The Life Of Hinduism by John Stratton Hawley, Vasudha Narayanan
The Life of Hinduism is a compilation of essays by various scholars who have been studying Hinduism. I picked up this book both as a practicing Hindu and as a student of Indology. I am happy about reading a lot of essays in the book. The last section of the book could have been done away with. Having said that, I did learn a lot of new things about my own religion – for just like India, it is impossible to know a million ways of practicing Hinduism.
All the essays are written by people who study Hinduism – making them an outside observer of the religion. Sometimes, they have adopted the religion. Some authors have Hindu names. But I am not sure if they practice or have an inherent faith in Hinduism. To me, most of them sound research scholars looking at The Life of Hinduism with a keen and curious eye. They then present their observations to us. As a travel writer, I know you need an outsider’s eye to see what is usually too obvious to notice. I felt the same while reading this book – some of the aspects and perspectives that these authors bring out, I am oblivious to even when I know them well.
The first essay is a gem- It is a simple observation of a morning ritual in the life of a common Indian devotee. As the protagonist of the essay moves between his home and temple, you know it could be you, your father or your neighbor. We have lived and lived among these visuals but it was still very endearing to read it from an observer’s point of view. I loved the simple narration. In Diana Eck’s piece, I liked the way she described the polytheism of Hinduism as ‘interrelations that seem more like a web than a ladder’. In ‘The Birth of a Shrine’ there is a lovely story of making of a Shrine at Vrindavan on the banks of Yamuna.
‘Marriage’ by Doranne Jacobson is a dated essay. It was first published in 1977. And must be read as a documentation of those times. Things are definitely not the same in India now. Agehananda Bharti’s ‘Death beyond death’ is a wonderful read. It takes you to the essence of Kashi. Diwali takes you through the rituals at home to celebrate Diwali. Now Diwali remains more of a personal festival unlike Ganesh Chaturthi or Holi that is more of community festivals – so it is nice to read about what some communities do on the day of Diwali. Holi essay is very interesting – over two seasons of the festival you see the perspective of an observer change. He goes from being an absolute skeptic to someone who enjoys the festival.
The section on Ramayana takes you through the Ramnagar Ramlila by Linda Hess. I always enjoy reading about it and Linda is a great writer. The chapter on first televised Ramayana is good but as someone who enjoyed watching it as a kid in the 1980s – it is over analysis. Those who have not watched would find it more interesting to read. Possession by Durga is a nice exploration of a phenomenon that every Indian has either witnessed or has at least heard about. I like the way Kathleen brings out the potential fake possessions while not questioning the process itself.
The chapter on Anandamayi Ma was like reading a mini-biography of hers. It reminded me of the cult of Karni Mata in Rajasthan. Sudhir Kakar on Radhasoami kind of re-enforced what I thought of Radhasoami cult. I am yet to visit their Beas campus which I am told is a must visit. But what he tells is what I thought of them based on the disciples that I have met.
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‘A Dalit Poet Saint – Ravidas’ tries to be too analytical of the life and works of Ravidas. An attempt is to see how he is accepted by so-called higher castes & focus stays on his Dalit Status instead of his poetry. I think if authors have read about many other poets of Bhakti movement or heard of Shudra Kings like Kakatiyas of Warangal, they would have a different line of thought. I did not understand the relevance of putting the story ‘A Brahmin Woman’ in this collection. First of all, it is a fiction in a largely nonfiction book. Second, it has nothing to do with Hinduism as a religion. It is a cultural aspect of a small community in which many others may also find a reflection. This is where the book starts losing its charm.
In the Diaspora section of The Life of Hinduism – I liked reading about the Srivasisnava temple at Penn Hills. Vasudha Narayan brings out how the Diaspora community in America stays rooted in the religion while adapting it to the needs of their Karmabhoomi. Sitansu Chakravarti’s essay I did not understand – neither what he is trying to say. It sounds more like preaching. Chapter of Ayodhya is what you read in the press – with no attempt to talk to the Hindus of the country. It seems Ayodhya verdict will always be one-sided. No one has spoken about how a Hindu feels when their most venerated God is kept in a tent at a place where we believe he was born.
‘Tolerant’ Hinduism by Vasudha is again an attempt by the author cum editor to finally say – I am editing a book on Hinduism, but I am as secular as you want me to be. I must talk about a shrine where both Hindus and Muslims go. My question is why just Muslims then, bring out the syncretic culture with other religions also that live far more harmoniously. Final piece by Shrinivas Tilak is so full of personal agenda and so badly written that you can simply close the book. The last chapter tries to decode the word ‘Samvaad’ – you can read it.
Chapters in this book are arranged in a descending order – Best ones at the beginning.
I think it is a good compilation, barring a couple of pieces that were avoidable.
Do read this compilation to see understand some aspects of The Life of Hinduism. Do read it to understand the sheer diversity and flexibility that exists within the religion.
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