Of all the religions in India, Hinduism, surely, is the most misunderstood. But that is only to be expected. It is as old as the hills, if one might say so, going back to more than 10,000 years. It has no Pope, no one single authority to lay down the low. We might say, it has been right from the start multi-ethnic, not to say multi-cultural but the most beautiful thing about it is that it is so catholic, so open to thinking that it is indestructible. Down the centuries it has been the target of Islamic and Christian fundamentalists and evangelists, but it has not only survived, it has grown to even greater heights than ever in the past.
But knowledge of Hinduism is still poor. Hindus are unaware of the fact that because they live it by the hour and the day, observing rituals, praying to their kula devatas that to know the essentials of Hinduism is not an obligation. This work, ‘Handbook of Hinduism: Ancient to Contemporary will probably come to them as a delightful surprise and as an education to non-Hindus, which is why it is something that every citizen, be he a Hindu or otherwise would do well to read.
It is all-embracing and all-encompassing and starts from till very beginning of Indian civilization. It is divided into two parts: Part I seeks to explain some of the fundamentals such as the Self and the Divine, the Self and the World, the Law of Karma, the concept of dharma, ethical grading, social concern and the means to attain moksha.
What is sadhana? How does one attain self-realisation through, for instance Jnana yoga or Raja yoga? What is Karma Marg and Bhakti Marg? The subjects are so subtly but so clearly expounded that it is sheer delight to be reminded what many of take for granted.
And then Nadkarni does what few before him have done namely, he has made clear the Caste System is not, repeat NOT, Hinduism at all, as many generally believe but something that has grown with the years and has – this is important – been subject of much criticism from saints and savants like Tinuppan Alvar, Kanaka-Das, Tukaram and Basaveshwar to Narayan Guru and Dr B.R. Ambedkar, not to speak of Mahatma Gandhi.
That one single chapter on Caste going over 35 pages should be must reading for all and sundry who have poor knowledge of Hinduism. It is not often realised that over that years there have been strong movements against casteism through movements like Bhakti and sants like Dnyaneshwar.
Part II comes down to basics. What has made Hinduism survive despite massive attempts from marauding non-Hindus?
Nadkarni discusses the dynamics of Hinduism, consisting of continuity and change. What are the driving forces behind change? What role did the Vedas and Upanishads play? Gandhi is not only quoted as saying that Hinduism abhors stagnation, considering the limitless knowledge available, but the author also discusses the birth and growth of Buddhism and Jainism, both offshoots of Hinduism which often their proponents refuse to admit.
Nadkarni in easy understandable style outlines the Kalpa sutras of which the dharma sutras are a part. Indeed we are informed about the whole lot of rules and values like the Shrauta sutras, the Grihya sutras as well as the Smritis. The Smritis, incidentally, provide guidance in the Pravritti dharma, required in conducting the affairs of the world.
Nadkarni divides the development of Hindu philosophical thought through seven phases: (1) Vedic Phase (2) Upanishadic Phase (3) Dharmashastra Phase (4) Ethical phase as illustrated by the Ramayana and Mahabharata (5) the phase of philosophical crystallisation under the three Acharyas, Sankara, Madhwa and Ramanuja (6) Bhakti Movement phase, and, lastly, (7) Modern Phase.
The Bhakti Movement phase gets detailed examination, considering its importance and impact it has had on society as a whole. We learn a great deal about the Nayanar saints, starting from the 7th century AD and the setting of new schools of thought. We are introduced to such distinguished names as Basaveshwara (1132-1168), Akka Mahadevi, Namdeo (1270-1350), Dnyaneshwar (1271-1296), Purandaradas (1480-1564), Chaitanya (1485-1533 ), Ramananda (1400-1470), Tukaram (1598-1650) and we all know the incompara¬ble contributions of sants like Kabir (1441-1518) and Tulsidas (1532-1623).
As Nadkarni rightly observes: “The contribution of Bhakti Movements to the development of Hinduism is not less than that of the classical phase”. Many of us are more familiar with the modern, contemporary phase that involves such great names as Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1774—1833), Rama Krishna Paramhansa, Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902) Dayananda Saraswati (1824-1883), Mahatma Jyotiba Phule (1827-1860) and there are so many of them like Paramhansa Yogananda, Sri Swaminarayan, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swasmi, Sri Sri Ravishankar, Maharshi Mahesh Yogi, Sri Satya Sai Baba, Swami Chinmayananda, Mata Amritanandamayi find Ramana Maharashi.
There have been so many of them. But the important thing is to realise, as Nadkarni makes it plain that “if we deduce a gist of the teaching of all spiritual gurus during the modern phase, it becomes crystal clear how the Phase is marked by a continuation from the past”.
The best line that one should remember in this connection is what Vivekannnda said, namely that “the Vedants recognises no sin, it only recognises error and the greatest error, says Vedanta, is to say that you are weak, that you are a sinner, a miserable creature and that you have no power to do this and that”.
For sheer clarity and objectivity Nadkarni has no equals. Here is a book that needs to honour every book shelf for what it gives: knowledge, wisdom and a clear understanding of what Hinduism stands for and has always done so.