Saturday, March 29, 2014

"Many Many Many Gods of Hinduism": Book Review

There's some clever shifts here. The title evokes the legendary 330 million deities but the text denies other than one ultimate manifestation of Brahman. Swami Achuthananda seems to be credited here and there as if another source, although he's on the title page himself. Kerala gets some patriotic boosts in one footnote, for its coconut oil pomade boosting the brain cells of residents, where even beggars look healthy. A sense of humor certainly enlivens this take on the oldest surviving religion.

The author (an Indian with evident ex-pat ties to Australia) emphasizes that what since the 18th century we in the West define as Hinduism encourages the diversity of belief and the harmony of all faiths. Beginning with an informal roaming around India and the quirks of his homeland, the first part gradually if idiosyncratically in little topical reflections widens the reader's exploration of the culture, not only Hindu but Parsi, notably.

He nods often to Buddhism (in one section like many in this brief book of quick chapters, in an unresolved exchange with another debater about the merits of that related but "nastik" system denying the Vedas) and he likes to remain open-ended about certain doctrines. Maya, the Atman-Brahman distinction, and reincarnation, part of the central portion dealing with concepts, sparked my interest but all concluded without leaving me with tidy answers. This approach may betray the limits of the scope of a short study for newcomers, or it may hint at many possibilities beyond articulation.

However, regarding the study of RISA [Religious Studies in South Asia] by academics in the West, via Wendy Doniger and her legion of acolytes, he brooks no argument. The swami insists on the maladies rampant after exposure to "Wendy's Child Syndrome," as a fellow Indian critic labels this ailment. It peddles poor scholarship as the final word on subjects where its own professors confess or are seen to lack proper linguistic training and cultural exposure to the nuances below the texts they too eagerly try to psychoanalyze. [P.S. Update: Penguin India's capitulation in Feb. 2014 to stop printing Doniger's The Hindus, after nationalist protests and censorship, disheartens for all of us who admire academic and legal free speech, whatever the relative merits of pro-/ anti-Doniger factions.]

As a careful reader, while I welcome this as a text to recommend to students looking for a resource (and I wish a list of further reading or sites might have been appended; there is an index), I must admit some small shortcomings in the pdf I was kindly provided with to review. There are a few slips in typography, usage (although accounting for Indian English may be germane for a couple of these), or spelling. One paragraph, for instance, on p. 71, shifts from "Sanatana" to "Santana" Dharma and each is given twice, leading one to wonder which is true, or at least used more often nowadays.

I liked the easygoing nature of the mini-essays. Some are joined well and foreshadow others. Some jump from one theme to another. Most follow in more or less logical order, but as with the chaos seemingly on the surface of India itself, it may take sly or careful notice to reflect on the subtle ties.
Amazon US 9/24/13.

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