and/or www.mantra.com/jai (Dr. Jai Maharaj)
2012-01-15 04:40:33 UTC
By Indrajit Hazra
Friday, January 13, 2012
Encyclopedia of Hinduism
Editor-in-chief: Kapil Kapoor
Rs. 21,000 for 11 volumes
Indraprasth aka New Delhi - Over a fabulous spread of home-made
vegetarian food, I was listening to Rajan Mehra, chairman, Rupa
Publications Group, telling me about, what he considers to be "the
most important publication" of his career. Coming from a publishing
house that has made its mark -- and anchors its business -- by
publishing best-selling 'chatpata' books by writers that most
famously include Chetan Bhagat, the 11-volume, 7,086-page
Encyclopedia of Hinduism, is clearly a radical departure.
In the old Rupa office in Daryaganj, old Delhi, Mehra tells me,
"Sometime in 2007, I was approached by LK Advani [Rupa published the
BJP leader's memoirs, My Country, My Life in 2008]. He told me about
a project that the India Heritage Research Foundation, involving some
2,000 scholars based all over the world, were conducting. These were
scholarly essays and notes on various aspects of Hinduism. Advani
asked me whether I would be interested in getting involved."
My hackles go up as soon as I hear about the BJP connection. Far too
many 'studies' on Hinduism out there are either religious textbooks
or are thinly disguised ideological propaganda. An encyclopedia of
Hinduism blessed by Advani sounded anything but a rigorous work of
scholarship. Wouldn't this be like Jyoti Basu encouraging a 'study'
Mehra proceeds to tell me the kind of 'professionalism' in the work
and workforce that went into the production of this giant compendium.
"A separate team was hired and it worked from 2008 to 2011 under the
editorship of Kapil Kapoor, former Jawaharlal Nehru University
professor, collating, editing and proof-reading each entry." He tells
me to take a look at the volumes and realise that, the encyclopedia
is as much about the various cultures and cultural offshoots of
Hinduism as it is about providing scholarly explanations about its
religious and ritualistic aspects that are part of our "samskar" of
which most people, practising Hindus included, no little about. "This
has nothing to do with any political Hindutva agenda," he adds.
Speaking to Kapil Kapoor, who took on the project before Mehra got
involved, I get the same pitch. He is more forthright and tells me
that "Hinduism isn't a religion, it's a powerful intellectual
system". The former JNU pro-vice chancellor and professor of English
who also taught comparative linguistics, says, "Hinduism has no
sacred text. It is a kind of manual for living based on ethical
materialism. It is also deeply and widely interpretative."
But keeping this 'make what you will of it' nature of Hinduism in
mind, I ask him whether this encyclopedia, an interpretation of
interpretations, is not going to open to criticisms both from those
who have a very firm view of 'Hinduism' in mind and from those who
see it as an exclusionary 'communal' enterprise? "Even most Brahmin
scholars don't know about most of the matters that they pass off as
'Hindu'. Like nuclear science, Hinduism is essentially a system of
knowledge and this encyclopedia attempts to explain various elements
for both the scholar as well as the student of ideas," says Kapoor.
He also points out that while the oral tradition has been a preferred
system of storage, enhancement and transmission of knowledge ("Why do
you think Indians take so easily and lovingly to the television
medium?"), putting this knowledge down in the written/readable text
makes it available to many more.
As for criticisms and counter-views, he says that in his introduction
he has welcomed readers to send in criticisms. "In such a vast
enterprise, there are bound to be omissions, mistakes and lapses. I
only hope that other scholars point them out so that the process of
knowledge collection is further filtered."
The proof of the pudding, of course, is in the eating. So it is to
the encyclopedia that I, a non-practising Hindu atheist, go to. The
format is straightforward and along the lines of Encyclopedia
Britannica. Starting from 'Abadhita-Jñana' in Volume 1 ("non-
contradictable knowledge...") to 'Zoroaster (Zarathustra)' ("the
founder of Zoroastrianism...) ten volumes later, the entries are
crisp, provide background and foreground, and come with a
bibliography (the entry on Abadhita-Jñana includes JF Staal's 1961
book, Advaita and Neoplatonism.
The production is excellent, as is the quality of images that are
scattered across the volumes. With entries that include the
'Dhammapada' (the main text of Theravada Buddhism), the 'Chipko
movement' (the organised environmental movement to resist the
destruction of forests in India'), as well as the 'Saura Mandala'
(solar system), clearly, this is an encyclopedia that doesn't define
'Hinduism' in any narrow, proselytising way.
There are many reference books that deal in a scholarly, non-
religious manner on Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Sikhism. This
Encyclopedia of Hinduism fills a gap that was there for readers in
English who wish to pursue knowing about one of the most prevalent
thought and social systems. Despite the initial fears I had (of
shoddy production, dodgy scholarship, a hidden agenda, and an
introduction by Advani), this 11-volume encyclopedia is a startingly
good treasure trunk for any one interested in the history of ideas to
Jai Maharaj, Jyotishi
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