Hinduism- A Very Short Introduction, by Kim Knott
Oxford University Press The Hindu gods and goddesses spreads all over in India, secreted within attractive temples and small wayside shrines, depicted in complex stone carvings, looking out benignly from advertisements, calendar prints and film posters, and captured on market stalls, and in shop windows in jewellery and in small sculptures. They are loved and adored and are woven into the fabric of life in Indian villages and cities and are now even in Hindu communities from the Caribbean to North America and the UK, from South Africa to Thailand. The various places in which they appear and the multitude of forms they take indicate the diversity and opulence of Hindu culture. However, Hinduism extends beyond culture into other spheres-into the social structure and social life of Hindus, ethical issues, and the politics of equality and nationalism. Contemporary Hinduism and its traditional stories, teachings, and rituals affect so many aspects of the lives of Indians in and beyond the sub-continent that we begin to speculate as to how to define it. Is it appropriate to call it a religion? In what ways does it differ from other religions? Does it in fact challenge our notions of what a religion is? Hinduism- A Very Short Introduction, by Kim Knott is a book which induces consideration to these issues. It begins by raising the question of how different starting points influence the way we perceive and understand Hinduism. How far do the drives and conclusions of devotees and scholars differ for instance? From this book we can learn about the value Hindus attach to the traditions contained in their scriptures, of their initial revelation and subsequent inter-generation transmission by priests, gurus and storytellers. One of the central questions considered and handed down by Hindus over many centuries has been ‘Who am I?’ or ‘What is the self?’ Philosophers have discussed the nature of the self, its relationship to God and the Universe, whether it exists after death and how it is affected by our actions. These are still valid issues. "Hinduism- A short Introduction" reflects how they were debated in earlier times and clarify on their contemporary relevance. We are also introduced to a variety of gods and goddesses, the stories told about them, the ways they are depicted in sculptures and pictures and the worship offered to them.Rama, Sita, Durga, Ganesha,Vishnu, Shiva , Krishna are obviously described, and Hindus’ comprehension of the divine is also accentuated. Do they worship many gods at once, or are these all just forms of a single divine being? Is it possible that there is some truth in both these ideas? When Europeans first came into contact with Hindu ideas about the divine, Hindu rituals and social life, they were quite puzzled. They saw it all through the lens of their own religion and culture, and compared it with their own experience, often drawing unfavourable conclusions. This book points out the relationship of European and American outsiders to Hinduism and the impact of British colonialism on religious developments in India in recent centuries. Early on, Hindu reformers and British administrators in India began to call for equality and social change particularly for women and those disgraced as ‘untouchable’ by Higher caste Hindus. This book further turns to the views of women and untouchables, dalits as they are now known, and shows their place within Hinduism.
The author also writes about those Indians who opposed ancient Hindu teachings and crossing the ‘black waters’, stepped outside the sacred territory of India and stresses that yet, in Indian communities worldwide, temples have been established. Hindu movements have spread, and Hindu ideas and rituals have been transmitted. Aspects of Hinduism have been taught to interested ones, thus raising the question of whether Hinduism remains a religion solely for those born in Indian families and Hindu castes, or whether it is now a missionary religion. This and other questions about the identity of Hinduism are discussed in the final part of the book. Is it one religion or many different religions each defined by region, caste and sect? Is it a religion at all? Does it make us think about religion in new ways? Although it is quite impossible to answer all these questions accurately, by discussing them we are able to appreciate the extraordinary complexity, diversity and dynamism of what we call Hinduism. The book is also replete with illustrations, some of which portray the following themes: Learning about Hindus through participation. A Brahmin conducting a ritual at a pilgrimage site. Guru and disciples: Nilima Devi conveys the spirit of the dance to her pupils. Transmigration of the self. Rama and Sita from the Doordarshan television adaptation of the Ramayana. A believer offers milk to a statue of Lord Ganesha. A wayside shrine of Shiva and Devi. Mrs Pushpa Soni worshipping at the shrine in her Bombay home. Minakshi temple in Madurai. Sati handprints: A memorial to women immolated on the funeral pyres of their husbands. A women worshipping at a Shiva linga from the Manle Ragamala. A postcard depicting the Shri Swaminarayan Hindu Mandir in Neasden. A procession, Ratha Yatra in Trafalgar Square, organized by ISKCON. Indeed, reading this book is a must not only for lovers of Hinduism, but for anyone who is truly inquisitive about it.