Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Outlining Hinduism’s essence and history, entry by entry


Hindu Heritage Foundation: Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Mandala Publ., San Rafael CA 2013.

A major and long-awaited project has been brought to completion. The 11-volume Encyclopedia of Hinduism, with a foreword by Dr. Karan Singh, is the brainchild of the India Heritage
Research Foundation and Swami Chidananda Saraswati of Paramartha Niketan. In its 25-year long gestation, first Prof. K.L. Seshagiri Rao and then Prof. Kapil Kapoor served as its general editor. Kapoor also wrote an in-depth introduction. The 11-volume encyclopedia contains contributions by over 1500 scholars in over 7500 articles. These deal with saints, kings, heroes, arts and crafts, temples, pilgrimages, philosophies and concepts. They also give some space to meritorious Indologists and to foreigners inspired by Hindu thought and culture, from ancient Chinese to modern American. Most persons, temples and festivals are illustrated with photographs or paintings. An index, absent in many other encyclopedias, allows you to find any significant term in each of the articles.

Specialists of each department of the vast domain of Hinduism might find fault with the compressed way their pet subject gets treated, but completeness is not of this world. The articles constitute good introductions to their topics, and the truly interested reader is invited to proceed from there. At least he is not being misled by gross mistakes, as would be the case with the many flawed contributions on easily the most-consulted source, Wikipedia. That might be a decent source on neutral topics like physics, but on Hindu subjects it is emphatically not recommended by the specialists. Nor is any contributor to the Encyclopedia of Hinduism grossly biased; they are truer to its scholarly ethic of being a neutral and non-controversial source of information. This, again, will come as a pleasant surprise for those who rely too much on Wikipedia, where many topics of serious debate have been hijacked by one of the contending parties, shutting the other’s party’s version out or ridiculing it. In the present case, we are dealing with a real scholarly work.



An evident criterion for scholarliness is: how does the work deal with certainties, probabilities and uncertainties? Are they properly reflected, or are they all replaced with a quasi-religious certainty? Generally, factual uncertainty is simply conceded, e.g. the entry Vikramaditya says: “Conflicting theories have been put forward by historians regarding the real origin of King Vikramditya and his dynasty.” Chronology is a major problem in Hindu history, and this is frankly admitted: “Tiruvalluvar’s age is also not known properly. There are different viewpoints.” The entry Shankaracharya primarily dates Shankara’s birth to the 8th century, as accepted by the Orientalists, but also mentions that some of his followers place his birth around 500 BC, though implying a clear preference for the former option. On the origins of the Vedic people, the entry Arya simply gives the existing theories. One of these is the contentious Aryan Invasion Theory, which is correctly treated as still a valid contender, but juxtaposed with rival theories. This instills confidence in the reader, for when uncertainty is conceded, it seems to mean that when certainty is assumed, the explanation given has indeed been corroborated by the latest research.


Given the numerous contributors, however, they are not all equally rigorous. A few times an author proves a bit too eager to embrace an insufficiently proven hypothesis, e.g. the Sanatana Dharma entry mentions as fact that the Mayas in Central and the Incas in South America had borrowed much from the Hindus. While this need not be impossible, it is at least controversial. An encyclopedia is not the place to launch daring theories, it should just summarize the non-contentious information agreed upon by the experts.


Sometimes a defect in one entry is compensated by the hoped-for information under another entry. The Caturyuga entry (the Four World Ages) simply gives the usual Puranic story believed by most Hindus, with the world ages having astronomical time-spans, without asking any questions. Thus, the hypothesis that the Caturyuga, though a very ancient concept available among non-Indian peoples as well, later got filled in with a numerical value which coincidentally approximates the precession cycle of less than 26,000 years, is not discussed at all. Yet, this hypothesis is in tune with all we know about the Indian reception and elaboration of the Hellenistic discovery of precession, i.e. the cycle which the constellations make vis-à-vis the equinox. It is not merely an invention by the much-lambasted Orientalists, it was also opined in writing by, for instance, Sri Yuktesvar in 1894. However, the entry Yuga does give a more historical account, specifying for example that in the late-Vedic Vedanga Jyotisha, the word still meant a period of five years, a much more modest magnitude than in the Puranas. The entry Dvapara Yuga specifies how the jump from manageable time-spans (with the four ages spanning 12,000 years, or roughly half of the precession cycle) to the Puranic astronomical time-spans was made: the years were interpreted as “divine years” and hence multiplied by 360.


A few plain mistakes have also managed to pass the editorial sieve. Thus, the entry Sahasrara Chakra, “thousand-spoked wheel”, speaks of the “Shatachakra Nirupana”, which means “investigation of the hundred wheels”, but this classic 16th-century sourcebook about the chakras is actually called the Shatchakra Nirupana, “investigation of the six wheels”.

So, this work still has to be handled with care, yet it is a treasure-trove of information. In this review, we focus on potentially controversial points, but most users will be more interested in the biographies of saints, the history of philosophical schools or the description of temples, and these make up the bulk of this work.




There are, however, three subtler or more implicit dangers for this type of project. One is Hindu sectarianism: many contributors have pledged allegiance to one particular sect, and this might shine through. In a number of “Hinduism” schoolbooks used in England and Holland which the present writer has evaluated,  it was found that while the authors certainly had toned down their sectarian biases, still their allegiances often remained visible. Thus, a description of Shiva or Saraswati as a “demi-god” was a give-away of ISKCON (Hare Krishna) theology, while a reduction of the many gods to “different manifestations of the one God” betrayed an Arya Samaj viewpoint. That need not be a problem, but in the case of an encyclopedia, readers might hold it up for criticism.

In the present work, this tendency seems to have been avoided. Presumably, the different sects and their doctrines and temples have been described each by its own votaries, who had no axe to grind against it. Instead, and understandably, some articles seem to reflect modern scholarly theories to the exclusion of others. Thus, the entry Vishvamitra gives a particular account of the Vedic “Battle of the Ten Kings” (viz. putting the Bharata dynasty among the Vedic king Sudas’s enemies)  that is popular in university courses because it applies the Aryan invasion scenario; but it is not really supported by the original Vedic report, and therefore would not be accepted by a dissenting school of thought.  Even this modern sectarianism is kept to a minimum, though. Thus, the entry Hindu Eras simply juxtaposes the different interpretations of the existing calendar systems or the different dates attributed to the Mahabharata war.



The borders of Hinduism

Another problem might be what is not treated. Thus, many North-Indian Hindus have never heard of the ancient Tamil grammar Tolkappiyam or the poet Tiruvalluvar. While they might have heard of the Chola empire or the Virashaiva sect, it often doesn’t really form part of their Hindu consciousness. When it comes to traditions that the Christian missionaries insist on calling “not Hindu”, especially the Indian “Scheduled Tribes”, we find that many Hindus equally treat them as not part of their own fold. Not that they will openly describe the Tribals as un-Hindu, but they don’t actively include them in their mental horizon. If this encyclopedia wants to be considered a compendium of all available knowledge on Hinduism, then it should include these borderline communities as well – or write them definitively off as not belonging to the Hindu fold.

South India is sufficiently included: each of the Dravidian names and terms mentioned has an ample entry. Many lesser saints and temples are also dealt with. On the tribal front, the picture is less systematic, more haphazard. There is a entry Thang-ta (“sword-spear”) for the martial art of Manipur, of which even the  existence is probably known only to very few readers. On the other hand, an important term like Sarna, “sacred grove”, the physical centre of worship for the Tribes of the Chotanagpur plateau, is absent. Sacred trees are still common in popular Hinduism, and connect with the open-air fire rituals in the Vedic age, different from the later temple worship. But then, the entry Santal, the name of one of these tribes, does give a lengthy account of their religious practices centred around the Bongas, roughly equivalent to the Devas. It also mentions the “sacred grove”. Similarly, there are entries like Hill People of Tamil Nadu, and much information about the Tribals is also indirectly given in entries like Ritual Arts and Crafts of Arunachal Pradesh.

As for Christianity and Islam, their interference with Hinduism is given practically no attention. One article deals with Hindu-Christian interaction, but otherwise, Hindu civilization as subject-matter for an encyclopedia is already big enough. Thus, the entry Ayodhya deals with the place’s temples, famous characters and significance for the Hindus, but pays only minimal attention to the temple/mosque conflict that became front-page news across the world. Most Muslim stalwarts, including the main persecutors of unbelievers and destroyers of temples, are simply not mentioned. The 17th-century Moghul prince Dara Shikoh has an entry, but that is because he tried to integrate Hinduism into a state syncretism (which never durably materialized because Dara was killed by his more orthodox brother Aurangzeb) and translated the Upanishads into Persian. This translation was then rendered into French and triggered a first wave of European enthusiasm for Hinduism.



Telescope effect

A third danger apparent in too many Hindu writings on Hinduism (and most of the authors here are indeed practising Hindus) is the “telescope effect”, viz. that phenomena from very different eras are all seen on a one-dimensional canvas, the past, routinely called the “Vedic” age. Thus, the properly Vedic astrology, the determination of auspicious times on the basis of the 28 lunar asterisms, tends to get conflated with the imported Hellenistic horoscopy based on the 12-part Zodiac, advertised in numerous books as “Vedic”.

There is an insufficient realization that institutions and concepts also have a history. Many entries are given the definition that “tradition holds” or that is “traditionally believed”. But it is the job of an encyclopedia to be critical vis-à-vis what is generally believed. Thus, the word Upanishad is traditionally explained as “sitting down at the feet (of the Guru)”. This may even be true, but it seems that the entry Upanishad ought to have mentioned the dissidence among modern scholars, who think that it means “metaphor”.

This need for historicity may concern major topics of Hindu history, such as the caste system. Among enemies of Hinduism, it is common to project caste at its worst onto the entire Hindu past, then to conclude that “caste is intrinsic to Hinduism”. What is meant here is the hoped-for death of Hinduism itself: “If we want to abolish caste, we have to destroy Hinduism itself.” Though this is a life-and-death issue for Hinduism, we find that many unthinking Hindus espouse this same projection, perhaps because in the glory days of caste, it was equally upheld as eternal and unchanging. But the scholarly finding is that it has indeed changed. Caste in the age of the Ṛg-Vedic “Family Books”, India’s oldest documents, was non-existent, or at least never mentioned. Later it was understood to be hereditary though only in the fatherly line, and for the last two thousand years, it was the boxed-in endogamous institution that we have come to know.

Moreover, the Western term “caste” conflates two very different concepts known to all Hindus: Varna, “colour/category”, the four classes typical of any complex society, with counterparts in other cultures; and Jati, “birth-group”, the thousands of endogamous communities, an institution stretching deep into tribal society and largely existing even among Indian Christians and Muslims. When tribes were integrated into expanding Vedic society, they were allowed to retain their distinctive mores and especially the continuation of their separateness through endogamy. Thus, as low-caste leader Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar observed, tribes became castes. This was an application of the principle of non-violence: integration without hurting the pre-existing group identity. The entry Caste vaguely nods towards this principle of historicity, and it gives examples of how people in the Vedic age chose their own professions regardless of what their families had been doing. But it might have discussed the need for historicity more pointedly, especially as this topic is so controversial and much in need of clarification.

An example of this illusion of an unchanging institution is that many Hindus know the Vedic sages Vishvamitra and Vasishtha only through their adventures in a Puranic story where the quarrel between them is explained in caste terms. It should be understood that these caste considerations are completely absent in the sages’ original Rig-Vedic appearances. This later addition of the caste angle is satisfactorily explained under the entry Vishvamitra.

For another example: according to the entry Asura, the Family Books call the dragon Vritra an Asura, a term which had not yet acquired a negative connotation. But he is also described as a Brahmin, at least according to the younger epic the Mahabharata, which applies the law that people had to do penance for the sin of killing a Brahmin, to the Vritra-slayer Indra. This is apparently a projection of Rama’s penance for killing the Brahmin Ravaṇa. Here, the primary mention of Vritra in the Rig-Veda should have been clearly distinguished from the later elaboration in the Epics, which drag in an anachronistic caste angle. It seems that the final editing of the Epics coincided with the promotion of caste to a central feature of Hinduism.


Accounting for change

We discern in the foreword a learned version of what most Hindus nowadays will tell you when asked to describe their religion. And indeed, this text nicely illustrates what the problem is. By summarizing the main traits of Hinduism, it at once shows the pitfalls in an enterprise like this: it doesn’t sufficiently realize that the basic Hindu concepts have a history too, the South-Indian and Tribal traditions are conspicuous by their absence, and Hinduism gets reduced to one (admittedly large and normative) of its forms, viz. the Vedic or Brahmanical lineage.

Thus, it lists four Purusharthas or goals of life in Hinduism. These lists appear in numerous Hindu catechism books and introductory works. Yet, if we apply the exacting standards of an encyclopedia, this is only partly true. Originally there were only three goals of life: Kama/sensuality, Artha/lucre and Dharma/ethics. The latter category included all religion-related activities, everything that deals with the relation of the part (the individual) with the whole (the universal). There was no notion of Mukti or Moksha, “liberation”, yet. That didn’t appear until the Upanishads, and was elevated to a goal of life only after liberation-centric Buddhism became popular. An encyclopedia must give an account of this history, against the unhistorical tendency among contemporary believers to absolutize the fourfold scheme with which they happen to be familiar.

Similarly, among the stages of life (Ashramas) there were originally only three: as pupil devoted to knowledge, as householder and pillar of society, and as an elderly man withdrawing into the forest, literally or figuratively. The best-known example of the latter stage is when the Seer Yajnavalkya ends his married life and launches the all-important doctrine of the Self in a farewell speech to his wife Maitreyi. The category of Sannyas, renunciation, did not exist yet. The difference with the third stage, Vanaprastha, “forest-dweller”, is that the latter came after the householder stage while Sannyas replaced the householder stage altogether. It implied asceticism not as a stage of life but as a lifelong vocation and was marked by specific rituals which an aging family man did not undergo. It was practised by the Munis, mentioned in the Ṛg-Veda in the third person as marginal wanderers, definitely distinct from the Vedic Seers themselves, who were court-priests or otherwise members of an elite in the centre of society. But then prince Siddhartha Gautama, patronized by the kings and rich magnates, created his own very successful sect of celibate monks. Only in those new circumstances, at least according to modern scholarship, did the Brahmin establishment feel the need to integrate their lifestyle of Sannyas as a fourth life stage. Even then, a moment’s reflection will show that this “stage” sat uneasily next to that of Vanaprastha.

The foreword also lists four types of Yoga, just as you will find in the works of Swami Vivekananda. Most Hindus nowadays will agree that there is Karma-yoga, Jnana-yoga and Bhakti-yoga, as well as Raja-yoga. In the Bhagavad-Gita, the first three are called Karma-marga, “the path of action”; Jnana-marga, “the path of knowledge”; and Bhakti-marga, “the path of devotion”. They are not called yoga, and certainly not the high-definition yoga described in Patanjali’s Yoga-Sutra: “Yoga is the stopping of the mind’s motions” (which this encyclopedia, following Vivekananda, equates with Raja-yoga). The Gita did not pretend that Bhakti, the loving concentration on a divine person different from oneself, is a form of self-immersion, which Yoga is. Indeed, the foreword elsewhere quotes the Bhakti poet Kabir as writing that Yoga is of no use. Not that either Yoga or Bhakti is bad for you, but they are different from one another. Reliance on a god is different from reliance on oneself. This used to be well understood, for instance in the 16th-century polemic between the Bhakti master Guru Nanak and the Nath Yogis. It is a sign of the increasing illiteracy in Hinduism among modern Hindus (a problem aggravated by secularist education) that the two are conflated into “Bhakti-yoga”. A conceptually precise encyclopedia should be welcomed as a tool for setting the record straight.

The foreword is an interesting starting-point. It is no big deal that, for instance, it takes the Aryan invasion for granted, the scenario that most Hindus were spoon-fed throughout the colonial and Nehruvian age, although it has recently become controversial. But in the body of the encyclopedia proper, we expect (and usually find) higher standards. In its handling of Hindu concepts it should be critical rather than pious. Otherwise it would only be an oversized catechism.

So, how do these threefolds or fourfolds fare in this encyclopedia? The article on Purushartha defines these as the “four goals of life”, but then separates Dharma, Artha and Kama as the Trivarga, the “division in three”. It locates these in the empirical world, whereas Moksha is said to deal with the spiritual world. The threefold scheme is mentioned, but not sufficiently done historical justice to; its primacy is not explained. This way, we see a compromise between the scholarly, objective approach and that of the contemporary believers. This pattern repeats itself throughout this encyclopedia under many of the controversial, historically eventful or ideology-laden entries. Don’t expect any lambasting of conventional schemes or merciless historicizing of commonly used concepts, the approach that many Western Indologists take pride in. On the other hand, in most cases the facts the reader will need are indeed given, but only in passing, without any emphasis. Admittedly, in a project of this magnitude, there is no room for emphasis. 


Arya, Dasa, Asura

Arya is defined as “noble”, its classical meaning, but also as the self-referential term of the Vedic Aryans, its Vedic meaning. This is entirely correct, though the latter meaning could have been clarified further by stating that the Hittites and Iranians also referred to themselves by related words. This way, everyone used it in the sense of “us” as against “them”. It was originally a relative ethnic term, with the Iranians considering all others including the Vedic people as “them”. One man’s Arya is another man’s Anarya, and vice versa. In India, as the Vedic tribe (the Pauravas and their subtribe, the Bharatas) became identified with the word Arya, this term came to mean “Vedic”, “civilized”, and hence “noble”, as opposed to the uncultured people who had not been exposed to the Vedic tradition. So, what the text of the encyclopedia says is faultless, but to remove all doubt in the reader’s mind, a bit more information would have been helpful.  

Dasa, nowadays “servant”, very clearly referred to the Iranians, as did Dasyu, Pani, and probably Shudra. The first three have Iranian equivalents and are known in Iranian contexts from Greek and Iranian sources. The Rig-Veda describes them as “without Indra”, “without fire-sacrifice” and other known characteristics of the Mazdean (Zoroastrian) tradition. It is rank nonsense to assert that these terms have anything to do with “dark-skinned natives”, as the Aryan Invasion Theory has inculcated in far too many people. Here, most Hindus including the authors under discussion are too defensive and fail to assert the Iranian origin of the words which later came to mean “servile class”. The entry Dasa only starts out with the common meaning of “servant”, then dilates upon its figurative religious meaning (as in the name Ramdas, “servant of Rama”), but doesn’t give any information on the word’s origins. This is already defective from a scholarly viewpoint, and it is also politically unwise, for the enemy has lost no time to propagate the notion that the “Dasas are the natives reduced to slavery by the Aryan invaders”. In their dominant discourse, the fact that Hindus ignore this claim merely shows “Brahminical hypocrisy”.

Similarly, the term Asura again refers to the Iranians. At first, Asura was virtually a synonym with Deva, as correctly observed here. But by the time of the Rig-Veda’s tenth and youngest book, after the war with the Iranians (Battle of the Ten Kings and Varshagira battle, the latter featuring Zarathushtra’s patron king Vishtaspa), the two terms had ethnically grown apart: Deva meant “deity” for the Indians, “devil” for the Iranians; and with Asura/Ahura, it was the reverse. In war psychology, everything relating to the Iranians was demonized. By the time the two sides became friends again, the term Asura had frozen in its meaning of “demon”, and became associated with all kinds of enemies or evils unrelated to its original ethnic connotations.


Separate sects

Another criterion for evaluating a work on Hinduism with scholarly pretentions is: does it account for the vexed question whether Buddhism, Sikhi (as Sikhs call Sikhism) etc. are part of Hinduism or are separate religions? Politicians and half-baked intellectuals treat Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism and the tribal traditions as separate religions, whether out of the calculation that being nice to the separatist lobbies pays on election day, or out of sheer anti-Hindu animus. Anti-Hindu policies have even driven the Arya Samaj and the Ramakrishna Mission into claiming non-Hindu status. Yet, a truly historical view would treat them all as just so many sects within the sectarian continuum called Hinduism.

Here, the picture is very mixed. Implicitly, the continuity between these sects and developments within Hinduism is asserted in many articles. Thus, the entry Alara Kalama factually describes this teacher’s importance in the Buddha’s meditative career: the technique he taught led the Buddha to keep practicing meditation (while abandoning the self-mortification which other teachers had made him do) and to develop the Vipassana (“mindfulness”) technique that gave him Liberation. The Buddha made his own version of Hinduism, as any Hindu Guru is entitled to, and as arch-Hindus like the Vedic Seer Dirghatamas before him or the philosopher Shankara after him have also done. But he never broke away from any existing religion. On the contrary, when he was asked near the end of his life what the secrets of a stable society are, he mentioned among other things the continued respect for the existing sages, pilgrimages and (by definition pre-Buddhist) sacred places.

Likewise, central concepts of Sikhi are properly derived from ancient Hindu concepts, e.g. the mantra So’ham (“I am He”, viz. He who lives in the sun) has Vedic origins but reappears in glory in Sikh scripture and practice. The entry Dasham Granth recounts how the last Sikh Guru Govind Singh had stories from the Puranas translated for his flock. It hardly makes sense to argue this point further, for there are literally hundreds of indications for the view that Sikhi is just one among the many Hindu traditions. A scholar sometimes has to speak truth to power and say unpleasant things merely because he has found them to be true. In this case, no matter how politically desirable it may seem to play along with Sikh separatism, the historical facts say with one voice that Sikhi is but a Hindu sect. Treating the Sikh Gurus as non-Hindu is completely anachronistic: none of them ever realized that he was the leader of a new religion separate from Hinduism. Even Guru Nanak’s utterance: “There is no Hindu, there is no Muslim”, falsely interpreted by separatists as an abdication from Hinduism, is a typically Hindu thing to say. In Islam, religious identity is everything: it decides whether you go to heaven (if Muslim) or to hell (if non-Muslim). By contrast, in Hinduism, it may mean something in this world but nothing ultimately: your Mukti or Liberation does not depend on what community you belong to, but whether you practise the spiritual path. When Mahatma Gandhi took an anti-identitarian position: “I am a Hindu, I am a Muslim, I am a Christian, I am a Sikh”, his opponent Mohammed Ali Jinnah rightly commented: “That is a typically Hindu thing to say.”

Then again, some of the entries concerning the Sikh Gurus or the holy places of the Sikh sect do speak of “Sikhs and Hindus”. The fact itself that they figure in an Encyclopedia of Hinduism militates sufficiently against the Sikh separatist position, but the editors have not wanted to press the point. Purists might say that they lapse into politicians’ talk, a concession to the recent and British-created phenomenon of Sikh separatism. But in fact it was wise to accommodate this separateness to some extent. Firstly, it is a matter of politeness, e.g. Muslims entirely follow the precedent behaviour or Mohammed and hence could sensibly be called Mohammedans, but as they themselves prefer to be called Muslims, we just go along and use that term. Secondly, an encyclopedia has to care about its reputation, which directly impacts on its capacity to function as an authoritative source of information. If it bluntly said: “Sikhs are Hindus”, then it would be decried in many influential places as “Hindu chauvinist” or worse.

At any rate, if so many sects and individuals declare that “we are not Hindu”, it is not because they have doctrines or practices that are incompatible with Hinduism – this encyclopedia amply shows they are entirely embedded in Hindu history. It is only because Hinduism has lately acquired a bad name and is under attack from many sides, a situation that drives people away. This cannot be countered by Hindus insisting: “But you are Hindus!” The editorial decision not to make an issue of this is therefore a correct one. But the day Hinduism wins back its glory, these sects will all come flocking to the winner and thump their chests: “We are Hindus too! We are better Hindus than you!”




After surveying this encyclopedia, our judgment must be that it is a great, useful and necessary enterprise, but marred to a small extent by typically Hindu flaws. It admirably avoids the pitfalls of sectarianism and Indo-Aryan chauvinism, and greatly limits the telescope effect of equalizing all time-depths to just “the past”. Indeed, the problem of  anachronism is much less serious than you’d fear when reading the kind of missives put out by “internet Hindus”. The latter’s defective sense of time-depth reaches ridiculous heights which anti-Hindu academics love to highlight, e.g. the claim that the Aryan migration of some five thousand years ago is the same as the spread of mankind from India northward more than fifty thousand years ago; or the claim that Rama lived a million years ago yet spoke the very same language that grammarians codified less than three thousand years ago; or the claim that “ancient Hindus conquered the world”. Those pitfalls are completely avoided here. The sober facts about Hinduism make his civilization outstanding enough, it doesn’t need these comical assertions.

The project was started at the fag end of the age of printing. Soon after, the Encyclopedia Britannica decided to drop its print edition and go exclusively online. It is fortunate that Hindus just made it with their printed encyclopedia. Future generations won’t care anymore, but our generation still values a book more if it has appeared in print. To gain a foothold in the world of books as a solid reference, this printed version was necessary. On the other hand, for future editions it probably stands to reason that they will appear only online (the present review was done on a pdf copy rather than the 11 paper tomes). The advantage will be that any new  information can speedily be added, and that any rare mistakes can be corrected forthwith.   

The importance of this work in a Hindu self-reassertion is that Hindus have at last decided to speak for themselves. Whereas outsiders like Wendy Doniger can only speak of Hinduism in caricatures, here Hindus have given an account of their own understanding of their civilization. What we ourselves do, we do better.


 (Hinduism Today, October 2014)







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Gururaj BN said...

Good and informative review. Such an encyclopaedic effort is a welcome addition to Hindu literature, though they may have shortcomings. The general editor cannot perhaps, reconcile all the discrepancies amongst numerous contributions. Sri Ramakrishna Math of Bangalore published an encyclopaedia of Hinduism in 3 volumes a couple of years back, and has recently published a shorter supplement also. But, one feels that it lacks depth, being writing of one man over quarter century period by Sri Swami Harshanandaji. He too has avoided addressing polemical issues. Another problem is that the awareness about South India in the north is much poorer, than of north India in the southerner's mind. Typically, TamilNadu and its culture hog the attention at the risk of relegating other three states and their distinct languages and culture to the back bench. In a way, the publication "Cultural Heritage of India" published by Sri Ramakrishna Math, Kolkata could also be considered as an encyclopedia on HInduism (barring entries on Islam and Christianity), with much better depth in the treatment of subjects.

Nirjhar007 said...

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ramesh said...

Beautifully summed up. Thank you. The point about the time span of yugas was especially interesting.

Vishal Agarwal said...

I think a lot of statements in this review are somewhat hurried. E.g., it is claimed that Gita uses Karma-marga, Bhakti-marga etc but not Bhaktiyoga, Karmayoga, Jnanayoga etc., with the implication that these phrases were the coinage of Swami Vivekananda. Actually, the Gita DOES use the phrase Karmayoga (3.3; 5.5; 13.24), Jnanayoga (3.3; 16.1); Bhaktiyoga (14.26) etc etc. Rajyoga however is not used in the sense of Patanjala Yoga. Now, the Patanjalayoga itself talks about two types of Yoga - Kriyayoga, and Ashtangayoga, which correspond respectively to the Karmayoga and Dhyanayoga paths of the Gita which is why the Gita almost fuses these two paths and commentators often count only three paths (Karmayoga, Bhaktiyoga and Jnanayoga; even the Uddhava Gita section of Bhagavata Purana also enumerates only 3 paths leaving out Dhyanayoga as a fourth path) in the Gita. Another parallel is that in the Patanjala Yogasutra, Ishvarapranidhaana etc., leads to Samadhi, just like the other disciplines too. In the Gita too, Krishna enumerates disciplines that lead to Samadhi ('Brahmaloka') and in parallel uses 'maam chaapi'... after these descriptions.
Now coming to the Purusharthas, it is wrong to say that Moksha was given a prominent position only after it became the core of Buddhism. In reality, Kaivalya or Apavarga became a central concern of other Mokshashastras like Samkhya and Yoga, whose roots are pre-Buddhistic. Now doubtlessly, Moksha in these Shramanic traditions had a different meaning (and the word 'Brahman' too did not always refer to the Upanishadic goal - just like the Gita distinguishes between Brahman and Parabrahman - again an ancient vestige) - but all the same it is incorrect to credit Buddhism with the addition of Moksha as a Purushartha later to Hindu notions. To my knowledge, the classical formulation of the concept of Purushartha already had Moksha right from the beginning and the Indological claims to the contrary offer no proof. Enough said....

Koenraad Elst said...

Thanks, Vishal, for your correction on Bhakti-Yoga etc. I quoted from memory and it seems my memory of the Gita has holes in it. Mercifully, I am to review a French translation of the same, so am about to reread it. Still, the Gita is indeed less easy in throwing yoga and bhakti together, as too many modern Hindus do. But I agree that I have a less positive opinion of the Gita than most, ever since my BHU supervisor Prof. KN Mishra called the Gita "a hodge-podge". More in my upcoming article.

jaskaran175 said...

"Dasa, nowadays “servant”, very clearly referred to the Iranians, as did Dasyu, Pani, and probably Shudra. The first three have Iranian equivalents and are known in Iranian contexts from Greek and Iranian sources. The Rig-Veda describes them as “without Indra”, “without fire-sacrifice” and other known characteristics of the Mazdean (Zoroastrian) tradition"

Couldn't it also be that the dAsa-s are not actually referring to people, but to rAkShasa-s and what not? Why must it necessarily refer to a tribe or race? I don't like the "dAsa" = "niShAda" nonsense, but I can't say I really like your view much either. I've already been referred to as ajami and miskin by some Arabs (esp. Kuwaitis and Saudis), so I definitely would not want to be referred to as dasyu by bhAratIya-s. Just a suggestion.

"A few plain mistakes have also managed to pass the editorial sieve. Thus, the entry Sahasrara Chakra, “thousand-spoked wheel”, speaks of the “Shatachakra Nirupana”, which means “investigation of the hundred wheels”, but this classic 16th-century sourcebook about the chakras is actually called the Shatchakra Nirupana, “investigation of the six wheels”."

This seems akin to how people call the nirvANashaTkam as the nirvANashatakam. Perhaps most people don't realize that षष् + अनुनासिकाक्षरम् = षण् (e.g. षण्मुखः)and that
षष् + अघोषाक्षरम् = षट् (e.g षट्कोणम्)

"For another example: according to the entry Asura, the Family Books call the dragon Vritra an Asura, a term which had not yet acquired a negative connotation. But he is also described as a Brahmin, at least according to the younger epic the Mahabharata, which applies the law that people had to do penance for the sin of killing a Brahmin, to the Vritra-slayer Indra. This is apparently a projection of Rama’s penance for killing the Brahmin Ravaṇa. Here, the primary mention of Vritra in the Rig-Veda should have been clearly distinguished from the later elaboration in the Epics, which drag in an anachronistic caste angle. It seems that the final editing of the Epics coincided with the promotion of caste to a central feature of Hinduism."

I would never say that varNa is the very central feature by any means, but it is mentioned in shruti, as is the case of indra having to do tapasya where because of his brahmahatyA (of vR^itra and vishvarUpaH/trishirA),he takes the somaH and evil animals (like lions) emerge.

From the shatapathabrAhmaNam:

jaskaran175 said...

Also, the following is from the chhAndogyopaniShad:

Leisure said...
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