In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Geography of Hinduism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Geography of Hinduism through History
  • Hinduism, Landscape, and Current Linguistic Regions of South Asia
  • Diaspora Hinduism

Hinduism Geography of Hinduism
Alf Hiltebeitel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 May 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 May 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0022


The classification of contemporary “world religions” into the two categories of missionary religions (Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam) and religions tied to specific lands (Hinduism, Judaism, Shinto, African Religions), however strained it may be, allows one to underscore the importance of geography in understanding Hinduism. To begin to “map” and “explore” the geography of Hinduism is to reckon with a vast “subcontinent.” For this, interdisciplinary tools are available, beginning with those of the geographer and the archaeologist; soon taking in the findings of linguists, historians, historians of science, and of scholars of literature, religion, and the arts; and then those of anthropologists and sociologists. As these endeavors make clear, however, the mapping of South Asia is not just a modern scholarly venture; it has also been done in some Hindu texts. We thus can expect to find a reiterative quality to the geography of Hinduism, not only across both disciplines and texts but across our efforts to table its contents. Moreover, mappings of South Asia extend beyond the subcontinent: cosmologically to the universe, and historically to periods of a “greater India” and of a Hindu diaspora.

General Overviews

Geographers, archaeologists, and epigraphers provide the bedrock data from which interpretations of the geography of Hinduism are possible. Schwartzberg 1992 covers all historical periods with detailed maps. Dey 1971 covers ancient and medieval Indian place names and their mutations. Possehl 2009 takes us back to the first urban culture of South Asia, whose relations to Hinduism remain enticing but controversial without a decipherment of what he, like most, considers to be their written script. Falk 2006 takes us back to the realm of Aśoka Maurya during the second urbanization. Sopher 1962 and Sopher 1980 map geographical data bearing on multiple facets of Hinduism. Cunningham 2006 provides a classical study of mainly urban geography during what we may call the period that begins India’s second urbanization, while Sircar 1971 brings us farther forward into the medieval period. Most periods are covered in online maps in South Asia Study Resources Compiled by Frances Pritchett.

  • Cunningham, Alexander. The Ancient Geography of India, I. The Buddhist Period, Including the Campaigns of Alexander, and the Travels of Hwen-Thsang. Delhi, India: Low Price, 2006.

    Exemplary of the colonial project of mapping India, Cunningham was Archeaeological Surveyor to the Government of India from 1861 to 1865. Begins with a fascinating page juxtaposing four notional maps of the geometrical shape of India, based on Eratosthenes (326 BCE), the Mahābhārata, the astronomer Varāhamihira, and Ptolemy. His time span for “the Buddhist Period” runs from Buddhism’s beginnings to its decline in India, but allows for description of Hindu and Muslim monuments as well. First published in 1871.

  • Dey, Nundo Lal. The Geographical Dictionary of Ancient and Medieval India. 3rd ed. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1971.

    Dey provides a careful attempt to locate sites mentioned in classical and medieval Indiian and extra-Indian sources, working out place-name changes based on Sanskrit and Prakrit formations. Part II extends to modern names. Dey supplies varied lore from Hindu and Buddhist texts, with special attention to Mahābhārata geography and ancient cities (e.g., Baranasi, Girivrajapura, Mathurā, Srāvastī, Ujjainī). First published 1927.

  • Falk, Harry. Aśokan Sites and Artifacts: A Source-Book with Bibliography. Mainz am Rhein, Germany: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2006.

    A beautiful book, mapping all Aśokan edict sites with maps, photos, and find-spot information. Aśoka became a Buddhist, but Falk presents a new interpretation of the Minor Rock Edicts that has major implications for mapping early hilltop and cave-site festivals for Hindu goddesses and Shiva. Falk draws inspiration from Gunther-Dietz Sontheimer (see States and Linguistic Regions).

  • Sopher, David E. “The Indian People in Their History” and “ Language and Religion.” In India: A Compendium. Edited by Raye E. Platt, 46–161. New York: American Geographical Society, 1962.

    In a book drawing statistical data from the 1950 Indian Census, Sopher’s chapters build up to a discussion of factors affecting Hinduism, with interesting maps contrasting distribution of Brahmins, Hindus, and “minor religious communities,” and a discussion of Hinduism and tribal populations.

  • Possehl, Gregory L. The Indus Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective. Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2002

    An accessible synthesis on the Indus Civilization’s first urbanization. Among controversial points, the reason for settlement along the now-dried-up Sarasvatī (Ghaggar in India, Hakra in Pakistan) River is not a Vedic “Sarasvatī Civilization” but the river’s termination in an inland delta that made the surrounding area the “bread basket” of the Mature Harappan phase (2500–1900 BCE). And buffalo horns on the so-called proto-Shiva point rather to a “buffalo cult,” with possible tie-ins to later Śākta Hinduism.

  • Pritchett, Frances. “South Asia Study Resources Compiled by Frances Pritchett.”

    This website is a valuable resource for excellent online maps covering ancient, medieval, and modern periods, as well as architectural sites and trade routes.

  • Schwartzberg, Joseph E., ed., with Shiva G. Bajpai. Historical Atlas of South Asia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

    The best introduction into matters of history and South Asian geography. Offers up-to-date, well-researched maps of Vedic India, of India as conceived in each epic, and of historical periods, movements, and geographic features impacting Hinduism. Second impression with additional material.

  • Sircar, D. C. Studies in the Geography of Ancient and Medieval India. 2d ed. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1971.

    An assemblage of twenty-nine essays, from 1935 to about 1960, on wide-ranging topics linking geography and religion (Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic), including chapters on the “hyperbolic claims” made about the conquest of the four regions by kings as Cakravartins; regions, cities, pilgrimage “crossings” or tīrthas, and rivers; a chapter on cartography presenting evidence for notional maps by at least the 8th century CE; and a closing study of the elephant-forests at each of the eight cardinal points.

  • Sopher, David E., ed. An Exploration of India: Geographical Perspectives on Society and Culture. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980.

    Collection of newly “exploratory” studies mapping geographical patterns over the whole of Indian society and culture and assessing extant theoretical models for interpreting them. Sopher’s exemplary concluding essay examines correlations between Hinduism and disproportionately high male-selective sex ratios, rethinks notions of north/south and east/west, and theorizes diffusion in relation to patterns of cores, links, and boundaries.

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