Decoding Hinduism (Book Review)

 Decoding Hinduism (Book Review)

Most Hindus have no clear idea where their own religion fits in the global religious landscape. Even the most illiterate Christian or Muslim ‘knows’ that his religion was brought into the world in order to supersede all other religions, which are false. The Hindus’ grasp of their relation to other religions, even (and perhaps especially) among the English-speaking literates, is characterised by crass ignorance and sweet delusions.

In Universal Hinduism (Voice of India, Delhi 2010), American scholar and Hindu convert David Frawley sets out to clear up this confusion. He takes the reader through the basic data that set Hinduism apart from the others, and specific Hindu schools from one another and from Buddhism. He also discusses what it has in common with the world’s eliminated and surviving Pagan religions, and sometimes with forms of Islam and Christianity too. In his typical kindly style, he gives every practice and every belief its due, but keeps his focus on the potential of Sanatana Dharma to heal modern society as well as to lead man to enlightenment.

One of the most useful parts for Hindus will be Frawley’s discussion of the motivation and strategy behind the missionary penetration of Hindu society. On this, most Hindu nationalist discourse is shrill and ill-informed. It usually amounts to an anachronistic identification of Christianity with “White racism” (which was a passing phase in the Church’s long history). Among other mistakes, this ignores the difference between Catholics and Protestants, with the latter marketing Christianity in India most aggressively. Such sloppiness contrasts sharply with the diligence and thoroughness of the Christian effort in mapping out the Hindu world, theologically as well as sociologically.

If Hindus want to develop a more realistic assessment of the missionary enterprise, Frawley’s chapter on it is a good place to start. He explains Christianity as a belief system and reveals its Pagan roots along with its anti-Pagan stance in terms that Hindus will understand. Thus, Catholic and Orthodox icon worship is a thinly veiled continuation of Pagan murti-puja, with the Virgin Mary as the acceptable face of the Goddess. Protestants had already pointed out that much of what endears the Virgin, the Saints and their idols and pilgrimages to the common worshippers is plain Paganism. The co-optation of Pagan elements into folk Christianity, that is, of the Aztec mother goddess Tonantzin (whose temple in Mexico was forcibly replaced with a chapel) as the Virgen de Guadalupe, is being replayed in India today by the mainstream Churches under the label “acculturation”. By contrast, Evangelical Protestants pursue a more confrontational strategy, labelling Hindu gods as devils and making no compromise with “idol worship”. They are very straightforward about the essential exclusivism that contrasts Christianity and Islam with pluralistic Hinduism.

On the contention between Hindu nationalism and Hindu universalism, Frawley charts a middle course. Of course, Hinduism is tied to India, yet at the same time it is ever more present on all continents and has even welcomed some unsolicited native converts there, besides sharing some values and practices with other religions worldwide. There is little point in trying to Indianise these others, but the common ground should be explored further, as is being done at the annual Gathering of the Elders of Ancient Traditions and Cultures, where Native American, Yoruba and Maori medicine-men make common cause with Hindu gurus like Swami Dayananda Saraswati. “All such true spiritual traditions face many common enemies in this materialistic age”, so “they should form a common front”.

At the same time, non-Indians who adopt Asian spiritual practices should realise that this system for liberation is embedded in a culture with many other dimensions. Some of these more worldly elements (arts, dress, lifestyle) could usefully be adopted as well. Frawley ought to know, as a practising Ayurvedic doctor who habitually wears Indian clothes. Thus, vegetarianism is not merely a different cuisine, it is objectively superior to meat-eating, and this is now being acknowledged by non-Hindus concerned about health and ecology. While differences must be tolerated, it doesn’t mean that all beliefs and practices are of equal value.

Knowledge is preferable to faith. At inter-faith conferences, Hindus usually cut a sorry figure, ill-prepared as they are; but at “inter-knowledge” meetings, they would have more to offer. The Hindu-Buddhist network of teaching traditions aims for “liberation through knowledge” rather than “salvation through faith”. Defensively, they should uphold religious diversity (on a par with the concern for biodiversity) against the levelling campaigns of missionary creeds and consumerism. But in a forward perspective, they should also communicate their own tradition of respect for all that is sacred and integrate it with the modern world.

(Book review published in The Sunday Pioneer, Delhi, 13 March 2011)

Koenraad Elst

Koenraad Elst obtained his MA degrees in Sinology, Indology and Philosophy. He has published on the interface of religion and politics, correlative cosmologies, the dark side of Buddhism, the reinvention of Hinduism, technical points of Indian and Chinese philosophies, various language policy issues, Maoism, the renewed relevance of Confucius in conservatism, the increasing Asian stamp on integrating world civilization, direct democracy, the defence of threatened freedoms, and the Belgian question.

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