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  • Banâras Revisited: Scholarly Pilgrimages to the City of Light ed. by István Keul
  • David Mason
BANÂRAS REVISITED: SCHOLARLY PILGRIMAGES TO THE CITY OF LIGHT. István Keul, ed. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2014. pp. 283. €58.00; us$63.00.

In 1982, Knopf published Harvard professor Diana L. Eck’s Banaras: City of Light, a grand study of the Hinduism to be found in one of India’s great cities. This book was republished the next year by Routledge and Princeton University Press, translated into German by 1989, published in India by Penguin in 1994, and republished by Columbia University Press in 1999, with a new introduction by the author—which is to say, Eck’s book is a foundational text for the study of religion in India generally and of Banaras, this one über-religious city, particularly. Those of us for whom Eck’s study was a point of entry cannot escape the significance of the title Banâras Revisited, though this new book, in spite of its highly suggestive title, mutes its consciousness of Eck’s presence. Eck’s name does not appear in the book’s index, which is to say that this book is not about Eck, nor deliberately a response to her work. Nevertheless, Eck’s City of Light appears in the bibliographies of seven of the book’s eighteen contributed essays, four of which do not offer bibliographies. This book has other aims, but it cannot get away from engaging in a conversation with the predecessor that its title invokes.

The allusion of the title aside, the other aims of this book include examinations of a multitude of features—material and otherwise—of this one bewildering and marvelous city. Among the three or four longest continuously inhabited cities on the planet, a geographic center of Hindu religious practice for much of its existence, and also the traditional site of the Buddha’s first sermon, Banaras (also known as Varanasi and as Kashi) crowds its baggage and [End Page 230] its riot of buildings up against the Ganges and up against popular and scholarly imagination, to the effect that it has been gruesomely romanticized over the past couple of centuries. The language of antiquity and of “authenticity” permeates treatments of Banaras. Mari Korpela’s interrogation of the lives of transient Westerners in Banaras notes that “Westerners often describe Banâras as frozen in the past, such that the city gives up an India that is ‘unspoilt’ [by] modernism” (p. 52). This collection of essays from a 2011 conference at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology works very hard to put this construction of this city away in favor of discussions of Banaras now, as it functions as a contemporary, living entity.

The essays concern widely disparate topics, held together, really, only by their manifestation in this particular geographic location and in whatever cohesive identity that place might have. One’s expectation of examinations of religion in Banaras is fulfilled by the usual suspects: textual studies (Travis L. Smith on the Purânic Mâhâtmyas), pilgrimage studies (Mathieu Claveyrolas on the city as a Hindu “center”), and ritual studies (István Keul on Hanuman shrines in Banaras). But each of these studies also avoids the same old thing by involving personally and explicitly its author. What emerges in each case is a study not only of Banaras and of some feature of the religious activity going on there, but also of the authors themselves, their initial and changing perceptions of Banaras, and the motives and methods of their scholarship. Even the essays that seem not to be breaking new ground reveal something inescapably unique: a person in a city, thinking, feeling, and doing, rather than the city, alone, as though the city did have its own, objective personality apart from the people—including the scholars—who inhabit it.

In any case, much more than the usual suspects show up here. In addition to textual and ritual studies, we find in this volume studies of architecture, of literature, of geography, and of sound (not music, as such, but sound). Religion plays some role in each case, but the diversity of topics...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2109
Print ISSN
0742-5457
Pages
pp. 230-232
Launched on MUSE
2016-03-11
Open Access
No
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