Thursday, October 6, 2011

Book Review

An Introduction to Hinduism
by Gavin Flood, Cambridge University Press,.

A self-understanding based on ideologies shaped by long traditions which give real meaning is essential for one's identity in this life. And such an identity in an individual's life as well that of a nation is not only useful for his/its growth, but considering the "modern world in which everyone is, in some sense, a 'global citizen'", (p. 4) may contribute to others' efforts to understand and uphold their own identity also. Keeping this in mind, Gavin Flood in his first and last chapters attempts to draw a picture of Hinduism based on Hindu self understanding and identity. The remaining chapters present factual information which he presents according to his western understanding of Hinduism as a religion, at times still referring to contributions to national identity.

A person who lives within a system may find it difficult to express several ideologies of his system in clear cut technical terms, though he very well understands them in a subjective way. And any scientific study of such a system by an outsider objectively may help him to learn the required technical terms to express his ideology, but will surely cause disappointment when he finds that those technical terms and scientific studies fail to express his inner experience and the spirit of his system in the right way. But the only consolation that he can derive is that in such studies outsiders may communicate to the others what he himself finds difficult to do. This is the impression a Hindu will arrive at after reading this book. Most points in this book are discussed based on the Western point referring to studies done by other westerners. Such a study may help them to understand India but will also indirectly impose their own ideology in the minds of the reader. But one who lives within a system understanding it subjectively will feel the contrasts from the objective studies done by others who stand outside the system.

Take one example: "As we have seen there is a fundamental distinction in Hinduism between worldly life and soteriology, the former being the concern of the householder, the later being the concern of the renouncer " (p.201). But it is one thing to say that rites of passages may not be concerned directly with liberation, yet it is an oversimplified statement to say that worldly life belongs to the householder and salvation to the sanyasi. Even the rites are in one sense a process for salvation. Above all, Hinduism keeps moksha as the climax of the four purushartas of dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Likewise his theory of urbanization putting "the individual above wider social group" (p.81) is another example of reading his ideology into another system. Of course he says, "This is not to say that at this time there was an articulate ideology of individualism which stressed autonomy and personal rights—there was not—or that the urban individual was not subject to law and a hierarchical social structure, but merely that socioeconomic functioning was placed more in the hands of innovators than would have been possible in a rural context. The form of individualism that developed was not present in the ancient world, but a form of individuality which emphasized or particularized the distinct self, did develop in urban centres." (p.81) But one who can observe the life of Hindus based on the hierarchical social structure of casteism would agree that this individualism is not a so called development of individuals above the wider social group, but the continuing influence of social groups over individuals, even in this 20th century with e-mail.

It must also be pointed out that numerous factual errors mar the value of Flood's study. Some rather basic geographical errors will shock those who know India (see pg 24, 25, 145, 172); there are numerous language-related problems, especially concerning Tamil (but note also the wrong definition of Saranaagati as 'grace', which properly is 'taking refuge for protection', pg 137; and the Raamacaritmaanasa was composed in Avadhi not Hindi, pg 146); confusion regarding Hindu deities is evident on pg 66 where Balarama instead of Lakshman is said to accompany Ram to exile; later Lakshman is rightly identified but it is wrongly stated that he and Sita were also banished, whereas they chose freely to accompnay the banished Rama; further, on pg 129, Tamil deities Mudvalan and Tirumaal are said to have become identified with Visnu and Siva, but Mudalvan (not Mudvalan) became identified with Siva and Tirumaal with Visnu; modern facts, where one expects more confident handling, are also at times muddled, as in the suggestion on pg 254 that Dayanand Sarasvati kept all-night vigil during Navaratre, when in fact it was at Sivaraatri; on pg 263 it is stated that RSS members dress in black instead of kaki; and on pg 37 we are wrongly told that most Vedic literature is not yet available in any European language; fearing a charge of being overly pedantic, some errors on rather abstruse points must also be noted, as on pg 61 it is claimed that candaalas are born from Suudra women, but rather it is from a male Suudra with a Brahmin woman; on pg 204 we are told that the sacred thread is comprised of three times three single strands, but rather it is one time three single strands for a brahmachari, changed to two times three single strands after marriage, and then only after crossing fifty or sixty years as a symbol of attaining wisdom it becomes three times three single strands; and finally on pg 206 there is reference to a newly married couple viewing the "Pole-star" when in fact it is the star Arundadi (close to the sixth star in the Sabda Rishi mandala).

Having noted these limitations, it is granted that Flood has presented a valuable study on the Hindu traditions in chapters 2 to 10. But chapters one and eleven which discuss what Hinduism is (chapter one) and the development of Hinduism as a world religion (chapter11) raise several questions about Flood's understanding of our efforts at achieving a 'national identity', which he tries to reduce only to 'Hindu nationalist politics' (p. 3). While granting that 'through the work of Ram Mohan Roy and later of Vivekananda and his followers, Hinduism has become a world religion which has had a deep impact both on India and on the West at all cultural levels, from the scholarly study of texts in Indology departments in universities, to devotion to popular gurus' yet one must disagree with his following point that 'in contrast to these universalizing tendencies, there has also developed a Hindu political nationalism which connects Hinduism, or Hindu Dharma, with the nation-state of India" (p. 273).

When the so called (pseudo) secularism1 which was/is imported from western ideologies threatens our very self-understanding and identity, and which is being used by the narrow minded politicians to gain some temporary power politics, it become necessary 'to connects Hinduism or Hindu dharma with the nation-state of India'. Likewise it is not 'this political nationalism' but rather fundamentalism among Hindus, Muslims and even Christians, as everywhere, which alone 'has inspired friction between the Hindu, Muslim and Christian communities in India and evoked some terrible violence'. To refer to 'a fragmentation which identifies Hinduism with ....national identity' (p. 4) as 'narrowly conceived national identity' (p. 4) is to go against Flood's theme of self-understanding and the meaning of Hindus in their own heart and home. Hinduism at the cost of a national identity will never become a global religion 'to contribute to finding solutions to the global problems which face the human community in the coming century' (p. 273) Fortunately Christianity, Islam and Buddhism need not look to any particular country to claim their credit as world religions, but Hinduism can never arrive here at the cost of its basic identity. Remove India and Indians (Hindus) from the world map and there won't be a Hinduism as a global religion to contribute to human race every where.

Hinduism is such a vast subject that numerous introductions as well as technical studies are needed and are welcome. But one fears that Flood wanders from objectivity in pressing home his own perspective (something the Hindutva people are often rightly criticised for, but some of their critics seems guilty of a like offense). The introductions of Klostermaier and Lipner are more even handed and sensitive to Hindu self perceptions and so must be favoured above Flood, which is still not to say that Flood's work is without merit and insight and no doubt many can profit from reading it.


1. Note the comments of A. H. Khan: "Perhaps of all the words that can be applied to India, the word 'secular' is the most unwanted. It is totally irrelevant and indeed offensive to most Indians. Which Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain or Buddhist—leave alone Christian or Parsi—wants his country to be worldly and keep God out of its affairs of state? The irrelevance is clear in the very meaning of the word. In Hindi and Urdu it is grahasti or dunyawi or duniyadari...." (Ansar Husain Khan, A Rediscovery of India, p.253)

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