Book Review: The Life of Hinduism edited by John Stratton Hawley and Vasudha Narayanan

Book Name: The Life of Hinduism

Editors: John Stratton Hawley and Vasudha Narayanan

Publisher: Aleph

Rating: 4.9/5

Book Blurb: The Life of Hinduism brings together a series of essays—many recognized as classics in the field—that present Hinduism as a vibrant, truly ‘lived’ religion. Celebrating the diversity for which Hinduism is known, this volume begins its journey in the ‘new India’ of Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, where global connections and local traditions rub shoulders daily. Readers are then offered a glimpse into the multifaceted world of Hindu worship, life-cycle rites, festivals, performances, gurus and castes. The book’s final sections deal with issues of identity that Hindus face in India and around the world: militancy versus tolerance and the struggle between owning one’s own religion and sharing it with others.

Contributors include Stephen Huyler, Diana Eck, Shrivatsa Goswami, Margaret Case, Vasudha Narayanan, Doranne Jacobson, Agehananda Bharati, Om Lata Bahadur, McKim Marriott, Linda Hess, Philip Lutgendorf, Kathleen Erndl, Lisa Lassell Hallstrom, Sudhir Kakar, John Stratton Hawley, Mark Juergensmeyer, Lalitambika Antarjanam, Sitansu Chakravarti, Shrinivas Tilak, Laurie Patton, Chakravarti Ram-Prasad and Kala Acharya.

Review: The Life of Hinduism puts together a series of essays on Hinduism. It is not a book to understand Hinduism and perhaps the editors never intended to compile the book into some sort of handy guide on religion; it is nevertheless an account of Hinduism and the religion as it is practised in the subcontinent.

The essays are in no particular order and not entirely on religious practices alone as there is an account of Hindu nationalism and the demolition of Babri Mosque. The introduction covers the basic tenets of Hindu religion and the essays go on to elaborate on various facets of this age old religion. There is a fascinating account of an outsider’s views on the Hindu concept of deity and idol worship but the author is quick to explain-

“No people would identify themselves as “idolators,” by faith. Thus idolatry can be only an outsider’s term for the symbols and visual images of some other culture.”

India is a diverse country and religion is no exception. A quote by Mark Twain in the book explains it well-

“In religion, all other countries are paupers. India is the only millionaire.”

However, the essay goes on to explain that in the Indian scheme of things diversity has become a unifying force rather than a debilitating concept. “To celebrate one deity, one sacred place, one temple, does not mean there is no room for the celebration of another. Each has its hour.”

The essays cover Krishna, Bhakti tradition, caste, sanyas ceremony, celebrations of Diwali, Holi and the new concept of militant or over the top nationalist Hinduism. The book also balances views in giving adequate space to the tolerant voices in Hinduism which is a relief as the current national practice of wearing religion on your chest as it were is not what the Sanatan Dharma (as most practitioners know it) is all about.

However, all religions have a had a violent history. The ‘tolerance’ in all major religions and the concept of ‘live and let live’ came many centuries later when the conquest was already done. To refuse to acknowledge this would be a grand error. This in itself raises an important question- whether borrowed, western accounts and outsiders views are sufficient for an understanding of Hinduism or for that matter any other religion. But on the other side, it also raises questions of an inherent bias if the history is written by an insider. This question is deliberated upon in detail by Shrinivas Tilak in his essay- Hinduism for Hindus.

“Professor Albrecht Welzer is one of the few Western academics to acknowledge that scholars of Europe and North America have frequently been guilty of misinterpreting many key Hindu concepts.”

So this book also suffers from this minor hiccup, it tries to view Hinduism from a dominating account put forth by western scholars. The editors have done a remarkably good job (given that they were handling a delicate subject) and have balanced the book so all voices are represented but the overall effort is still an outsiders view. The job of an editor is a heart breaking one I guess- he has to leave out so much of what he wants to include!

This book is a good attempt to understanding perhaps the most diverse religion and the issues of identity that is dominating religious discourse in the subcontinent.


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