This book is a new, more evolved avatar of my earlier book, Hinduism: A Gandhian Perspective, brought out by the same publishers as first edition in 2006 in hard cover, and as second edition in 2008 in soft cover. This could well have been its third edition, but changes in it have been so many that a new title seemed justified enough. There is a lot that is new, particularly in Part I. This does not mean that I disown any of my views expressed in the earlier book; nothing is lost from the earlier version, but a lot has been added.
In particular, I must emphasise that the Gandhian Perspective which guided and inspired the earlier version retains the same role here as well, though the words, 'Gandhian Perspective', are missing in the title now. Gandhi has not been ignored or belittled in this book, but it covers other ideas too which are not inconsistent with Gandhi's. Particularly, it accommodates Dr. B.R. Ambedkar's views on what Hinduism should be if it has to take a respectable place among world religions, which hardly contradict what Gandhi thought on the matter. Dr. Ambedkar was not only a leader of Dalits but also an incisive scholar on Hinduism. While Gandhi worried over how to reconstruct a reformed Hinduism with its excrescences removed, Dr. Ambedkar's concern was to destroy its meaningless and inhuman codes. Thus both worked for the common objective of building up a humane and morally meaningful religion in place of orthodox Hinduism. In his famous article on 'Annihilation of Caste' (1936), Dr. Ambedkar distinguished between principles and rules, and insisted that a religion should rest on principles and desist from being a religion of rules. It should give scope for reasoning and moral responsibility, which a religion of rules cannot. He regretted, however, that Hinduism had descended to the status of a rigid code of rules on caste, purity and pollution. In the process, loyalty to moral ideals and principles was sacrificed, and reasoning abandoned. He called upon Hindus to give an ethical-doctrinal basis for their religion based on modern values of equality, fraternity and liberty, and bring the practice of religion into conformity with it. He even hinted that Hindus need not borrow from the West in this task, but can draw from their own resources like the Upanishads (see sections 20 and 21 of the article, reprinted in Rodrigues 2004: 263-305). The revised book here, therefore, shows how within the resources of Hinduism, there lies a religion which can meet the expectations of both Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Ambedkar. The earlier version (2006, 2008) also tried this, but the present book brings out this fact with greater force, support and clarity.
A basic feature which the book emphasises is its dynamism and free flow. The metaphor of a river suits Hinduism very well - it is not static, it flows. Both change and continuity characterize it. Several streams join it and several streams may also flow out of it, but it retains its identity. It has the ability to purify and refresh itself, if only we do not overburden it with pollutants like dogma and rules of purity and pollution. It finds ways of circumventing obstacles and continuing its course. It is life sustaining for all and belongs to all, and is not the property of a chosen few.
Gunnar Myrdal had famously characterized the Indian state as soft. I am not sure if he is correct. But the religion which the bulk of people of the country follow can be characterized as soft - in a good sense of the term, of course. Rigid austerities may be expected of the sadhaks (spiritual seekers), but Ajamila, a notorious sinner, is said to have attained the highest state (parama-pada) by merely uttering the name of Narayana twice, with a sense of total surrender and heartfelt repentance on his death bed. Strict vegetarianism is expected of the sadhaks, but tribal goddesses do not mind accepting goats and chicken as offerings by their devotees whose staple diet consists of these and other hunted animals. A religion which has consistently asserted the oneness of God as Ekam since ancient times, has no qualms in permitting the worship of His manifold - bahudha - forms, left to the devotees' choice. But it would be very misleading to characterize Hinduism as licentious, amoral or unprincipled on this ground. Nevertheless, this softness makes Hinduism a challenging religion to study and understand. This book is a humble attempt in this direction.
The book has two Parts. Part I is about what is Hinduism and what is not. It covers not merely the metaphysics, moral philosophy and Sadhana in Hinduism, but also the egalitarian, liberal and socially engaged aspects of Hinduism, very relevant to the present times. A separate chapter shows why Hinduism is not Brahminism and the Caste system. Part II covers the dynamics of Hinduism, describing and interpreting its growth from the ancient to the contemporary times.
Five broad phases mark the historical development of Hinduism. Though not mutually exclusive, they do indicate distinct features. The first is the Vedic phase, marked by prayers composed with poetic fervour as well as rituals. Though prayers were addressed to different forms of divinities, the phase also had an awareness of One God immanent in the whole universe. This led to the next phase of philosophical speculations about the Ultimate Reality, the Self and the phenomenal world. This second phase saw the composition of the Upanishads and the emergence of the six Darshanas as well as of heterodox schools of Lokqyata, Buddhism and Jainism. The ethical system of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism also took shape during the same phase. While poetry and awe of nature imbued with divinity marked the first phase, intense intellection marked the second. As the society, polity and economy became more sophisticated and complex, new needs arose. On the one hand, there was the task of regulating the day-to-day conduct of people as well as of kings to ensure the stability and survival of the society, -a task which was taken up by the Shastras. On the other hand, there remained the task of taking religion and its moral values to the masses, which was taken up by the Epics and Puranas. Both these simultaneous developments marked the third phase. But, with narrow interpretations of Shastric injunctions, there developed excesses resulting in social inequity.
The fourth phase of the Bhakti Movements took up the task of protesting against this inequity and of challenging the sanctity of Shastras and scriptures which seemed to take religion beyond the masses. With enormous energy derived from their mass base, the Bhakti Movements simplified and democratised religion and urged attention to social inequity. The fifth phase, which comprises the modern and contemporary period, continued the work that had started in the earlier phase, but took a new idiom and increased intensity, leading to a rediscovery of the intrinsic values and philosophy of Hinduism and integrating the ancient religion with modern values of human rights, equality and social justice.
The Handbook is thus more comprehensive than its previous version. I have dropped the last two chapters from the earlier book (on the 'Hindu Approach to Development' and 'Future of Religion') by incorporating their essential points in other chapters. I have tried to make the text more concise, while retaining the simple language and presentation as before for easy comprehension. There are also anecdotes and songs which the readers can savour. Concepts, especially Sanskrit terms, are explained as needed, not being content with giving merely English equivalents. Reworking on the earlier version helped me to bring in fresh thoughts, more clarity and reasoning on the whole must also clarify that the present book is not intended to be encyclopedic. Several concepts used in the practice of Hinduism and its Sanskaras are not covered in the book, as also the details of Hindu deities and places of pilgrimage. For more details on Hinduism, readers may refer to the monumental work of Swami Harshananda (2008).
It is not the intention of the book to present Hinduism as the ideal or the greatest of all religions or a wonderland free from any deficiency. No single religion can be said to be perfect, as Gandhi asserted. This requires a constant rediscovery of basic and universal values from time to time in each religion, so that morally repugnant beliefs and practices which have grown as excrescence can be removed. Caste barriers and untouchability, indifference to poverty and suffering of others, and condemning women to a lower status and exploiting them are obvious examples of this excrescence. Rediscovering is not going back; it is not a fundamentalist move to impose some orthodox notion of purity. It is, on the contrary, a process of refreshing oneself and being open to reasoning and dialogue, being sensitive to human rights - especially the rights of the weak and the meek, recognizing the need to ensure freedom to everyone to enrich one's personality and potential, and being serious in environmental concern. Such an attempt is important because the greatest challenge to any religion comes from within, not from outside. Introspection about weaknesses within our own society, particularly to strengthen the moral fibre of all in the society, alone can save us. To do this, it is not necessary to be paranoid about dangers from outside, particularly about the aggressiveness of other religions.
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