Saturday, April 08, 2017

My turn

For the upcoming ISSRNC conference on "Mountains and Sacred Landscapes," hosted by our India China Institute, I will be part of a plenary panel sharing the findings of our Sacred Himalaya Initiative. Ten minutes isn't very long (for a speaker!) but I'm preparing a longer written version, too. It's called "First there is a mountain: Kailash beyond the world religions." What is it/am I going to say? Structured around a Zennish aphorism-turned popular song you've heard about before, it falls into the category of my writings which might be called "unsolicited advice."

First there is a mountain
I'll start by rehearsing the contemporary myth about a mountain in the Western Himalaya that has not only been an object of reverence and pilgrimage since time immemorial but is sacred to four great religions: it's regarded as the center of the universe by two billion people! This is a mind-boggling thing - you can imagine millions of tour operators salivating - but it is a myth. That mountain has only relatively recently been the object of these attentions. Even before you complicate the modern constructs of "world religions" it is hardly all "Hindus" and "Buddhists" that revere it - just Saivites and a small subset of Tibetan Buddhists, respectively. And when they come together they ignore each other. If it's "common ground," this is hardly seen as important, at best a sign but in no way a constituent of its sacredness. Such religious stories as are told about it aren't about comity either, but about conflict and usurpation: Ravana almost getting away with stealing it, Milarepa evicting the Bön magician Naro Bonchung from it.

Then there is no mountain
Whence, then, this myth? Alex McKay has laid out the components, spanning Hindu, Buddhist, Bön and more modern colonial sources. He argues against understanding the cult of Kailas (which is older and involves several more places than this in the Western Himalaya) in terms of "world religions," starting with the "sanskritization" of those practices too quickly subsumed under "Hinduism." There are stories in ancient texts about a snowy abode of Shiva above two lakes, a source of four rivers. But the people to who actually made their way to this and other Himalayan peaks were "renunciates" outside all formalized "religion." Kailas is mapped onto religions only in modern times, as a British colonial official plans a pilgrimage route to generate revenue in his remote district of the Indian Himalaya. The idea of Kailas as a shared cosmic center comes even later. But the idea of such a place is immediately intelligible. Why? "World religions" discourse constructs religions as isomorphic enterprises. Everyone has heard of the multiple paths to a single summit. And of course colonialism shaped ideas of a "mythical East" attractive in colonial metropoles and peripheries alike. In this context, a western Himalayan hillock's coronation as the most sacred spot on earth seems overdetermined. Wasn't Eden - another source of four rivers - in the Himalaya anyway? (The one who seems to have brought all these together around our peak was the German-born Lama Anagarika Govinda.)

Then there is
The consequence of this might be no more than that some of the travelers to Kailas, gliding in on new Chinese roads, bring with them the baggage not of particular traditions but of a cosmopolitan pluralism. It might not even be a bad thing: isn't it better that religions be thought to be in harmony in this way? Western travelers could stand to learn from the different way in which religious plurality is managed in most Asian settings. And yet (this is where the unsolicited advice comes in) world religion discourse, even in it pluralist form, is not benign, implicitly supporting centralizing and often fundamentalist elites even as it glosses over meaningful differences in cosmology and practice... (I won't go into the ways in which it aligns with the policies regarding religion of the Chinese Communist Party.) Visitors will in any case be coming in ever greater numbers, irrevocably transforming a place once defined by its remoteness. Are there other lessons today's Kailas might teach in the place of the world religion mythology many travelers will bring with them? And not just about historical contingency - which I appreciate only academics take pleasure in.

• What if one made clear that for most South Asians Kailas is part - perhaps not even the most important part - of a complex with Lake Manasarovar, and perhaps with other sites too, like Tirthapuri. This might lessen the charisma of the supposed axis mundi and draw more attention to concrete histories and landscapes, including, crucially, the rivers and lakes intimately connected to mountains.

• What if one laid out its relations and resonances with other mountains, too - other abodes of Shiva, the place of Gangrimpoche in larger Tibetan sacred geographies, regional as well as ritually constructed Kailases? Sacred mountains work in many more, and more edifying ways, than just as single breaks in a horizontal world.

• What if one took the encounter with Kailas as an opportunity to introduce visitors to the dynamic understanding of coupled opposites in Tantra, a pan-religious tradition embracing many of the "Hindu" and "Buddhist" experiences in the region? This could be the start of an understanding of Kailas as not only related to other sacred sites, but as a node in a cosmology of fecund contradiction. Mountains may be conceived as the quintessentially stable features of our world, but mountains in this part of the world change shape, fly...

Each of these would suggest different itineraries for visitors, different places to be shown or told about. A final lesson might be attached to the experience of circumambulation most visitors engage in. (Not all, and even some of these have their peak experience in some contact with the mountain itself...) Going around the mountain, ideally multiple times, could be explained as a ubiquitous practice in South Asian and Himalayan traditions, but it needs to be engaged in actually to mean much. Going even once the circumambulator is impressed by those who move at different speeds (the full body prostrators especially), and by those going in the opposite direction. Going more than once s/he will move beyond experiencing the trip as a discovery, a journey into the unknown, and feel a part of the many who circumambulate here (and elsewhere); they may even realize that the mountain spins.

It's for the individual to decide if the mountain spins or is spun by us.

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