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V.S. George Joseph

Studying Hindu Tradition and Modernity

On Gavin Flood (ed.): The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism

A Concrete and Critical Forum for Hindu Studies

Gavin Flood (ed.):
The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism.
Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.
xiii, 599 pages
ISBN 0-631-21535-2
book cover
Blackwell Publishing:
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1 This book has served its purpose of providing a forum, on the one hand, for the best scholars in the world to make their views and research known to a wide audience and on the other making accessible to the readers some of the most recent scholarly thinking on the religions of South Asia within the broad category of Hinduism. While comprehensively covering the textual tradition of Hinduism, the volume also includes material on Hindu folk religions and stresses the importance of region in analyzing Hinduism. In doing so, it reflects the current move away from essentialist understandings of Hinduism and towards traditionally and regionally specific studies. The companion as a whole with its 27 essays spans the entire field of Hindu studies and is divided into four coherent sections: theoretical issues, textual traditions, theologies, and Hindu society and politics.
2 The first part, »Theoretical Issues«, contains two very different essays. The first one opens the inquiry by examining the relation of British colonialism to Hinduism and how the inability to perceive Hinduism in its own terms led to a distortion within comparative religion. It also unravels the limitations within the theory of the construction of Hinduism itself. By contrast to the first, in a somewhat controversial essay, the author of the second essay argues against recent postcolonial critique and defends the study of Indian languages and systems of thought by Western scholars in the last two centuries, critically examining the arguments of Inden and Said. Through these two essays we could form a picture of some of the major issues that have dominated discussions about the nature of Hinduism and its study and very different understanding of them.
3 The largest part of the book, »Text and Tradition«, systematically provides an overview of the major textual traditions in Sanskrit and provides three examples of traditions in Indian vernacular languages. On the assumption that a textual source cannot be separated from the tradition of which it is a part, this section gives an account of both major texts themselves and the histories of the traditions that revere and preserve them.
4 Moving away from religious traditions and texts as such, part III is concerned with systematic aspects of Indian thought. The part itself is divided into »The Indian Sciences« and »Philosophy and Theology«. The section on the Indian sciences is a unique feature of this collection of essays, as these areas are so often neglected in introductory texts and surveys such as this. Rationality is not, of course, the sole possession of the West, and India (as did China) developed very early an empirical investigation of the world, especially an inquiry into language, along with more speculative, philosophical inquiry. The purpose of this section is an examination of some of these developments by scholars who have worked closely together on this project, and to emphasize the importance of systematic, rational thinking that, at some levels, feeds directly into the philosophical discourse of the traditions.
5 The final part of the volume on »Society, Politics, and Nation« examines sociopolitical themes of particular relevance to the contemporary world. Having provided great historical sweeps of the traditions we can now examine the development of Hinduism as an entity in the last two centuries in more detail, the central organizing principle of society, namely caste, the issue of nationhood, and the issue of gender.

Historical Trajectories and Recent Developments of Hinduism

»The intention of the book is to cover the major historical trajectories of the traditions that have led to Hinduism and to present accounts of recent developments of Hinduism.« 6 The intention of the book is to cover the major historical trajectories of the traditions that have led to Hinduism and to present accounts of recent developments of Hinduism along with some of the contemporary traditions that comprise it. There are of course, problems in applying the term »religion« to the history of South Asia, implying as it does in the West a distinction between religion and governance or between religion and science, which have not been universal distinctions. For this reason the book includes an account of historical developments in Indian science along with discussions of philosophy, religion, and politics.
7 The essays contained in this are both about the past – stretching back to the time of the composition of the Veda – and about the contemporary situation. Text-historical, anthropological, philosophical, theological, and cultural-critical approaches are therefore represented. This is in line with the broad belief that textual study can contribute to anthropology. And tools derived from recent cultural criticism – especially feminism and postcolonial discourse – reveal dimensions to history and the study of texts that would not otherwise be seen. In these pages we also find theological and philosophical engagement with Hindu traditions.
8 There are many ways of studying past cultures and civilizations, but arguably the best means of gaining access to the thoughts and feelings of people in the past and the institutions they inhabited is through the texts they produced. There has been discussion in recent years about the re-materialization of culture and the need to examine material culture in history. While archaeology, epigraphy, and the history of art are undoubtedly important, the emphasis of most scholars in this volume is on text and different readings of text, although some relate text to material history where this is possible and to contemporary practice. Conversely, the essays focusing on anthropological fieldwork often draw on the texts of tradition.

A Collection of the Most Recent Scholarship about Hinduism

»This volume provides a concrete and critical forum in which leading scholars in the field could make their views and research available to a wider audience.« 9 One could obviously notice that there are gaps in what could be covered in the present volume. This has been clearly acknowledged by the editor himself as partly due to restrictions of space and of other contingencies beyond editor's own control. One may not find also in this volume, for example, specific essays on the Indus Valley civilization, yoga, ritual, the Hindu Diaspora, the Goddess and the temple, nor on some major regional traditions. But even so, these essays present systematic accounts of the history of traditions and their texts, examples of important regional traditions, and accounts of the rise of modern Hinduism and its contemporary connections with nationalism and the politics of identity.
10 The book uses the standard, scholarly transliteration of Indian alphabets; although this is not consistently applied to all place names and some proper names. There is considerable variation in practice, as many names have common anglicized forms.
11 The Blackwell Companion to Hinduism, being true to the original intention of all the Blackwell Companions to Religion series has presented a collection of the most recent scholarship and knowledge about Hinduism, one of the best known world religions. This volume too draws together newly commissioned essays by distinguished authors in the field, and is presented in a style which is accessible even to undergraduate students, as well as scholars and the interested general reader. This volume approaches the subject in a creative and forward-thinking style, providing a concrete and critical forum in which leading scholars in the field could make their views and research available to a wider audience.
polylog: Forum for Intercultural Philosophy 5 (2004).
Online: http://lit.polylog.org/5/rjg-en.htm
ISSN 1616-2943
Source: external linkSatya Nilayam: Chennai Journal for Intercultural Philosophy 6 (2004), 132-137.
Author: V.S. George Joseph, Chennai (India)
© 2004 Author & polylog e.V.
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