Sunday, April 23, 2017

Over the mountains

The ICI-hosted ISSRNC conference "Mountains and Sacred Geography" was, like every big conference, a doozy. Going in I was frustrated, as at every event with parallel sessions, that there were so many things you'd have to miss, no matter what you chose. On top of that, I was committed to attending half a dozen Sacred Himalaya Initiative-related events. But now that it's over, and having attended pretty much full time starting at 8:30 each of the last three mornings, I'm glad there wasn't more of it! I think I'll be adding ISSRNC to my world in the future, if its meetings aren't too far away.

As for sacred mountains... I think I'm ready for a rest. The final panel I attended this afternoon included a paper refreshingly not about mountains. Indeed, the presenter remarked, her subject of swamps and marshes was something like the antithesis of the supposed clarity and enlightenment associated with mountains. When she argued that the idea of the "slough of despond" (swamps were associated in ancient and medieval Europe with acedia, the slothful vice of those who cannot turn to God) illuminated the paralysis of many regarding climate change, I had an aha moment. Mountains are a temptation, even a danger to ecological thinking, because they're imagined as breaks from - escapes from - the slog of the ordinary flatlands. They seem like self-contained worlds, connected more to the sky (and also perhaps the underworld) than to their surrounds. Marshes were avoided (and drained) for being neither solid land nor flowing water, but we now know how ecologically crucial wetlands are precisely because of that fecund messiness. The clarity of mountain perspectives, especially if they encourage distaste for swampy messiness, might offer false comfort.

That said, it was still loads of fun to be talking to people about Kailash. In my own remarks I bracketed the question of the antiquity of the kora to our Western Himalayan mount, discussing instead the contemporary appeal of the idea of a mountain sacred to many world religions, and proposing ways of deepening and complicating it for the yatris of the future. (My main suggestion: don't go around once, go twice!) Kailas cropped up in lots of other places, too, always mythicized, like in this image from someone's powerpoint, where it has the inverted cone shape of Meru!

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