India's 'imagined landscape', where 'geographical landscape is filled with legend and stories'
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You write in detail about how significance is marked not by uniqueness but by multiplicity. Why did you zoom in on the repetitive aspect of religious practice in India?
There is no one place that is supremely important in India. Things that are important are not meant to be exclusive. When I think of the Ayodhya controversy, when they say they must build the temple in one particular place, I feel that goes against the plenitude of divine presence. To say it is one place goes against the idea of the imagined landscape.
Some critics have pointed out that in India religion is such a fraught issue and that sacredness, specially Hindu sacredness, can be used to exclude others. How would you address that?
That is a difficult question. When I was working on this book, from time to time I had to step back. During the Ram janmabhoomi controversy I realised this could be exploited by the Hindu nationalists but then anything can be exploited. Anyone who reads this book will know that the tenor of the book is that the divine presence is not about exclusivity but there is a generosity about the Hindu presence. Of course, if I had another lifetime, I'd write about the dargahas, which I address only in one chapter. Which is also true to the Jain landscape. I don't pay nearly enough attention to the Jain tirthas. There are a lot of ways of imagining India; there isn't one set of imagining it. I also think it is important to understand how powerful this landscape is.
Since 1991 you have been heading the Pluralism Project, which explores religious diversity in America. How has pluralism affected America?
My own experience as a teacher at Harvard University has changed so much, because the cultural and ethnic differences of the world are present in American universities. I had no background like this when I was in college, my students take it for granted, this is the sea they swim in. Of course, there are some places that still have stereotypes, but that is changing. I am now working on a book on how pluralism has become the most important question — how to live with difference and not to smooth it out. Pluralism has been historically important for India and the US and increasingly for other countries as well.
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