The Quest for Paradise (Gardens, Past, Present and Future)

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Item Code: NAJ921
Author: Saba Risaluddin
Publisher: Niyogi Books
Language: English
Edition: 2013
ISBN: 9789381523780
Pages: 116 (Throughout Color Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 10.5 inch x 8.5 inch
Weight 700 gm
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About the Book


One of the most fundamental myths is that of the Lost Paradise, of the past as a Golden Age. In certain spiritual traditions, the lost paradise is imagined as a garden, in others as an ideal landscape where all is ordered, beautiful and fruitful. With the passage of time, in some traditions it also came to stand for the life to come. The Quest for Paradise considers the idea of the sacred grove, the garden and the perfect landscape, ranging from the ancient, pagan world to the present, and from the Abrahamic faiths to the faiths of the East.


The myth of paradise embodies aspects of universal human existence. For thousands of years, across space and time, these yearning of the spirit and the dream of a happier time to come have led men to recreate their vision of a haven on earth. Does it still have a hold on our consciousness or has the fractious and war-tom state of our present times eroded the potency of the paradise dream? These and other issues of faith, hope and humanity are explored through an extensively researched journey across civilizations and cultures. The book is well-illustrated with reproductions of paintings, mosaics and textiles on the theme of gardens and the paradise legends.


About the Author


Saba Risaluddin, who was born in England, is an established writer who has been described as “one of the most admired and authoritative writers in current gardening literature.” She has also written and broadcast extensively on interfaith issues. Here for the first time, she unites her knowledge of these two seemingly very different subjects, supplemented by her travels in Europe, Asia- her late husband was from India-and North America. She has been living in Sarajeve, Bosnia and Harzegovina, since 1996, where she also works as a freelance translator.




All of us live, knowingly or unknowingly, enmeshed in myth. Myths are a way of making sense of this disordered world, in which hardship and adversity are the common experience. One of the most fundamental and compelling myths is the myth of the lost paradise - of a place where, in contrast to hostile and threatening nature, all is ordered, beautiful and fruitful. In the paradise myth, more than any other, the sense of loss and disconnection is assuaged by beauty. It is not only nostalgic for lost perfection, but also consolatory, looking forward to a reward after death; time as we know it in this world ceases to have meaning, as we dream of an elusive moment in a place which is no place, when all was, or shall be, perfect.


For millennia, mankind saw the march of time as a steady decline from the age when there was a golden race of men, living in an Eden where all was perfect. But the golden race gave way to baser metal, and Eden was lost through mankind's fault. Mythological time is a way of escaping from the inexorability of this degeneration. It is measured differently from linear time: it is recurrent, cyclical, circular, and events which occur within mythological time may, if certain rituals are properly performed, be recreated. We know that bodily we are born, live and die within linear time, but the myth of a perfect origin which we have lost and to which we shall return was universal, at least in pre-modern times. One of the questions this book poses - without presuming to have an answer - is whether the myth still retains its potency; and if not, what can we set in its place. And it does so through the metaphor of the garden, the locus amoenus, an idealized place where all is well.


I have tried throughout this book to set the wider context for the garden as the expression of the quest for paradise. Directly or indirectly, many religious, spiritual, intellectual and artistic movements have influenced the making of gardens, both real and imaginary, as an expression of the paradise impulse, however little it may have been consciously recognized. It is a single, frail strand in the history of human thought in which myth, as an attempt to interpret the ancient perplexities of mankind, slowly develops into philosophical, hermetic and scientific speculation, but never entirely renounces its hold on our hearts and minds.


The twin concepts which merged to create the idea of Paradise - the dream of a flawless garden, attainable only by heroes or the blessed, and the nostalgia for a golden age, long past - are already present in the ancient classical civilizations, inheritors of the great myth-makers and myth-sayers. In certain spiritual traditions, the lost paradise is explicitly imagined as a garden - indeed, the very word derives from the Old Persian pairidaeza, meaning simply an enclosed garden. Later, however, it gave rise to the Greek paradeisos and Latin paradisus, as well as the Hebrew pardes and Arabic jirdaus, leading us into the world of the spirit. It seems that there is a direct, if subtle, connection between gardens and the life of the spirit, in its striving to attain knowledge and wisdom. Here, perhaps, is where myth, gnosis and reason meet. The emergence of philosophy is associated with gardens; the Academy was no arid, dusty hall of learning, but was set in the grove where Athena's sacred olive trees grew. Later, as the monastic tradition developed in Christianity, the cloister garden came to provide peaceful security conducive to contemplative thought.


As the Hellenic and Judaeo-Christian traditions develop and influence one another, the word paradise acquires a multiple freight of meaning: the royal garden of the Persians, the Hebrew Bible's earthly paradise or Garden of Eden and the enclosed garden of the Song of Songs, and the heavenly paradise of the New Testament.


In the Judaeo-Christian traditions the lost paradise came to be identified with the Garden of Eden, no longer seen only as a terrestrial paradise but also as the heavenly abode of the blessed. The Qur'an, the culmination of the Abrahamic revelation, repeatedly describes the reward of the righteous as a beautiful garden, shaded with trees, refreshed with rivers of pure water, milk, honey, and wine that does not intoxicate, and endowed with abundant fruits. This is the Qur'anic jannah, which is of course the Arabized form of Gan Eden, the Garden of Eden of Genesis. "And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden" is transformed, over the centuries, into the often-repeated Qur'anic "Surely the God-wary shall be in a station secure among gardens and fountains."


The Qur'anic paradise also promises sinless sexuality to the faithful- to the outrage of Christian polemicists, who characterized Islam as a licentious faith, while themselves remaining inattentive to the Song of Songs, a supreme example of the fusion of the erotic and the spiritual, pervaded by images of the beloved as a garden. Religions often seek to control sexuality, yet, as Hindus know well, eroticism may itself be one of the faces of religion. The elaborate language of symbolism in later mystical poetry, in which flowers, trees, gardens are ever-present, above all in the Islamic tradition, is capable of interpretation equally as the expression of romantic love or of mystical yearning for union with God.


Perhaps the Christian polemicists were subconsciously unable to accept that jannah, unlike many other paradises, is apparently otherwise flawless. For dangerous powers lurk in paradise, almost always in the form of a serpent or dragon, the guardian of the sacred. Hercules slays the guardian dragon Ladon who lies coiled about the sacred tree, to reach the golden apples of the Hesperides in Hera's far-western orchard. In the Indian traditions too, the serpent retains its original role of guardian of a sacred spring or tree, the source of immortality. In the Vedo-Brahmanic cosmology, a Naga, a holy water snake, lies coiled around the roots of the sacred tree that grows on Mount Meru. To the Chinese, dragons - here too, often associated with water - are beneficent creatures. In the Biblical story, Eve is tempted by the serpent, who has become the personification of perfidy, a reflection of the dark side of the human psyche.


The fluidity of antique myth, protean and kaleidoscopic, gives way within and between the great Abrahamic faiths to a struggle between rival fixed interpretations, contesting dogmas. The eastern religions, meeting the challenge of human fallibility and mortality with the notion of reincarnation or seeking to circumvent the cycle of death and renewal by attaining nirvana, are often seen as fundamentally other than the Abrahamic faiths. Yet here too, gardens may be the reward of the righteous after their passage through life on this earth. In ancient Chinese belief there were three Mystic Isles located off the coast of Shantung, steeply mountainous, where trees bore pearl and gemstone blossoms and fruit that brought immortality to those who ate them. These beliefs blended later with Buddhist notions of the heavens above a world of mountain ranges and seas. The dwelling place of the immortals is a fabled mountain topped by a jade palace and surrounded by magnificent gardens; the souls of the just find eternity in the Land of Extreme Felicity in the west, where the trees have branches of precious stones, and lakes floored with golden sand are filled with lotuses.


The lotus is invested with powerful symbolism in the eastern tradition, for on earth it grows not from golden sand but from slime, emerging unsullied through the life-giving water - as the soul escapes, ultimately pure, from the trammels of earthly existence. Symbolism is an integral part - one might even say, the very essence - of every religion. For long before religions became a way of controlling human behaviour, and thereby laid themselves open to cooption by temporal powers, the spiritual life of mankind was expressed above all in symbols, myths and images.


Even as the mediaeval mindset began to yield to the modern, the quest for the perfect origin continued. The Renaissance prince Cosimo de Medici (1389- 1464), who revived the Platonic tradition of the Academy in a garden, believed - wrongly - that the Corpus hermeticum which we shall meet in Chapter II represented the primordial revelation, preceding that of Moses and inspiring Pythagoras, Plato and the Persian Magi. Perhaps it is the very power of symbolism and myth that has led mankind to build a counter-myth of the supremacy of the rational mind. The counter-myth struggles for dominance again and again: with the Greek philosophers, with Descartes (1596-1650), with the Enlightenment.


Another creation of the Renaissance and the Reformation was the idea of utopia. By now, the idea of paradise had evolved from myth to religious belief and doctrine, but as simple belief came under assault from new ideas, the myth resurfaced in a different form. Ever since Sir Thomas More wrote his Utopia (1516), an allegory of a fictional, seemingly perfect island society, for which he drew both on Plato's Republic and the Judaeo-Christian paradise, it has been a constant presence in the Western psyche. This was also the time of the great navigators, seeking new routes for the spice trade but also hoping to discover Eden on earth - Columbus even thought he had found it - or the means of recreating it.


Civilization was becoming firmly identified with the city. As belief in the earthly existence of the lost paradise waned, the power of its artificial image, the enchanted garden, to lure men away from their duty also faded; instead, all that was both alluring and dangerous came to be identified with the city. Here were not only great achievements of the human spirit, but also both the illicit pleasures of the flesh and a dehumanizing environment of grinding poverty, illness and toil. Escape lay, for the privileged few, in the villa garden or the idealized cottage plot, or in a rejection of the very notion of the lost paradise as desirable. Among those who held a jaundiced view of the Garden of Eden was the essayist Charles Lamb (1775-1834), who wrote in a letter to Wordsworth that "A garden was the primitive prison till man with Promethean felicity and boldness luckily sinned himself out of it." And the Swedenborgian visionary Henry James, father of William and Henry, put it thus: "The first and highest service which Eve renders Adam is to throw him out of Paradise."


In the nineteenth century, the new science of comparative religion was the matrix for a continued search for the origins of mind and spirit, even as scientists were seeking to identify other origins: Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published the Origin of Species, Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) his First Principles. Scientists learned from fossil evidence and stone tools that life for the first hominids, and for early Homo sapiens himself, was by no means paradisal. The life of the hunter-gatherer in the African savannah or the cave-dweller of the ice-ages was a continual struggle for survival, far removed from the dream of nature as a garden where ripe fruit dropped unasked into the hand. By the mid twentieth century, anthropology had furthered our understanding of human development, with Claude Levi-Strauss's (1908-2009) concept of lost innocence: man has not so much progressed, as become shaped by and imprisoned in deep structures, pre-eminently those of myth. Yet, though scientific advances often depend on an intuitive leap of the mind, the new insistence on trusting only those intuitions which could subsequently be proven by empirical evidence left myth discredited as a means of explaining the world.


The paradise myth, no less than others, has become cruelly distorted by these changing habits of mind and heart. The shift from a frame of mind which sees everything as a symbol of the sacred to the Enlightenment insistence on rationality, and the concomitant erosion of faith, deprives many of both the hope of heaven and the fear of hell. We are left with hell on earth, and a terminally enfeebled paradise myth. It is part of our spiritual and intellectual heritage; but we no longer know what to make of it.


The shift from the sacred to the rational is superficial and frail, though; and rationality has not triumphed. There have always been other voices, other images; poets and artists keep the memory alive, reminding us of a reality that the rational is impotent to describe. Yet, our innocence irrevocably lost, can the myth regain its power over our minds and hearts? And if not, what shall we set in its place, to help us through the dark, oppressive places of our lives?


The unusually fortunate may find paradise on earth; a poor substitute, perhaps, for the inexpressible glories of the mythical paradise, but what use is a paradise in which one cannot believe? In writing this book, I have come to realize that my decision to settle in post-war Sarajevo was an existential choice that had very little to do with the rational; that if paradise on earth is to be found anywhere, for me at least it is in Sarajevo. I found myself, on my first visit to the city, seized by an inexpressible sense of belonging; I understood without knowing it what the old wisdom means when it speaks of sacred places.


My earthly paradise has turned out to be a city - and why not, for the old Germanic and Romanic words that have given us garden and yard are related to the Old Slavic word gradu, which meant both town and garden. We shall meet the same ambiguity in the Christian tradition, where the story begins with the Garden of Eden and ends with the City of God. The intimation of artifice is inescapable: both city and garden imply the human endeavour to impose an external will upon the environment. The expression may differ - ranging from the geometric symmetry of an imagined ideal in contrast with the imperfections of disorderly nature, to the idealized imitation of nature's own impenitently wild beauty; from an enclosed, flower-spangled place of refuge, to the self-assertive modern domination of the countryside and the social order or the new loss of self-confidence of post-modernism. But whatever form it takes, the idea of the garden as perfection is deeply embedded in the human psyche, the locus of our yearnings for that which is beyond our human reach, an expression of refusal to accept that life is incurable and death no more than an ending. We know that it is a dream, and cannot be attained on this earth; that the gardens we make in its image are earned by toil and threatened by drought, pests and the implacability of linear time. The promises of prophets and the songs of poets resound in our ears down the centuries, and the dream lives on - only now, faded by excess of "realism" to a vague nostalgia, it has lost the power to move us spiritually, and we do not yet know what to put in its place.






The Ancient, Pagan World


Gardens and the Abrahamic Faiths


Eden Recreated and Lost


Gardens and the Eastern Faiths


Symbolism and Evocations


Aphrodite, Ishq and False Paradises








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