A work of many minds: The beautifully hardbound set
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SAFEGUARDING HINDUISM’S ESSENCE & HISTORY
An in-depth review of the long-awaited 11-volume encyclopedia
A BOOK REVIEW BY KOENRAAD ELST
DECADES OF EFFORT BY HUNDREDS of scholars have brought to completion the 11-volume Encyclopedia of Hinduism, the brainchild of the India Heritage Research Foundation and Swami Chidananda Saraswati of Parmarth Niketan, and published by Mandala Publishing. In its 25-year gestation, first Prof. K.L. Seshagiri Rao and then Prof. Kapil Kapoor served as its general editor. Kapoor wrote an scholarly introduction. With a foreword by Dr. Karan Singh, the work contains contributions by over 1,500 scholars in 7,500 articles. These deal with saints, kings, language, history, arts and crafts, temples, pilgrimages, philosophies and concepts. Space is also given 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. Full indexes, the hallmark of professional reference books, allows readers to find any significant term in the articles. The basic production values are good for India, at the normal standard for an academic publications. A major plus is color photos, though individual photo credits are not given, only a bulk list of contributors. A negative is the lack of hyphenation. Articles could use more refined editing, which will hopefully happen if the work is put online.
A gathering of the board in Kentucky, July 8, 2012, with Swami Chidananda seated in front
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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 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 party’s version out or ridiculing it. In the present case, we are dealing with a real scholarly work.
Entry excerpts from Hinduism’s first comprehensive reference text
PHOTOS: COURTESY THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF HINDUISM
Rajasthan: (a 900-word entry) A state of northwest India, historically inhabited by valorous people. The state spans approximately 132,152 square miles (342,239 sq. km) and has a population of 56,507,188, going by the 2001 census. Earlier the state was known as Rajaputna; it was only during the last days of the British Raj that its name changed to Rajasthan. In Puranic times it was called Pariyatra…. Rajasthan has a variety of landforms, including deserts, mountains, arable lands, and grazing lands. The state experiences varied climatic conditions from rainfall to extremely hot and cold weather conditions to sandstorms. River Chambal is the longest of the state rivers. Banas and Banganga are the other two big rivers….
Festival Art: (a 2,400-word entry) Various art forms like music, dance, drama, graphic arts, sculpture, architecture, and urban transformations are connected with a festival. Festival art underscores the fact that there are no divisions among art, craft, and religion, which are embedded in the whole of Hindu life…. The involvement of lay people is a prominent feature of festival art. Pongal, celebrated by the Tamils of South India, calls for cleaning up and painting houses, offices, shops, and factories. Doorways are decorated and decorative patterns (kolams) are drawn on floors and yards with rice flour, red clay, and colored powder. This practice of decorating the house for Pongal has a parallel in Onam, Kerala’s most impressive festival, where women use flower petals to decorate the floors of their courtyards with designs that are often scenes from Puranas….
Nataraja: (an 1,100-word entry) Literally, the Lord of dancers, a brilliant artistic representation of Lord Siva. According to a Tamil text Unmai Vilakkam: “Creation arises from the drum; protection proceeds from the hand of hope; from the fire proceeds destruction; the foot held aloft gives release.” The dance is interpreted in terms of five activities, viz., creation, preservation, destruction, giving an appearance of illusion, and salvation or grace (shrishti, sthiti, samhara, tirobhava and anugraha). It is also interpreted in terms of yoga. The image is said to embody the inner processes by which the coiled kundalini or serpent-power is realized or straightened. The Siva Nataraja form, according to a distinguished art critic, is a synthesis of science, religion and art. Images of Siva Nataraja in bronze, executed during the Chola period (9th to 12th century ce), stand at the peak of Indian sculptural expression. Nataraja images are found both in temples and museums. There are but a few temples having Nataraja as the main Deity, but Nataraja images are found in most Siva temples.
An important 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 Vikramaditya 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 Shankaracharya entry primarily dates Shankara’s birth to the 8th century, as accepted by Orientalists, but also mentions that some of his followers place his birth around 500 bce, though implying a clear preference for the former option. On the origins of the Vedic people, the Arya entry 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; the concession of uncertainty implies that when certainty is assumed, the given explanation has been corroborated by the latest research.
Given the numerous contributors, however, not all are equally rigorous. On occasion 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 experts.
Sometimes a defect in one entry is compensated by the hoped-for information under another entry. The Chaturyuga 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. It does not mention the hypothesis that the Chaturyuga (a very ancient concept held by 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. 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. This 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 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.
Perhaps inevitably, few plain mistakes have 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 was a spelling error.
So, while encyclopedia entries have to be handled with care, yet it is a treasure-trove of information. This review focuses 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, which make up the bulk of this work.
There are, however, three subtler or more implicit dangers found in 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” is a give-away of ISKCON (Hare Krishna) theology, while a reduction of the many Gods to “different manifestations of the one God” betrays 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. This, 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
A second 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. These may not really form part of their Hindu consciousness. Traditions insistently described by Christian missionaries as “not Hindu”—especially the Indian “Scheduled Tribes”—are similarly regarded by many Hindus. They may not openly describe the tribals as un-Hindu, but they don’t actively include them in their mental horizon. If this encyclopedia is to be considered a compendium of all available knowledge on Hinduism, then it should either include these borderline communities 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 an 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 center 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 of the Vedic age, which differ 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 centered around the Bongas, roughly equivalent to the devas. It also mentions the “sacred grove.” Similarly, there are entries like Hill People of Tamil Nadu. Much information about the tribals is also indirectly given in entries like Ritual Arts and Crafts of Arunachal Pradesh.
The interference by Christianity and Islam with Hinduism is given practically no attention, though one article deals with Hindu-Christian interaction. Of course, 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 destroyers of temples and persecutors of “unbelievers,” 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.
PHOTOS: COURTESY THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF HINDUISM
Rama-Janmabhumi Temple (Ayodhya): (a 900-word entry) Ayodhya is located on the right bank of the Sarayu in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh. The ancient ruins over here lie within a circuit of about 4km and at places rise to a height of about 10 meters above the surrounding ground level. According to Valmiki’s Ramayana, Ayodhya was the capital of the Kosala kingdom, which was once ruled by a king named Dasharatha. His son Rama is regarded by the Hindus as an incarnation of Vishnu…. ¶On the spot known as Rama-Janmabhumi, a mosque was constructed in 1585–86ce by Mir Baqi, who was an administrator during the reign of Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty in India. This is indicated by an inscription on a stone slab which used to be there on the facade, above the central arch of the mosque. Another inscription, said to have been there on the southern side of the pulpit, stated that the construction was done under orders from Babur himself. ¶The mosque, which no longer exists, was of a modest size, having only three single bays with the corresponding arches in front. However, to the piers of the mosque had been affixed as many as fourteen black stone pillars which bore typical motifs and figures, clearly showing that the pillars originally belonged to a Hindu temple….
Sthapati (in architecture): (a 1,000-word entry) Sthapati is a professional title of the chief architect who designs, controls and oversees the construction of a temple, palace or any major building. The art of sthapatya (architecture) experienced a steady decline during the hundred and fifty years of British rule in India. Though the British made efforts to preserve the architectural heritage by establishing a Department of Archeology, they did not encourage the growth of the traditional art of architecture. It was citizens of certain pockets in India, for example, Nattukottai Chettiars, and some communities like the Jainas in Gujarat, who patronized traditional architects and sculptors and kept their art alive….
The work includes over 7,000 entries
Ashtasakhi: (an 800-word entry) The eight closest female friends and companions of Radha…. These eight women are considered foremost among the gopis of Radha’s entourage. In Vaishnava thought, they are almost as esteemed as the Deities themselves, as they are considered to be spiritually evolved beings (or states of mind for the more evolved seekers), capable of granting special audiences and favors. Their function is to facilitate the permanent play (lila) of Radha and Krishna in an unearthly dimension of sacred space and time…. In Pushtimarg literature, Krishna is supposed to incarnate (avatarita) with his entire entourage from Goloka, with Radha, the gopis, gopas, the cows and the calves in the Braja area specified for His sport (liladhama… Gopis are divided into groups according to the mental attitude in which they adore Krishna; svakiya (married) or parakiya (not married to him)…
A third danger apparent in too many Hindu writings on Hinduism (and most of the authors here are practicing 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 ancient astrology termed Vedic—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, which is 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 the entry Upanishad should 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 Rig-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 2,000 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, “color/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 nonviolence: 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.
As one example of this illusion of an unchanging institution, 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. 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 Mahabharata, which applies to the Vritra-slayer Indra the law that people had to do penance for the sin of killing a Brahmin. This is apparently a projection of Rama’s penance for killing the Brahmin Ravana. 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 it nicely illustrates the problem. 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). The notion of mukti or moksha, “liberation,” did not appear until the Upanishads—and it 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 practiced by the munis, mentioned in the Rig 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 center 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 the 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 would be welcomed as a tool for setting the record straight.
Hiranyakeshiya Grihya Sutra: (a 250-word entry) A work relating to the household fire. These texts on Vedic rituals are said to have been written between 800 and 300 bce. In the first two chapters, the rites of upanayana (ceremony of initiation) and the rituals of marriage are described. In the subsequent chapters other household ceremonies such as simantonnayana (a ritual to be performed during a woman’s first pregnancy), punsavana (a rite performed in order to obtain male progeny), jatakarma (a ceremony to be conducted immediately after childbirth), and namakarana (child-naming ceremony) are discussed. The paka yajna, a minor rite performed in the household fire, is also described. As in the case of Baudhayana Grihya Sutra, there is a chapter known as Shesha Sutra (supplementary aphorisms) attached to this work. It consists of eight sub-divisions (patalas). In these aphorisms, many rituals are described that are observed in one’s daily life….
The foreword is an interesting starting point. It is no surprise that, for instance, it takes the Aryan invasion for granted; this is the scenario that most Hindus were spoon-fed throughout the colonial and Nehruvian age, although moden research has challenged the theory. But in the body of an encyclopedia proper we expect (and usually find) higher standards. Its handling of Hindu concepts 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 given historical justice; its seniority is not explained. Thus we see a compromise between the scholarly, objective approach and that of 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. Thus 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, the text of the encyclopedia is correct but incomplete. To convey actual understanding, 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 Dasa entry starts with the common meaning, “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.
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 from 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.
This encyclopedia gives a mixed picture. 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. There are literally hundreds of indications for the view that Sikhi is just one among the many Hindu traditions. A scholar sometimes must 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 practice 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 mere fact that they figure in an encyclopedia of Hinduism speaks sufficiently against the Sikh separatist position, but the editors have not wanted to press the point. Purists might say they have lapsed into politicians’ talk in 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 behavior of Mohammed and hence could sensibly be called Mohammedans, but as they themselves prefer to be called Muslims, we courteously 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 “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 a correct one. But the day Hinduism wins back its glory, these sects will come flocking back 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 minorly marred 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 this civilization outstanding enough; it doesn’t need these comical assertions.
The project was started near the 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 reviewer read from a PDF 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.
Koenraad Elst, born in 1959, is a Belgian Indologist and writer of several volumes about Indian history and Hindu revivalism, including controversial topics such as Ayodhya and the Aryan invasion.