Coming as it does at a time when incessant criticism is being levelled against followers of Hinduism by so-called secularists, the book presents a multi-perspective 21st-century glimpse into the world'soldest living faith and expounds on the foundation of Hinduism to decide which components are worth preserving and deserving and which are worth eliminating.
The author, after an unpleasant experience in the USA, launched a personal quest to find out why dominant religions of the world vehemently disparaged and proscribed the Hindu practices of worshipping many gods and making their images; which of the Hindu institutions were perversions that were either borrowed from other groups, or developed as defence mechanisms during the millennium when their identity was threatened, suppressed and ridiculed by rulers of the land; if Hinduism could be considered to be the least common denominator of all religions; if there was something in the Hindu heritage about which one can feel good, if not proud, which may be worth preserving because it may provide guidance in today'scomplex world.
During this period some ideas were developed, either because of circumstances or as expedient defence mechanisms that may not be in agreement with modern sensibilities. As a part of the Hindu-Indian diaspora in a globalising world, the author explains the inherently pluralistic basis of Hindu beliefs by pointing out that Hinduism is the oldest surviving religion in the world. It differs from Western religion in certain key respects: its origin cannot be traced to a single person who received a divine revelation and became the founder of the faith; it cannot be defined in terms of a dogma or a body of beliefs that distinguishes its followers from the rest of humanity; and it does not have an established institution with the power to induct or expel people from the faith. ?Even though there is no central authority that enforces cohesion among its people and lays out plans for the future, its fundamental concepts and outlook have permeated all sections of the society, and have survived determined assaults from dominant powers of the South Asian subcontinent over the last 1,000 years,? says the author.
The author compares differences in approach between the monotheistic faiths ?to believe in one God, one Messiah and one Book? and Hinduism, revealing in the process the inadequacies of the word ?religion? to define ?Dharma? of Indic faiths. He explains Hinduism as ?a perpetually evolving Dharma? allowing for adjustment to changing attitudes, technological advancements and scientific knowledge in contrast to evolution of ideas in revealed religions like Christianity and Islam where impediments are raised. He points out how the church opposed the theory of evolution and every scientific advancement and how Islam opposes evolution of ideas which are contrary ?to the word of the Koran? which is ?a direct command from Allah?. He quotes Michel Danino who has said, ?Religion is a Western concept; the Indian concept is neither religion nor even Hinduism nor any ?ism? – it is Sanatana Dharma, the eternal law of the universe, which cannot be formulated in any rigid and final set of tenets.?
The author explains the determinants of action – karma and Dharma. The ancient Hindu treatises discuss purusharths or four goals of human life – Dharma, artha, kama and moksha. Explaining Dharma, the author says that the legitimacy of all actions is based on Dharma which ?has the inner conscience, the God within, as its ultimate source, and is based on the realisation that the entire universe is a living, breathing entity with Brahman as its foundation.? As per the karmic theory ?everything in life is a result of karmas (actions), and that nothing is ever obtained by depending on chance, or the supernatural, or withdrawing from actions.? The author says, ?In the Western lexicon, the word karma is associated with a fatalistic outlook of life, indicating a passive acceptance of everything that life offers as a result of unknown past actions in one of the previous lives?. This is a very one-sided interpretation of the karmic theory which is very clearly explained in the Mahabharata when Shri Krishna leaves the final decision to Arjuna by saying, ?The wisdom, more secret than all secrets, has been given to you by me. Having reflected on it fully, do as you choose.?
The book talks of religious practices, the various legends in Hinduism and the unity of Indic faiths like Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism which, despite their distinct identities, ?have undoubtedly developed glorious traditions that are the hallmarks of these groups.? Without shying away from addressing controversial issues such as historical discrepancies, current events, societal conditions, mass media and terrorism, the author shows that Hinduism, ?with roots reaching into antiquity, is a viable modern tradition based on a ?progressive approach? that makes possible for it to adapt to changing conditions?.
It does not matter whether one worships Shiva, Subramanyam, Shakti, Vishnu or any other deity or is an Arya Samaji or a Radha Swami and practices yajnas, meditation and satsang as the important components of religious search, ?but the requirement of an acceptance of diversity, which must be maintained, is not to look down at the practices of other people, and accept them as alternative and fully valid approaches.? He adds that the foundation ? of a reinvigorated Hinduism has to be laid on the values that have been the hallmark of our faith for thousands of years,? and quotes Will Durant who wrote: ?Perhaps in return for the conquest, arrogance and spoliation, India will teach us the tolerance and gentleness of the mature mind, the quiet content of the unacquisitive soul, the calm of the understanding spirit, and unifying, pacifying love for all living things.?
This is a book meant for Hindu practitioners and also for those who want to know about Hinduism and the contemporary evolution of the faith.
(Konark Publishers Pvt Ltd, A-149 Main Vikas Marg, Delhi-110092.)