Name of book: Hinduism in India: The early period
Edited by: Greg Bailey
Publisher: SAGE Publications
Due to the vastness of its scope and complexity of its evolution, it is always difficult to concise Hinduism in the limitations of a book. The task becomes more arduous when it is studied by someone not bred in that particular religious and theological tradition that gives shape to one’s thoughts and practices. ‘Hinduism in India’— a SAGE Publications offering— which is an ensemble of different essays on the defining aspects of Hinduism, is a bold and challenging foray which a posse of young foreign scholars steeped in religious scholarship of the Asian region have made. The essays, seven in number, broadly cover rituals in Hinduism, our epics—the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the prevalence and importance of mythology in Hindu tradition and Hindu art apart from other ancillary aspects like Bhakti, Jnana, etc which are essential to a deeper understanding of the religion’s substructure. Editor Greg Bailey has done a good job of putting together a relevant and coherent picture of Hinduism through the articles. However, the name ‘Hinduism in India’ has a bit of redundancy, because Hinduism is largely an Indian legacy and to the world, Hinduism still means India. Indians even in the west carry the same Hindu cultural traditions and religious practices wherever they are. Therefore, simply ‘Hinduism’ would have sufficed. But we can give that a pass.
The first chapter is a longish introduction by Greg Bailey, in which he encapsulates an overview of Hinduism, bringing up references to the write-ups which are on the inside pages. One initial impediment in reading the book is the use of BCE and ACE to denote time as a lay reader is accustomed to using BC and AD when studying historical chronology. The writers have used the Georgian calendar’s Common Era pattern i.e., since AD 1. The preceding era is referred to as before the Common or Current Era (BCE) and the later years after AD 1 is referred to ACE i.e. after Common Era. However, that’s a minor deviation which we get used to. Further on, Bailey, referring to Aexl Michaels, highlights the importance of rituals, sacrifices and asceticism as prime characteristics of Hinduism. But aren’t rituals, sacrifices and even some forms of asceticism or renunciation seen in other religious systems as well? Then again, in the next paragraph, Bailey divides rituals into three parts, the two among which are – (i) Public animal sacrifice and (ii) Devotional practices and beliefs. First, public animal sacrifice is a rarity now in India. Second, aren’t sacrifices also part of the devotional practices or beliefs? Even if not totally same, (as devotion includes many other things too), both the aspects are certainly overlapping and may not really warrant differentiation.
However, there are much more juice and fodder inside. The second chapter, again by Bailey, gives a very gripping overview of Hinduism’s wider aspects, including ‘Classification of Historical Periods’ and the importance of the epics, which in its wake also brings up references of various rulers and kingdoms reigning at different times and their influence and role vis-a-vis development of Hinduism in its modern form. Here the four phases or asramas of a Hindu life have been presented as student life, householder, hermit and ascetic wanderer. Here we find a little discrepancy because in actuality, the last two stages are those of vanprastha (retirement) and sannyasa (renunciation). Retirement doesn’t mean a hermit’s life. It is just a stage of gradual withdrawal from worldly affairs. Also sannyasa doesn’t necessarily mean an ‘ascetic wanderer’. Sannyasa can be practised even being physically a part of the world. It is more a mental isolation and mediation for moksha. As if to justify his lack, Bailey admits to the relative lack of historical material to present a very decisive picture on Hinduism. There are several other things of interest too in this chapter including cursory reference to the growth of Buddhism and the class conflict between mainstream and lower/marginalised Hindus.
The third chapter ‘Rituals’ by Axel Michaels also makes for an interesting reading, because rituals are certainly a very strong defining character of Hinduism which often overlaps with beliefs and dogmas and cultural traditions. But, in any case, the Republic Day parade can’t be defined as a ‘semi-religious ritual’ as Axel writes. It is a political and democratic thing and there’s nothing religious about. Also, somewhere he writes, referring to Victor Turner, that ‘some’ rituals are ‘paradoxical’, ‘playful’ and ‘sometimes absurd’. It can be said that not ‘some’ but ‘most’ rituals in any religion are nothing more than that. They do mostly seem absurd and sometimes ridiculous too because they are more a manifestation of love and bhakti than cultivation of jnana. Another instance where Axel goes off mark is when he says religious processions are ‘… used or created for political and sometimes violent demonstrations,’ again giving example of Kumbh mela on one hand and BJP’s rath yatra to Ayodhya, on the other, which was a political event and not a traditional ritual. There are several such subtle discrepancies, which are expected of an outsider who is not a part of the tradition. ‘Garbha’ for instance is called semen here though it is the womb. The consecration ritual and the ceremonial thread have also been overrated though there are Hindu youth who don’t hold the thread important in modern times. Also renunciation is seen as a ‘highly ritualised’ practice, though there is no reason to believe so. ‘Ritual’ is a long chapter and Axel has painstakingly studied its limitless aspects and sifted through layers of scriptures, histories, myths and realities to come up with a lowdown on the complex subject. He concludes with these significant lines ‘… rituals often create an auratic sphere … of timelessness and immortality. Seen from this point of view, rituals can indeed do without any specific meaning, but this in itself is not meaningless.’
Chapter 4 is on Mahabharata by Adam Bowles where he writes, ‘the Mahabharata marks a significant moment in the semantic development of dharma.’ Bowles stands outs with his very good study of the epic. For those who know the Mahabharata well, this is a homecoming while for the unread, this is a revelation. He has shown dexterity in handling the topic which is difficult because he had to deal with facts and not just assumptions, with little scope for conjectures, which other aspects can sometimes present. The chapter is so spaced out and detailed that sometimes a reader may be led to think that Mahabharata is all what Hinduism is.
Chapter 5 is titled ‘Mythology’, again by Greg Bailey. There is though a little lapse in the first page. Bailey writes about ‘excellent Institutes of Technology where contemporary Western-based management techniques are taught.’ Management techniques in technical institutes? Also ‘western-based management techniques’ is preposterous. What’s that actually? But we must admit that Bailey’s language here is racy and lucid and his scholarship unassailable. Mythology is a difficult subject to write on and also to understand. Despite his best efforts, the chapter is largely esoteric for readers, especially not initiated in this topic. For a lay reader, the chapter won’t make much sense and can be avoided.
Angelika Malinar’s ‘Religious Pathways’, the 6th chapter, makes for the single most wonderful reading in the whole book. Swami Vivekananda finds a pithy treatment that absolutely captures the personality and his contribution, thanks to Malinar’s literary skill. The only shortcoming, if any, in Malinar’s rendition is comparatively lesser space given to the proponents of the Bhakti cult. The whole Bhakti movement, which was a seminal influence on Indian society, has not been able to generate the same import as it should.
The longest essay in the book is Eric John Lott’s ‘Hindu Theology’ which comprises the 7th chapter. Upanishads, Puranas, epics, Bhagwad Geeta, darsana, Vedanta, Bhakti theology and poetry, sutras, all find place in this chapter. Several contentious issues regarding beliefs and sentiments have been very objectively dealt with. Also, Lott’s terseness needs to be appreciated because a very vast subject had to be reproduced in a nutshell. A memorable line that captures the essence of Hinduism is, ‘.. rather than holding precise doctrinal tenets, to be “Hindu” is to be a part of an all-embracing dharma, which is primarily a way of corporate behaviour.”
The last chapter 8 is on Hindu art by Crispin Branfoot. When we talk of religion we often tend to relegate the importance of art and sculpture that is influenced by religion. Here is a chapter dedicated to the impact of Hinduism on temples, sculptures and other art forms, though the writer warns at the outset, ‘… Hindu art is as slippery as the term Hindusim..’, which sums up the difficulty to grasp it. There are so many forms of art influenced by so many aspects of religion over so many years that only the broad outlines can be drawn. However, Branfoot has honestly covered as much as possible, from Khajuraho to Mamallapuram, to Angkor Vat. He has in great detail explained temple structures of north and south India and gives out a graphical description.
The book, as a whole, is a good company for those who want to refer to Hinduism at different times of his need, since the different aspects are well categorised. It is not a boring theological treatise. A thick volume on Hinduism might have been more elaborate but not necessarily more engrossing. Some sections are really brilliant literary pieces, which linger in memory. There are phases of complexities though which may not be quite satisfyingly legible to the intellect unless read twice or with reference books around since the subject is complex and vast. But what stands out is the diligence and objectivity of this bunch of scholars, who have taken up so much effort to understand and explain such a deep and ancient socio-religious system of the world in lucid language. A reading of this book will be a tribute to their labour of love.