Toni Huber. The Holy Land Reborn: Pilgrimage & the Tibetan Reinvention of Buddhist India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. 464 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-35648-8.
Reviewed by Jessica Falcone (Warren Wilson College)
Published on H-Asia (January, 2010)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)
India Re-Mapped: The Tibetan Geographies of Buddhist India
Toni Huber's most recent scholarly contribution to Buddhist studies, especially the sub-genres of Tibetan pilgrimage and religious geography, makes a methodical foray into the heretofore underexplored contours of the Tibetan geographies of Buddhist India. Emerging from Huber's recognition that many Tibetan sacred spaces have explicit or implied links to India, his goal for the book project is ambitious: to trace the changing perspectives, border,s and maps of the Indian holy land from the Tibetan perspective from the age of ancient Tibetan empires to the present day. According to Huber, The Holy Land Reborn begins the work of filling in some of the major holes in Buddhist scholarship that gloss over the centrality of India in both Tibetan thought and Tibetan pilgrimage practice. Less interested in musings upon sacred spaces that can be found in some scholarly Tibetan monastic discourses, Huber focuses on the history of Tibet's relationship with India as a real and imagined pilgrimage place. This investigation leads Huber and his readers over some familiar terrain--to Bodh Gaya, Sarnath and Kushinagar--but also to some rather surprising places, such as Punjab, Bengal, and Assam. Huber's diligently crafted history of the "shifting terrain" (p. 16) of Tibetan geographies of India will be of great interest and value to scholars of anthropology, religion, and South Asian and Tibetan area studies, in general, as well as to academics of Tibetan Buddhist pilgrimage more specifically.
The Holy Land Reborn has been divided into three parts, which are loosely chronological. Part 1, "Locating and Dislocating the Land of the Buddha," introduces the reader to the histories of Tibetan views of and contacts with the India from ancient times through the Middle Ages, as well as situates his themes in terms of the modern scholastic work on Buddhist pilgrimage in India. Part 2, "Reinventing the Holy Land in India," primarily through the utilization of a series of case studies that elaborate a case for creative reinvention of India by Tibetans, Huber picks up the thread of Indo-Tibetan contacts, travel, and re-imaginations from roughly the thirteenth to the twentieth centuries. In part 3, "Modern Rebirths of the Holy Land," Huber discusses the shifting relationship of Tibetans and India in twentieth century, both before and after the Chinese aggression that led to the establishment of a long-term exile community in India. In this review, I will explicate some of Huber's contributions by discussing parts 1-3 sequentially before concluding with some observations about some of the minor shortcomings of this remarkable book.
In part I, Huber succeeds in both showing the shifting nature of Tibetan projections onto India, and demonstrating that such changing geographies of interpretation are not necessarily a particularly atypical way of reading the pilgrimage maps of Buddhist India. Huber begins his work by arguing that some existing work on the Tibetan views of sacred India assume a fixity that is far from accurate. In an early chapter, in a welcome gesture of academic reflexivity, Huber compares the fluidity of the sacred Indias of Tibet through the ages with the fluid geographies of even religious and historical studies of the phenomena. In chapter 1, Huber argues that the "reinvention of Buddhist India" is not a singularly Tibetan occupation; aside from similar machinations of Buddhists from elsewhere, others such as Orientalists, art historians, and Buddhologists have their own history of trying to fix Buddhist geography in India by using texts, art, and travel commentaries. Huber reviews the various schemes of Buddhist sacred space in Indian sutras and historical texts, moving from two sites of the Buddha to four sites to ten to thirty-two and back down to eight; he writes that it is impossible to know which, if any, or all, of these sets of sacred places were established pilgrimage routes set in stone. Despite this lack of clarity, Huber notes, not only did nineteenth-century scholars fetishize "eight chief places" and begin to imprecisely link these places explicitly with ancient pilgrimage practices, but as a result twentieth-century Buddhists began to engage in pilgrimage to these eight sites as if reviving an ancient tradition. As proof that the scholastic focus on “eight” pilgrimage places was overstated, Huber goes on to show that once Tibetans did begin visiting India for pilgrimage, their travel accounts placed no premium at all upon visiting the so-called eight places of the Buddha.
I found Huber's discussion of Tibetan romanticism regarding India to be quite significant, especially as it provides a counterpoint to the recent works that instead emphasize the Western exoticization of Tibetans past and present. Thus, Huber’s work extends a complicating counterpoint to the literature that emphasizes only the Western Orientalism of the “East” without noting that exoticization also exists in trans-Asian perspectives as well. Huber notes that despite periods of infrequent Indo-Tibetan travel, Tibetans evinced a strong, romantic attachment to the notion of a superior, robust Buddhist land in India. It is not just that Tibetans lacked up-to-date information about India in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, but rather that the ways in which the bits and pieces of information were used, interpreted, and sometimes suppressed, were generally done with the intention of promoting idealized versions of a Buddhist holy land. Huber argues compellingly that in Tibet, India was so romanticized that eleventh- and twelfth-century travelers brought back somewhat exaggerated reports of the state of Buddhism there, and that even much later, long after Buddhism had been pushed to the margins of what is now India, certain Tibetan reports of Buddhism's decline were ignored, rebuffed, and resisted by the Tibetan Buddhist monastic establishment altogether. Huber’s work serves to illustrate the political and religious agency of Tibetans who defined and created an India according to their own perspectives and values.
The Holy Land Reborn also explores how Tibetan Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism extends and reinterprets pitha sites in order to form another significant layer of sacred Indian topographies. Huber explains that the pithas are mapped onto the meditative body, and also onto the known geographies of Jambudvipa (the south continent in Buddhist cosmology), of which India is thought to encompass the major part. His most important contribution here is the astute observation that the pitha terrain is eminently fluid over time; Huber gives an excellent history of one of these sites, Devikota, and shows that over the course of some seven centuries the site has been identified in a total of eight places (half in India and half in Tibet).
In part 2, Huber presents a handful of case studies of Tibetans in India in the premodern years that reinforce his theme of fluid sacred cartographies. Since the actual sites of the Buddha's life were lost for several centuries, even the major sites of the Buddha's life were open to Tibetan reinvention and rediscovery, as Huber illustrates through his explication of the replication of Buddhist sites in Assam, far from the Gangetic plains. The book details the history of about three hundred years, from the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century to the twentieth century, during which many Tibetan pilgrims journeyed to Assam fully believing that they were visiting the actual historical sites from the Buddha's life, such as Kushinagar, Bodh Gaya, et cetera.
Toni Huber's new book is especially fascinating when he describes the unlikely ground claimed by Tibetan Buddhists for their own, such as sites in Punjab that arguably had nothing to do with Buddhism before; the eighteenth-century identification of sites in Punjab as significant hagiographic places now associated with Padhmasambhava. Equally significant, the appropriation of sites went both ways, as Huber also mentioned a Tibetan Buddhist sacred site in the Himalayans where Sikhs arrived to find Tibetans worshipping "Guru Rinpoche," and then intuited that they had found a lost site of Guru Nanak.
In part 3, Huber begins his exposition on modern Tibetan pilgrimage in India with a discussion of how the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama of the early twentieth century made sense of the modern Buddhist revivalist movement, as well as the discoveries of British archaeology. His exposition of twentieth-century Tibetan pilgrimage emphasizes the place of the Mahabodhi Society in revitalizing international pilgrimage to India, and shows how Tibetans interacted with each of the following: the burgeoning Buddhist community in India; the modern rail system; and, the growth of the pilgrimage guidebook industry. Huber re-engages with the work of Amdo Gendun Chophel, whose Guide to India he had already translated and published (2000), and makes persuasive arguments both about the effects of the Mahabodhi literature on the writer, and the ways in which Chopel's guide served to frame the modern Tibetan pilgrimage scene in India. According to Huber, the cause of Buddhist modernism, which Chopel communicated to Tibetans through his work, has been since carried forward by none other than the fourteenth Dalai Lama. The Holy Land Reborn traces compelling reasons why the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan exiles have continued to celebrate Buddhist pilgrimage places in India in ways that support their political and cultural status as welcome guests in India, despite certain tensions between Indian and Tibetan exiles.
There can be no doubt that the book is excellent--it is a readable book for specialists and non-specialists alike, and will be required reading for generations of Tibetologists, Indologists, and Buddhologists. The text leaves just a few things to be desired, however. For example, I wish that Huber had given his readers more than one paragraph of concluding thoughts at the end of this latest book; as with his previous book, The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain (1999), the lack of a strong, well-developed conclusion here is lamentable--an opportunity lost. In addition, there are two other nagging concerns that I must also discuss further in this review: Huber's intermittent historical hubris, as well as his somewhat underdeveloped ethnographic writing.
As a reader, I was concerned whether Huber's own assumptions always receive the same degree of due diligence that he handily extends to the work of others. Occasionally, I found his assertions uncompelling and wished for more evidence to back up his scenarios. For instance, in chapter 11, Huber glosses the complexity of Tibetan in exile relationships with India and Indians with surprisingly little regard for the "shifting terrain" of Indo-Tibetan dynamics in contemporary India; he writes, "The vast majority of the ‘Indian’ space beyond these tiny, borrowed settlement islands is regarded as foreign, un-interesting, or even potentially hostile by most Tibetan refugees" (p. 347). He also observes that, "After a half a century of living there, India is not a place that Tibetan exiles affectionately embrace" (p. 352). Huber utilizes just a few select quotes from Keila Diehl's Echoes from Dharamsala: Music in the Life of a Tibetan Refugee Community (2002) in support of these rather strong claims, while ignoring the multivalent and complicated relationships that many Tibetans, including Diehl's own primary informants, the Yak Band, have with India, Indians, Indian music, et cetera. Despite the fact that Huber's broad strokes regarding contemporary Tibetan relations seem particularly jarring, his work on The Holy Land Reborn is a largely careful, if wide lens, parsing of the available sources.
The exhaustive historical coverage of the book almost makes it tempting to overlook the rather thin ethnographic work that frames some of the modern material on Tibetan pilgrimage in India. Indeed, Huber does not even methodically tell his readers when, where, and for how long he did on-the-ground fieldwork. Instead, he simply mentions his visits to such-and-such a place in passing as the sites arise in the narrative, and proceeds to discuss these visits with unfortunate brevity. As a result, his writing about these trips has the feel of anecdotal formality, as opposed to the depth of a sustained participant-observation, which perhaps suited Huber’s needs in this ambitious volume, although it leaves the reader hungry for more. When Huber makes an appearance as a fieldworker in his text, he seems to flit from one site to another, rarely giving the reader a deeper sense of what is happening beneath the surface of any given place. For example, the few pages delineating his recent visits to the Assamese "Tibetan Kushinagar" of Hajo had the feel of a brief travelogue, a pilgrimage of his own to get a look at what he had been reading so much about in the stacks of the distant libraries. With each section that addresses contemporary sites Huber visited, he leaves open just as many questions as he has answered; other anthropologists, one can only hope, will someday come forward to address some of these open questions with in-depth, long-term anthropological fieldwork. In my opinion, Huber's previous work in The Cult of Pure Crystal Mountain (1999), deemed "ethnohistorical" (p. 8), managed the task of balancing the methodologies of history and anthropology with more success. To Huber's credit he does not argue that his book is specifically an ethnographic contribution to the anthropology of contemporary Buddhism; instead, he touts it as a solid history that should serve to set the record straight on a topic that has previously gotten short shrift in scholarly sources. While Huber undeniably accomplished that goal with this major work, this reader cannot help but feel that, taken as a whole, the extant ethnographic material highlights a road not taken, rather than substantively contributing to the claims of the author.
As Huber's new book claims to be an invaluable work of substantial breadth on Tibetan Buddhist India, and insofar as it delivers upon that promise, it is a highly laudable scholastic achievement. The painstaking research that undergirds The Holy Land Reborn, has, for the first time, really demonstrated the fluidity and breadth of the Tibetan geographies of sacred India over the past millennium and beyond. It is a careful and extensive history of Tibetan perspectives on Buddhist India, and will serve as an excellent resource for many scholars in the future.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-asia.
Jessica Falcone. Review of Huber, Toni, The Holy Land Reborn: Pilgrimage & the Tibetan Reinvention of Buddhist India.
H-Asia, H-Net Reviews.
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