I originally designed this handout for discussing Diana Eck’s book BANARAS, but much it also applies to more general discussions of the theme of pilgrimage.
Eck’s BANARAS is a substantial book, but very rewarding and well written (and a real modern classic of religious studies literature). In the following handout, I list some of the questions we will be tackling, the major issues to look for:
So what did you find hard going? Did anything resonate particularly? Do you think it’s a good book?
How does the practice described here relate, if at all, to the scriptures we have looked at?
What is a tirtha?
What does she mean when she says that India is united only by its sacred geography?
Are there parallels in western religion?
What does she mean when she says “The city is a living text of Hinduism”?
Which is the god of Banaras? How are other gods regarded here?
Is this a city of the god or the goddess? Is it a female place?
How has its function changed over time?
Tell me how all the senses coexist in worship at Banaras?
What does darshan mean?
What is the sacred geography of the city?
How do people explain the term VARANASI?
Kashi is a microcosm of the world – what does this mean?
Is the city dedicated to death?
What signs do we see here of ancient animism?
What are the yakshas and ganas? What happens to them in highly developed historic Hinduism?
Tell me about the rise of theism and theistic religion, as depicted in her book?
Is Krishna in Banaras? How and why?
Is the sun god here? How and why?
Is Vishnu here? How and why?
Is the great goddess here? How and why? What are her symbols?
If the goddess is so central, how does western religion survive without her? Or does it?
Tell me about the lingam -is it the central symbol of the city?
What do people actually DO in Banaras?
How does caste exist in Banaras? How is it transformed?
Are Hindus monotheist or polytheist?
Tell me about deities of the boundaries and doorways, liminal gods. Who are they?
Why do people fear rebirth?
Tell me about the Ganges – what is it? A goddess? A river? Part of the Milky Way? How can it be all at once?
And in addition, here are some more general questions about pilgrimage places, which might apply equally to places like Mecca, Jerusalem, etc.
Why do you think the practice of pilgrimage seems so universal? What does that tell us about ideas or instincts that might be "hard-wired" into the human brain?
What sorts of places are sacred?
Why are they sacred?
What civic and political roles do places of pilgrimage play?
How do you approach a holy place? Are these customs universal?
How do cultures without a tradition of pilgrimage compensate for this? Are there secular shrines?
How do pilgrimage centers evolve over time? Can they grow or fade? Can they change their meaning utterly?
What do people take with them to pilgrimage centers? What do they take away with them? How do people seek to take holiness away with them?
What objections do people make to pilgrimage? What other religious traditions does this suggest?
Do (or should) pilgrimages ever end?
How is the pilgrimage a symbol for the course of one's life?
What are relics? Why do they matter?
Why do people build labyrinths as spiritual centers?
Are pilgrimage centers culture-specific? How successfully can you visit someone else's holy places?
What holy places are there in or near Pennsylvania? How far would I have to go to find a pilgrimage place? Are there any near where you live? What are they?
Why are so many holy places dedicated to female images or characters? Are mother and womb-symbols universal to such sites?