Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Hindus: Book Review Part II

Outline of the plot of The Hindus.

The oldest document of Hinduism is the Rig Veda, first written in the early centuries AD, but probably composed as much as two thousand years earlier. The peoples who composed it and the other Vedas may or may not have affinities with the Bronze Age Indus Valley Civilization (IVC)(3300-1300 BCE), but their life style, horse riding and nomadic, was certainly different. Unfortunately the IVC left no decipherable records, so we don't know what language they spoke.

The Vedic peoples spoke an Indo European language which left its traces in Sanskrit, the liturgical language of the Vedas and much subsequent Hindu literature as well as in widely spoken Indian languages of today. The Indo-European speakers, who conquered most of Europe and big chunks of Asia, are commonly assumed to have originated in central Asia, but other hypotheses are sometimes entertained, and their diaspora occurred some 5000-6000 years ago or so.

There is a huge later religious literature (Brahmanas, Aranyakas, Sutras, Upanishads, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and more) that dwarfs the literature of any other religion. This literature, says Doniger, articulates the changing character of Hinduism over the millenia. Perhaps the most notable characteristic of this literature, compared with the Abramaic religions, is the diversity of points of view expressed. Almost every facet of religion and society is subject to intense debate and critique. Unlike, say, Christianity, where dissenting points of view were often punished by murder, most dissent was incorporated into the body of the literature. For Doniger, this is one of the principal virtues of Hinduism.

Hinduism is even more tightly woven into the culture of India than most religions are into theirs, and that fact makes it extremely difficult to separate religion from putatively "secular" aspects of the culture. Widely divergent sects, beliefs, and practices exist simultaneously in Hinduism as a whole and often in the minds of individual Hindus. This is sometimes shocking to the Aristotelian and Cartesian minds of Westerners, but quite compatible with the latest views of modern cognitive science.

Hindu pluralism makes it exceptionally difficult to define as a Western style systematic body of beliefs. Throughout history the Hindus have often responded to new ideas from the outside by adapting and incorporating them. Christian and Muslim saints have been adopted and incorporated into Hindu practice by some groups. Internal critiques of Hinduism which have split sharply with it are tacitly and legally adopted into it, for example Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. The Buddha, for example, received a sort of Mormon style posthumous re-baptism back into Hinduism as an Avatar of the great God Vishnu.

Next time: some critical comments about the book.