Thursday, October 6, 2011

Book Review

Religious Hinduism
(Fourth Revised Edition, R. De Smet and J. Neuner, Editors,
St. Paul’s Publications, 1997)
Reviewed by Dayanand Bharati

This is a volume of outstanding merit and one can only hope that it will be widely read. These 29 essays contributed by scholars who have authority in their own respective fields truly amount to a mini encyclopaedia on Hinduism. Beginning from Vedic times and ending in the present situation this book covers all essential topics on religious Hinduism.

One may well argue that Hinduism is dharma, not religion in a strict academic sense; but this dharma not only includes religious aspects but is also centered on what in English we call ‘religion’. Hence while a proper study on Hinduism must include sociological, anthropological, cultural, historical, etc., aspects, a separate study on Hinduism in its religious aspects gives a microcosmic view of the faith and beliefs on which the rest of the life of a Hindu revolves.1 So this book by Jesuit scholars will help non-Hindus to understand theoretically about the religious standpoints of various types of Hindus, and Hindus themselves will find it useful to comprehend a ‘theological’ basis for the practical life which is centered on their religious faith.

Having so highly recommended the book, the merits of various essays and approaches will not be listed in detail. Rather, some weaknesses that are present should be brought to the notice of those who act on the recommendation to read and study the book. These weaknesses are found both in the overall approach and then in numerous details.

Considering the broad agenda of the book, its stated aim is to ‘help Christian teachers in schools and colleges to understand and rightly appreciate the religious background of their Hindu students’ (p. 23). This is so that they can teach ethics and basic principles of spiritual life with reference to the religious beliefs and practices of those students. Yet the aim is not merely ‘to help (italics original) them to deepen their understanding of their ancient tradition and weigh its value in truth, holiness and universality’ (p.24), but also to prepare teachers for dialogue as ‘the essays offered in this book did arise from their authors’ “dialogical” practice…’. Hence the value of this book increases as each topic ends with a ‘Conclusion’, which of course is written based on their Catholic faith.

Now the main question that arises is ‘does this book achieve its purpose?’ The editors believe that it has, as they boast that ‘many Christian social workers in daily association with Hindu collaborators have also benefited from this book’ (p. 23). Above all ‘the dialogical attitude of the authors of Religious Hinduism has already been emulated by many Christian teachers and has also influenced even Hindu university teachers who found this book a great help for their teaching’ (italics added) (p. 24). In light of this last statement it should be noted that in the present day ideology of religious pluralism the very purpose and even meaning of ‘dialogue’ has undergone various changes, and this is powerfully illustrated in this fourth revised edition. Here the final chapter (‘The Present Situation’) says absolutely nothing about evangelism, whereas this was a if not the major point of this same chapter in the third edition from 1968. Hence a cloud covers the aim and understanding of ‘dialogical practice’.2 And readers need to be alert to these presuppositions which underlie almost every chapter in the book.

Moving to more specific problems the following points should be noted, starting with errors in interpretation. In a number of places speculation seems to reign above fact. For example, in the attempt to trace out some ‘Religious Discoveries’ (chapter 3) of ancient Aryans related to radical questions of life, R. de Smet says that ‘they [Vedic Indians] did not make wild guesses nor opted for simple animistic or naturalistic solutions but thought they should conceive the unknown on the basis of the known’. He proceeds to suggest that they developed their theology from their own social paradigm based on the jaati (caste) system. Even if we agree with this speculative theory it must be said that not jaati but only varna was the existing social pattern.

Surely all will agree that this speculative hypothesis is carried too far when it is applied to the question of whether men can help the devaas to maintain the rta (cosmic order) (p.67). De Smet suggests that

Again the answer was found from what happened in their society. Just as they fed their servants well and praised them to keep them happy in their service, they would feed (through fire offerings and libations) and praise (through hymns) the cosmic servants. This would be the yajna, the Vedic sacrifice. (Emphasis in original.)

Our common experience even today shows that no servants are well fed or praised by their masters, particularly in Oriental countries (cf. Lk.17: 7-9). Above all, comparing the hymns of the Veda with human appreciation (if at all the servants are appreciated) is a poor comparison and an outright degradation of the sacred scriptures of the Hindus. While the samhitas (hymns) are considered sacred the praise of a master is nothing more than flattery.

Truly there is need for critical analysis and constructive criticism of Hindu scriptures and values, and the stated purpose for such is commendable indeed (‘not meant to encourage controversy but to render our Hindu-Christian dialogue fully sincere and truthful’, p. 29). But when such critical analyses are done based on mere assumption one must protest. For example, on Hindu ethics, the author (R.Antoine) says, ‘In the context of bhakti, morality seems to acquire more substance. Yet, even here, the ambiguity is not totally dispelled.’ For this he quotes Gita 18:61-61 and continues,

If in those verses the term maayaa means ‘magical’ rather than “wonderful power”, then how am I to be sure that my supreme act of
surrender is not the final trick of the divine magician? For all I know, that supreme act instead of giving full meaning to my life may be as meaningless as all my other actions. (p. 157).

No commentator on the Gita nor any ordinary bhakta who totally surrenders will ever take maayaa as meaning ‘magical trick’ by God, and even if so a sincere bhakta would merely accept it without question. But the beautiful irony here is that while to this author the words of the Gita are empty ‘magic’, to another they are a source of grace! (As J. Neuner says in his conclusion, ‘Those who are able to pray in the words of the Gita are certainly touched by the grace of God and have set out, in deep earnestness and resolve, on the path of the greatest deed man can do, his surrender to God’. (Pg. 290))

Genuine dialogue demands mutual respect, however we may disagree with each other. This seems lacking when Fr. R. Antoine says that the claims of modern Hindu reformers are ‘irritating’ to Christians. If there is validity in his pointing out an element of ‘self-complacency’ in Hindu reformers’ claims that ‘all the new moral values were in fact contained in the old tradition’, a counter point that irritates Hindus can be made about the triumphalistic Christian claim that all the modern reforms in Hinduism are the result of ‘contact with Christianity, either in its religious form or through the medium of a secularism which offers diluted Christian values’. Especially objectionable is his conclusion that ‘we can rejoice because the true ethical values are proclaimed and some good is done, even though not in the name of the Gospel’ (p.168). Not only will this ‘irritate’ the modern Reformers, the Fundamentalists will react strongly to the claim of credit to the gospel for all the ethical values and good works done by modern Hindus. My objection is theological: the gospel is good news, not ethical values nor good works. Ethical and moral teachings are universal, present in every religious system.* The gospel is the good news of redemption, not just another social reformation. It is regeneration bringing new values not just restoration of ethical norms, which are forgotten but always revived again.

True dialogue also requires the acceptance of our own mistakes and failures, especially from those whose Lord spoke as recorded in Mat. 7:3-5. Yet we have the following statements: ‘If the untouchables and depressed classes, becoming more conscious of their social importance, decided to leave Hinduism for Christianity or Buddhism, where they would no longer suffer from the disabilities of caste distinctions….In spite of their official and ritualistic integration into Hinduism, the depressed classes have not yet gained religious and social equality with caste-Hindus’ (italics added, p.166). Wonderful statements and we wish it should become real in practice at least within Christianity (including Roman Catholics). The terrible fact is that conversion, particularly to Christianity, never gave religious and social equality between low and high caste Christians (yes, even high caste Catholics). The regular clashes between the dalit Catholics and caste Catholics during their annual local festivals are common phenomena in Tamilnadu.

Protestant readers will struggle with some distinctly Roman Catholic discussions and comparisons, as in the distinction between doulia (worship of angels and saints) as distinguished by the Catholic Church from latria (worship of adoration reserved to God alone). This is especially striking in comparing devas and devis (semi-divine subordinate beings) with angels and archangels in the Catholic universe. And we are told that ‘the life of the Trinity [is] communicated to us and unfolded before our eyes’ not only ‘in the Person of Christ’, but also ‘in the lives of Mary and the Saints.’ (p. 129).

Finally, some other minor errors can be pointed out, without suggesting that this list is exhaustive. A few passages from Hindu scriptures are quoted without giving the references on pp. 110, 111 and 118. At Tanjore Siva is called as ‘Brhadiisvarer’ not as ‘Vrhadiisvar’ (p.119) (south is not like north India where the letter ‘B’ and ‘V’ are always interchangeable, as ‘Vishnu’ is sometimes ‘Bishnu’ and ‘Veerender’ as ‘Beerender’, etc.) As far as my knowledge goes Jyesthaa (for Sitalaa) is not in Tamilnadu (p. 125). Sad-mukha is not seven heads (p.142). Sad in Sanskrit means six and Sad-mukha is called in Tamil as ‘Shanmukam’ which is also ‘Aarumugam’ (Aaru-six; mugam-face) and all these mean six-headed. Aaruur is not Tiruvallur in the Tanjore District (p. 321) but rather is Tiruvaaruur in that district; Tiruvallur is in Chengalpet district near Chennai. On page 358 ‘religious dramas’ are called as ‘yaatraa’ which is doubtful as yaatraa means travel or better pilgrimage. And finally no reference is given for the verse of Vyasa Dharmaad arthas-ca Kaamas-ca so dharmah kim na sevayate: From religion are obtained both wealth and delights, Then why not practice religion since it is such? p. 400). And note that the word ‘Dharma’ is translated as ‘Religion’, of which Vyasa surely would never have approved.

These problems in mind, this remains a book eminently worthy of study.


1. This point is well illustrated by the last two topics (on Gandhiji and on the present situation) which give a glimpse of how even a political or social reformation is impossible without a proper appraisal of religious aspects of Hinduism:

2. Related to this is the fact that this book is not for a ‘proselytizer’ but for an ‘evangelizer’. Evangelization is defined as including an understanding that ‘for the majority of human beings it is within and through the helps provided by their religions that under God’s grace they live as pilgrims of eternity and reach the blissful intuition of the absolute God which is the end willed by Him for all his rational creatures’ (p. 26, italics original).

* But Blamires insists that the battle for civilization is not the same thing as the battle for the kingdom of God and warns against identifying the two:

Desperate as we Christians are to stem the tide of immorality and degeneracy; we must not pretend that it is simply qua [as] Christians that we man the barricades. It is an insult to paganism to suggest that it is only by virtue of our Christian conscience that we are offended by the collapse of morlity and public decency. It is not just St.Paul, St.Augustine, John Bunyan, or John Wesley who would be horrified at what we have come to acquiesce in the way of legalized embryonicide and pornography Surely Virgil and Seneca, Plato and Plotinus would be horrified too (Harry Blamires, Where Do We Stand? An Examination of the Christian's Position in the Modern World [Ann Arbor, Mich.:Servant, 1980], p.17)

Power Religion, The Selling Out Of The Evangelical Church? Michael Scott Horton, Editor, Moody Press, Chicago,1992, p.56

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