world view that does not accommodate the lived spiritual entity and cosmology of non-European religious traditions like Hinduism,” writes Banerjee.

‘The curse of Gandhari’ is Banerjee’s debut literary work, published in 2019. The book has been published by BluOne Ink.

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