July 05, 2020
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Bhasya On Sastra

The Encyclopaedia of Hinduism aspires to be a go-to book for initiates

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Bhasya On Sastra
Bhasya On Sastra

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.


Hindu Encyclopaedia

To ensure comprehensive coverage, the entries of the Encyclopaedia are prepared under the following twelve subject areas

  • Art Architecture, Music, Iconography, Painting, Dancing, Theatre, Performance & Sculpture
  • Hinduism in Global Context Nepal, Southeast Asia, Australia, Europe, North & South America, Mauritius, Africa, the Caribbean
  • Language and Literature Texts & commentaries on religious themes in Sanskrit, Indian languages. Myths, legends and journals on religion & spirituality.
  • Philosophy Metaphysics, Psychology, Ethics, Six Sysems of Indian philosophy, Jain, Buddhist & Sikh thought, Tantra, Saiva Siddhanta & contemporary Hindu thought
  • Polity Political institutions, judicial systems, economics, law and order, military history and weapons.
  • Religion and Spirituality Scriptures, Sruti, Smriti, Purana, Itihasa, Sutra, Bhasya, Sastra, gods & godesses, saints, mystics & teachers, rites & ceremonies, Vaisnavism, Saivism & Saktism, holy places, sectarian movements, temples, modern movements
  • Sciences Ayurvveda, astronomy, astrology, mathematics, cosmology, chemistry, others
  • Social Institutions and movements Education, Varnasrama, Dharma, Jati, tribes and their customs, status of women, feasts, fasts and festivals, diet, dress & cosmetics
  • Spiritual disciplines Karmayoga, Bhaktiyoga, Jnanayoga, Hathayoga and Tantra
  • Scholarship in Hindu studies Indological, theosophical & commentorial tradition, oral traditions, philological studies, sociological, introspective, mystical & comparative studies
  • Women’s issues Marriage, divorce, inheritance, dowry and Sati
  • History, Historiography & Geography  Religious developments in Hindu, Jain, Buddhist & Sikh kingdoms, epigraphy, numismatics, flora & fauna, mountains, rivers & other data


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.”
Hal French, Professor, Univ of South Carolina

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.”
Sadhvi Bhagawati, Managing editor of the project

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

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