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Have a question about Hinduism? Now you need look no further. The Encyclopaedia of Hinduism—11 hardbound volumes with full-colour illustrations—is here to enlighten you. The encyclopaedia, which was 25 years in the making, is the brainchild of Swami Chidanand Saraswati of the Parmarth Niketan in Rishikesh. A frequent visitor to the US, Swami Chidanand realised a desperate need for a go-to book on Hinduism and its traditions to answer the many questions that surfaced in the West, especially from children of the growing Indian diaspora.
“The Indian cultural, spiritual tradition—the history, the philosophy—all of that will be properly understood here in the West,” Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, managing editor of the Encyclopaedia of Hinduism, told Outlook. “There are so many misconceptions, so much misinformation about Hinduism and Indian culture. There are many books on the subject, but when one looks for something authoritative, definitive, unbiased, academic, that text had not yet existed.”
The international edition of the Encyclopaedia was released at the University of South Carolina on August 26. The 11-volume set, published by Mandala Publishing in California, comes with a price tag to match its size: $995. All proceeds from the encyclopaedia are going to a charity dedicated to the environmental clean-up of Indian rivers. The books are divided into 12 subject areas.
To ensure comprehensive coverage, the entries of the Encyclopaedia are prepared under the following twelve subject areas
The project, initially based out of Pittsburgh, was hosted by the University of South Carolina, where it remained until 2003, when it was moved to India. “The University of South Carolina came forward and supported the project, which is why it is fitting to come full circle and have the launch there,” says Sadhvi Bhagawati. “Anybody who believes in karma would say the Encyclopaedia of Hinduism and the University of South Carolina are karmically linked!”
“A Hindu encyclopaedia this is not. This is an encyclopaedia of Hinduism. The vision was to have inside and outside views.”
In the project’s early days, Swami Chidanand and K.L. Seshagiri Rao, the chief editor and professor emeritus of religious studies at the University of Virginia, put together a core group of scholars. That group of a few hundred scholars, historians and experts from India, the US and Europe eventually grew to a few thousand.
Hal French, professor of religious studies at the University of South Carolina, wrote some entries and also served as associate editor of the encyclopaedia since its inception. French, who did his doctorate on Swami Vivekananda and the Ramakrishna movement in the West, told Outlook one of his roles was to get western scholars involved, “partly because this is, as I would define it, not a Hindu encyclopaedia, but an encyclopaedia of Hinduism. From the start the vision was to include inside and outside views.”
The project was conceived in 1987, before computers became ubiquitous and the internet a research tool, a fact those associated with the project cite to explain why it took time to finish. Many contributors hand-wrote their entries, often in languages that ranged from Gujarati and Bengali to Sanskrit. The texts were put through a long, arduous process that involved translation into English, editing, review by a team of experts, and more editing. “Every article was edited between eight to 10 times before we were done,” said Sadhvi Bhagawati.
French acknowledges the “long trail” with a laugh. “We had some people, donors as well as contributing authors, who wondered if this thing was ever going to come off! But Swamiji and Dr Rao were very patient; their energies made it come to pass.”
“Hindu scriptures include not just dogma, but everything from music to law. Clarity on all this is very important.”
One of the goals of the encyclopaedia is to dispel common misconceptions about Hinduism. Sadhvi Bhagawati grew up in a white Jewish American family in LA and studied philosophy at Stanford University before being hooked on to Hinduism following a trip to India in 1996. For the past 17 years she has lived at the Parmarth Niketan Ashram in Rishikesh. In her life she has encountered many misconceptions about Hinduism. Two of the biggest, she says, is that Hinduism condones the caste system and that it is a polytheistic religion. “Hinduism is probably the only tradition in the world in which the scriptures include not just dogma, but everything ranging from detailed treatises on music, science, medicine, natural law. So, to be able to bring a greater clarity to the Western English-speaking world is very important,” she says.
Another goal is to give the Indian diaspora a better understanding of and connection with its faith and traditions.
“As an Indian American, I have strongly been influenced by Hinduism, a melting pot of spiritual, philosophical and cultural ideas and practices that originated in India,” says Prof Meera Narasimhan, chair of neuropsychiatry and behavioural science at the Univ of South Carolina’s School of Medicine. “As a physician trained in Western medicine, it provided me with an abundance of knowledge to help better understand the mind, body, spirit connection that is key to understanding health, as it pertains to disease and wellness.” Narasimhan led efforts to organise the encyclopaedia launch conference at the university on August 26.
The encyclopaedia has struck a chord in India, where it was released in April 2010. “The original impetus was for people abroad, but...we have found that the excitement over it and the need for it is just as great in India as anywhere else,” says Sadhvi Bhagawati.
While students in India go through an educational system that doesn’t encourage them to question their elders, students in the US are offered a cursory lesson in world history that doesn’t help them appreciate things like Hinduism and Indian history. The Encyclopaedia of Hinduism will give parents something from which to provide answers to their children, and to children a source to turn to when they don’t understand aspects of their own history, tradition and culture, says Sadhvi Bhagawati.
Narasimhan believes the encyclopaedia will deepen inter-cultural dialogue. “It will have something for everyone,” she says. “This is a lasting legacy for students and families, wherever they are,” adds French.
By Ashish Kumar Sen in Washington DC