Friday, December 02, 2016

A whole lot of Kailas going on

Maybe the question whether or not the mountain we circumambulated is the real, true Kailas is misplaced. At least from an Indian perspective, real and true doesn't mean singular or unique. Diana L. Eck makes this clear in her book India: A Sacred Geography, a work, she explains, which emerged from her discovery that Banāras/Vārānasī/ Kāshī, the "holy city of Hinduism," was not as singular as all that. There are other Kāshīs across India. Further,

The very names of the temples, the ghāts, and the bathing tanks of the city are derived from this broader landscape. ... I began to realize that the entire land of India is a great network of pilgrimage places - referential, inter-referential, ancient and modern, complex and ever-changing. As a whole, it constitutes what would have to be called a "sacred geography," as vast and complex as the whole of the subcontinent. (2)

The expectation that Hinduism should have a fixed holiest place comes from western religions. A better view comes from following the pilgrims who have, for centuries, connected the land.

The pilgrim's India is a vividly imagined landscape that has been created not by homing in on the singular importance of one place, but by the linking, duplication, and multiplication of places so as to constitute an entire world. The critical rule of thumb is this: Those things that are deeply important are to be widely repeated. (5)

What then, of the Abode of Shiva, Kailash (Eck calls it Kailāsa)? There are, of course, many of them. Shiva, the yogi of the mountains, is associated especially with the mountain now venerated in Western Tibet. But Shiva's presence as a mountain god is repeated all over India. There are many mountains where Shiva dwells, some of them understood to be parts of the Himalayas that have been transported to other places. (199) And here the fun begins! Let Eck tell us two stories, or, well, a story twice. Actually there are stories upon stories...

One involves Rāmeshvara, the one of the four dhāms (cardinal points of the Indian subcontinent) dedicated to Shiva, on an island off the southern tip of India facing Sri Lanka. At its center is a linga Lord Rāma established, in which Shiva agreed to remain. This helped Rāma attain victory when he crossed the ocean to defeat Rāvana. Or maybe the linga was established after the victory? [Rāma] wanted to establish a linga to worship Shiva in expiation for the sin of killing Rāvana. After all, Rāvana was a brahmin, even though he was a demon-king. ... and also, we recall, a great devotee of Shiva. (235) It's complicated! In any case,

Procuring the stone for the Rāmeshvara linga generates another set of stories. According to one, Rāma sent Hanumān, swift as the wind, to the far Himalaya to bring an appropriate stone from Mount Kailāsa. ... However, as the astrologically determined auspicious hour for establishing the linga approached, Hanumān had not yet returned with the stone. So Sītā [Rāma's wife] fashioned a makeshift linga of sand and Rāma consecrated it at the sacred hour. In their worship, Shiva became fully present to them there. ...  (235)

Before I go on, hear tell of another jyotirlinga (when Shiva's pure light takes the form of stone) in a place called Vaidyanātha, in Bihar in the northeast of India. This one was established by the Shiva-venerating demon-king Rāvana, though he didn't mean to.

The ten-headed Rāvana had gone to Kailāsa and had put in many years of severe penance, hoping to gain Shiva's favor and to procure a powerful linga to take with him to his island home of Lanka. Eventually, his religious discipline was so firm that Shiva gave him one of the twelve jyotirlingas as a boon, but with the proviso that he could not put it down until he got back to Lanka. Seeing their enemy Rāvana in possession of such a powerful jhotirlinga made the gods uneasy. Scheming to make him put it down along the way, Varuna, the Lord of Waters, entered into Rāvana's body so that he had to relieve himself. Rāvana gave the linga to a cowherd to hold while he went to do so, but as the cowherd stood holding the linga, it became immensely heavy. He had to put it down. When Rāvana returned from relieving himself, he could not lift it again, try as he did with his enormous strength. In his ardent devotion, Rāvana cut off nine of his ten heads as offerings to Shiva. Even so, the jhotirlinga would not move. Shiva miraculously restored Rāvana's heads, thus giving this place the name Vaidyanātha, the "Lord of Physicians." (249)

So a piece of Kailash finds its way to Bihar, not Lanka, by a process it would be hard to construe as intended by anyone. (Eck calls it "sanctification by adhesion" [23].) Who cares? What's done is done, and a jhotirlinga is a good thing to have around, however it finds its way to you. But, speaking of jhotirlingas, what's been going on in Rāmeshvara?

... When Hanumān returned from the Himalayas, they thought they would replace the temporary sand linga with the special Himalayan stone. But Sītā's sand linga could not be moved, no matter how hard they tried. Even when Hanumān tried to pull the sand linga up with the strength of his tail, it would not budge. The linga of sand had become hard as rock. Thus at Rāmeshvara there are really two lingas: the Himalayan stone, called the Vishvanātha linga, brought from the north by Hanumān, and the pile of sand established by Sītā, called the Rāmanātha linga. In keeping with the traditions of natural hierophany associated with jhotirlingas, the latter has pride of place in the temple of Rāmeshvara. (235)

The "sacred geography" which is India, Eck suggests, isn't just one that's knitted together by the movements of pilgrims across the ages. Gods move, too. And so do mountains, in fitfully opaque ways worthy of their massiveness! And maybe the best mountains aren't mountains at all, but piles of sand rendered mountains by piety and divine presence. Even Kailas, I'm tempted to say, in its many iterations across the landscape, is made as much as found. In truth, though Shiva dwells in Kailäsa and in Vārānasī, he also dwells everywhere. (200)

Diana L. Eck, India: A Sacred Geography (NY: Three Rivers Press, 2012)

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