At first glance, India looks like a pendant triangle dangling from the mainland of Central Asia, but in fact it is shaped like an irregular rhombus. The hanging triangle is lapped on the west by the Arabian Sea and on the east by the Bay of Bengal, both of them parts of the Indian Ocean. The northwestern border was traditionally the Indus River; and it is this river which gave India its name—Indus or Sindhu is a Persian word, and India is the land lying to the east of that river. read more

The northern and northeastern borders are formed by the Himalayan range of mountains—a great arc or crescent that stretches for 2000 miles from K-2, its gigantic sentinel in the west (and the 2nd highest peak on earth) to Kanchenjunga in the east (the world's 3 rd highest mountain). Everest is close to Kanchenjunga, part of the Khumbu Himal, one of the many subsidiary “ribs” or ranges that radiate from the spine of the mighty Great Himalayan Range itself.

The subcontinent appears to be fastened to the Asian mainland by these mountains, as if they were a buckle or clasp. And they are the reason for the fecundity of the North Indian plains, the so-called Indo-Gangetic Plain (the largest alluvial plain in the world), for from the glaciers of these mountains the great rivers of North India rise: the Indus, Yamuna, Sutluj, Brahmaputra and the Ganges. Those plains are sandwiched between the Himalaya in the north and the Vindhyas in the south. This is the heart of classical North India—the womb of its culture and civilization.

South of the Vindhyas and lying between converging ranges of mountains that parallel the two coasts is the Deccan Plateau—high, dry savanna-like country punctuated by ranges of low hills and river valleys.

The western seacoast is lush and tropical, for the Western Ghats, the higher of the two southern mountain ranges, force the annual southwest monsoon to drop most of its moisture on that coastal plain. The mountains on the east coast are lower, and that coast does not attract such a consistent monsoon; so it is harsher and drier.

Dynasties rose and fell throughout the subcontinent, sometimes gaining dominance over very large areas of the country and creating magnificent art works and monuments. Even in the extreme south of India, which is always hot and moist, great civilizations developed (especially the Pallava, Pandya and the Chola), partly as a result of the penetration of these areas by the Sanskritic people of the north. It was by South India's Chola dynasty that Southeast Asia (Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Indonesian archipelago) was colonized, primarily through trade and culture.

The great Rajasthan or Thar desert in the northwest of the subcontinent (one of the driest and hottest of the earth's regions), the southwestern coastal region of Kerala and the tropical, hilly, tribal northeast of the country were isolated in their different ways from the rest of the country. The first two had extensive foreign trading connections and the last remained tribal and archaic, relatively uninfluenced by the events and culture of the rest of the subcontinent.

Modern geological science claims that the Indian land mass broke away from a great ur-continent called Gondwanaland, which comprised Australia, Africa, South America and India. India floated over the seas and eventually crashed into the Asian mainland, the impact of which caused the Himalaya to rise; it is an impact which is still happening now, under our feet. The Himalaya is still rising.

But there is a geography other than the scientific one, a sacred geography; and it is this that makes India what it is as a cultural and sacred place, and has given this land its great mystique.

To understand this India, India must be seen not through Western but through Indian eyes. We must jettison and get beyond our modern Western preconceptions and expectations; we must try "to see things otherwise."

While in many ways India is an “underdeveloped nation,” as they say, and you can't of course help noticing that, there are important ways in which it is highly developed. It has an identity as more than just a lack, as more than just deprivation, and it is that very full, perhaps overfull, reality we must try to see.

Many of us, when we think of India, think, among other things, of yoga. We think of it as a discipline designed to transform the body by stretching it. Well in India, yoga is a discipline of the mind too, and exactly like body yoga, mind yoga is meant to transform the mind by stretching it. And on our trips we practice mind yoga, stretching and transforming the mind and learning to divorce ourselves from our intellectual preconceptions and expectations and to understand and appreciate the philosophical ideas and spirit that make up Indian reality.

Sacred Indian geography also has different physical dimensions than the contemporary political entity; it stretches from Iran to Burma and includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and large parts of present-day Tibet.

In India's sacred geography, Mount Meru or Sumeru is the center of the world or the cosmos. It is not an earthly mountain, but its closest representative on earth is Mount Kailash, which stands alone on the Tibetan Plateau, not far from the northwestern edge of Nepal. That mountain is said to be the residence and resort of Shiva, one of the great Indian gods, the god of destruction as he is often called. Near here the four great rivers of south central Asia have their sources (the Ganges, Sutluj, Brahmaputra and Indus) and their courses surround the sacred mountain like a swastika, an age-old Indian symbol whose Sanskrit name means good fortune or well being. These features – mountains and the rivers, not the seas, which are the abode of demons – define India. They are home to its gods and goddesses. This dualism, the divine and the demonic, and the dichotomies associated with it – order and chaos, unity and multiplicity, fusion and fission, centripetal and centrifugal, sacred and profane, happiness and misery, ego and selflessness – dominates the Indian mind.

From the sacred point of view, India is a network of pathways of devotion, a circulatory system of pilgrimage. This sacred geography brings localities which may be spatially distant from each other into a closeness through spiritual proximity: marking out distant places as pilgrim centers brings the far near. This is the truest and most profound sense in which India is one nation in spite of the incredible diversity of this vast land, a diversity that encompasses its races and ethnicities, its languages (14 official ones and hundreds of others too), its dress, its gods (330 million at last count), its cuisines, its climates and on and on…