If some one were to ask me to name one cotemporary book on Hinduism that is comprehensive without being pretentious, wide-ranging without being didactic, scholarly without being snooty, and all-encompassing without being doctrinaire, an obvious choice would be MV Nadkarni? Hinduism: A Gandhian perspective. But why ?a Gandhian perspective?? According to Nadkarni ?the Gandhian Perspective is the most authentic and perceptive way of understanding Hinduism? because, as he puts it, ?what Gandhi interpreted had the backing of authentic scriptures?.
It is well to remember that Gandhi was not professional scholar like, say, Dr Radhakrishnan, nor was he a dedicated exponent of Hinduism like Swami Vivekananda. What Gandhi said and wrote about Hinduism came not from the head but from the heart, which is probably why the author has fallen for the Mahatma in a big way. Gandhi'sview of Hinduism was basically ethical, a matter more of living a morally upright life than of mere intellection. The Gandhian perspective needs to be distinguished, according to the author, from three other such, namely, the orthodox perspective, the perspective of western scholars and what the author dismisses as the Semitised or Hindutva perspective.
The author describes the Gandhian perspective as satvik (of the quality of being compassionate, gentle and good), the semitised perspective as rajasic (militant, aggressive) and the orthodox and western perspective as tamasic (stagnant, unmoving, rigid and dismal). Gandhi never believed in the exclusive divinity of the Vedas which, according to the author is totally consistent with the spirit of Hinduism?.
Hinduism does not have a Pope or a synod to lay down what is correct and acceptable and what is not. As Gandhi once put it, the beauty of Hinduism lies in its all-embracing inclusiveness. To be a Hindu is to have the freedom to think. As Dr Radhakrishnan viewed it, ?Hinduism is a movement, not a position, a process, not a result, a growing tradition, not a fixed revelation.? The author describes Hinduism as a way of life which has ?innate vitality, unique dynamism, capacity to retain pluralistic character, tolerance and, what is more, a common spiritual heritage which is identifiable.? Dissected in this remarkable work of scholarship are such subjects as polytheism, so-called idol worship, maya, dharma, purusharthas, moksha, the concept of caste, the great and little traditions and the sheer dynamics of Hinduism, the rise of Jainism, the rise and gradual disappearance from India of Buddhism and the causes thereof and cognate subjects. The dynamic process of Hindusim is analysed in three phases: the classical (Vedas, Upanishads etc), the medieval (Bhakti movements) and the Modern.
It is the author'sview that Hinduism can be considered as more advanced than modernism and, in fact, can be termed post-modern, in the best sense of the term. In the process of covering the dynamics of the development of Hinduism the book dwells briefly but well upon the contribution of such men of eminence as Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa, Swami Vivekananda, Dayananda Saraswati, Shirdi Sai Baba, Aurobindo Ghose, Ramana Maharshi, Swami Ramdas and many others.
An earlier attempt is also made of the majestic contributions of such philosopher saints like Sankara, Madhvacharya, Ramanuja, Basaveshwara, the saints of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Maharashtra and elsewhere like Tukaram, Kanaka and others of the same genre.
The author avers that there is no basis to conclude that the weaknesses of Hinduism were responsible for the Muslim rule in India. But, one is afraid, that is only half the truth. The Bhakti movements may have effectively countered the decline of Hinduism and greatly democratised the Hindu religion if not society. But, if the truth be told, it was the lack of a unified social structure, the fragmentation of society politically, that proved to be self-destructive and damaging. Hinduism survived as a religion because of its marvelous inherent strength.
Hinduism as a political force declined and that is why Hindutva, which the author condemns often too strongly, has now blossomed with a vengeance. What India needs today may be a Shivaji and a Swami Ramdas, certainly not a Sonia Gandhi and a Manmohan Singh. They are out of place and out of sync in a country which needs a dynamic leadership rising out of the majority community, the sheer variety and inclusiveness of Hinduism is represented by some of our latter-day ?religious? leaders like Bhaktivedanta Swami, the Brahmakumaris, Swami Sivananda, Sri Sri Paramahansa Yogananda, Swami Ram Thirtha, Swami Chinmayananda, Maharshi Mahesh Yogi, Acharya Rajneesh, Jiddu Krishnamurthy and Sadhu T.L. Vaswani, not to speak of Satya Sai Baba.
That Hinduism can be represented by such a range of sants and savants itself is a tribute to its catholicity. Where in all the world can one find the equivalent of an Anandamayi Ma or a Sri Sri Ravishankar? Their approaches differ and yet they represent Hinduism in all its multifaceted character so beautifully and meaningfully.
Each period throws up its own spiritual leaders to match with the needs of the times and it is to the credit of the author that he has presented them all with an element of studied detachment, worthy of a great scholar which the author undoubtedly is. To read this book is an education in itself. Gandhiji saw Hinduism as a river which permits fresh water streams to join it. Nadkarnai provides such fresh water in abundance.
(Ane Books India, 4821, Parwana Bhawan, 24, Ansari Road, Daryaganj, New Delhi-110 002.)