About On Hinduism
On Hinduism fills a gap in the written history of world religion, philosophy, mythology and culture. It is a concise yet comprehensive view of Hinduism which embraces and explains its history, tenets. philosophy, culture, rituals, mythology and its influence in an accurate and open manner.
This work is clear and easy to understand, although it deals with complexities along with the visible and colorful aspects of Hindu traditions.
It will interest those who appreciate Hinduism and wish to have a better understand it better, those who have had limited exposure to Hinduism and are curious about it, and even those who disagree with Hindu beliefs or what they imagine Hindus believe.
It is a go to work for any person who has questions about Hinduism or seeks to understand Hindu perspectives.
This book may be used as a companion to The Gita, A New Translation of Hindu Sacred Scripture or stand on its own.
You can buy On Hinduism on Amazon.com.
Reviews and Commentaries
Foreword Reviews – Fall 2013
Engaging rather than didactic, this exploration of Hinduism’s roots enlightens readers on the essence of creativity and karma.
Irina Gajjar’s (author of The Gita, a contemporary translation of the Bhagavad Gita) On Hinduism is an inviting and concise introduction to a diverse tradition, one claimed by a billion people worldwide while remaining little understood in the Western world. Gajjar traces Hinduism to its roots, roughly contemporaneous to the introduction of Vedic culture into the Indian peninsula some 3,500 years ago. The religious system which developed over the next thousand years encompasses much, though it defies orthodoxy.
Hinduism itself, she says, holds a belief in a singular god, best understood as an overarching and creative truth, though individual Hindus may elect to forego engaging belief in a deity entirely. God, when approached in the tradition, is most often expressed via three divine attributes: creator, preserver, and destroyer. Students of religion will recognize room for ecumenism in such conceptions. Indeed, God-as-preserver, or Vishnu, was last incarnated, some Hindus say, as the Buddha, whose teachings on enlightenment and rebirth arose from Hindu thought.
Notions of God’s inscrutability, Gajjar indicates, create room for boundless creativity surrounding the absolute. Thus, the author devotes a chapter to some of the very colorful, much beloved myths which have been developed by Hindus.
This religion which resists doctrine, Gajjar shows, also defies conventions surrounding canon, though there are texts considered quintessentially Hindu. These begin with the Vedas, from which the Bhagavad Gita draws. Gajjar comments upon their composition while affording the reader glimpses of significant portions of the texts. She also gives a nod to other traditions which emerged from Vedic worldviews, including Jainism and Sikhism.
Reliance on the texts is no more requisite than a proclaimed belief in God in Hindu life, however. In subsequent chapters, Gajjar investigates other vehicles of enlightenment, from yoga to traditional pujas, or rituals. These include the festivals which many associate with Hinduism, including Holi and Diwali, and ways of attiring oneself, including the bindi. Gajjar also illumines life-cycle events, including (arranged) marriage, naming ceremonies, and rituals following death.
Beyond the rituals which punctuate a Hindu life are the behaviors and understandings around which one builds a typical Hindu day, like notions of karma and reincarnation. Gajjar fleshes such ideas out with illustrative analogies of cause and effect. Late in the book the reader encounters a connected chapter on dharma, the concept of an over-arching yet subjectively adhered to system of ethical behavior.
On Hinduism is an intellectually engaging and respectful appraisal of a complex, diverse system which tends to resist simple explanations. That Gajjar manages to communicate so much of Hinduism to the reader so neatly, and with such authorial flair, seems quite an accomplishment.
Table of Contents
Author’s Preface: Thanks to Readers and a Word about Authorities
A Skeptic’s Perspective by Ravi Heugle
Chapter 1 Hindus and Hinduism
Chapter 2 Monotheism
Chapter 3 The Bhagavad Gita
Chapter 4 Paths to God
Chapter 5 Myths and Legends
Chapter 6 Karma and Reincarnation
Chapter 7 Rituals and Traditions
Chapter 8 Dharma
Chapter 9 Truth
Chapter 10 In Essence
FROM CHAPTER 1 – HINDUS AND HINDUISM
The question, “Who is a Hindu?” is much harder to answer than the question “What is Hinduism?”
Historians, teachers, scholars and gurus have disagreed about Hinduism for centuries and continue to disagree. Hindus themselves agree even less about who they are and what they believe. The reason is that Hinduism, while clear and simple, is a universal faith. Hinduism has powerful tenets, but they are open to interpretation and evolving scientific truth. Respect for individual thought runs deep. Alternatives abound. Hinduism is easy to understand for Hindus, but complex or varied explanations create confusion in the minds of those who have not absorbed or been absorbed by Hinduism. Numerous and divergent ideas, images and theories confuse strangers to Hinduism while Hindus themselves find giving answers to outsiders difficult because they never considered the questions.
To believers or followers of Hinduism, their religion is a premise, a starting point, rather than a conclusion or ending point. Hinduism can be viewed as a springboard. Hindus jump off that springboard and make leaps of faith. This is why describing a Hindu as a believer in Hinduism is accurate, but at the same time incomplete and redundant. It must be true that no Hindu believes everything that has been preached in the name of Hinduism. The majority of Hindus have not even read the Bhagavad Gita or the Gita in its entirety, which is a pity as this short quintessential scripture that contains the distilled essence of Hinduism is one of the greatest writings ever written. Yet Hindus remain staunch and sophisticated in their affiliation. Their mindset is composed of philosophy, spirituality and ethics, all colored by ritual, mythology, and tradition.
Hindu philosophy determines that Karma predicts and determines the consequences of all actions. Karma does not quite equate to destiny. Predetermination forges destiny whereas karma generates and regenerates itself when beings act. Karma incorporates the law of cause and effect that says energy is not lost or created. Karma is relative in that it is not restricted by time or by space, at least not in the sense that human beings understand these limitations. In other words, karma is not necessarily confined to our planet or our lifetime. Although it may work quickly, it creates itself and plays itself out in any time frame and in any or many spaces within the universe or universes. Karma goes on and on until the authors of the actions that trigger it merge into the supreme being or perhaps cease to exist. At such a time they and their karma become part of the cosmic energy pool.
FROM CHAPTER 5 – MYTHS and LEGENDS
Hindu myths and legends illustrate Hinduism’s world vision in vibrant color. They portray worlds inhabited by people, by super people, by gods and demons, by legendary heroes and evil doers, by fantastic creatures endowed with extraordinary powers and by great warriors wielding remarkable weapons. These tales tell of places unbound by time or space, places that exist in our imagination and places we can visit today. They tell of flight through the heavens. They discuss creation and destruction. They speak of God’s manifestations and God’s power. They bring laughter and tears and they thrill, frighten, comfort and teach generation after generation of Hindus. Ancient stories told and retold never lose their fascination. They weave themselves into the fabric of Hindu life and take on new life when fresh miracles come about or when nature and science amaze us with feats that we once thought could not be performed outside of our imaginations.
Among the most intriguing narratives in Hindu mythology are the stories related to the ten avatars of Lord Vishnu, the Preserver, in the holy trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. The term avatar is understood to mean incarnation or manifestation, but the actual translation from Sanskrit is “descent.” People do not worship all the avatars and all are not human. Hindus adore Rama and Krishna above Vishnu’s other incarnations, but Vishnu came as a savior in all of them. Hinduism has consistently viewed Vishnu as the savior. While Brahma is the Creator who starts cosmic activity and Shiva is the Destroyer who ends it, Vishnu, the Preserver, is the one strives to maintain cosmic order, intervening whenever needed.
It is interesting to note that the order of the avatars’ appearance parallels the sequence of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
FROM CHAPTER 6 – KARMA and REINCARNATION
The Hindu world view rests upon the principles of karma and reincarnation. These are not inter-dependent philosophies, but they complement one another to provide answers to questions about the eternity of the soul and man’s place in the universe. Karma and reincarnation are not theories in Hinduism, rather they are premises that have evolved along with Hinduism itself. However, it is possible to accept the idea of karma without a belief in reincarnation and vice versa.
Reincarnation and karma may be viewed as reflecting the laws of physics that say ‘energy cannot be created or destroyed’ and ‘for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.’ In spiritual terms, these scientific laws imply that the soul is eternal and that actions have consequences. Thus, Hinduism believes that the soul is born again and again in different bodies until the effects of its actions are burned enabling it to join the Absolute Soul that is pure energy.
The earliest Hindu references to reincarnation describe journeys to other worlds or realms known as lokas. These worlds represent astral planes to which souls can travel outside of the body after death or when the body attains different levels of consciousness. At the same time these worlds are viewed as regions in the universe. Thus, Vedic cosmology sees a singularity or oneness in the universe that is reflected in our consciousness. The universe exists beyond us and within us at the same time. It is a multidimensional and a multi-temporal cosmos. Souls migrate from one world to another and from one body to another until, after many lifetimes, they yearn to become free.
FROM CHAPTER 8 – DHARMA
The spectrum of values embraced by Hinduism does not define it or even set it apart from other value systems, but it represents Hindu ideals. Some of these values belong to all humanity. Others are shared by Hinduism and its sister religions. Yet others may be specific to the Hindu outlook on of life. Not every Hindu shares all the values that are part of Hindu teachings. Nor does every value that Hinduism has taught prevail. Yet most of these values have determined Hindu culture and reflected the Hindu world view for many thousands of years.
Morals and ethics are components of values. If people advocate a particular behavior, like telling the truth or showing respect, that behavior becomes a value. Morals are standards that pertain to individuals whereas ethics embrace rules pertaining to societies or societal groups.
In Hinduism, morals and ethics are important, but they do not apply to behavior in the abstract. They apply to behavior in context, taking into account circumstance and motives. While doing or not doing certain things like telling the truth, helping the needy and not killing are generally the right thing to do, they may not be the right thing to do at all times or in all places or under all circumstances. Thus, rather than taking a stand about matters like telling the truth or killing and then carving out exceptions, Hinduism stays away from making rules cast in concrete, particularly about what we should NOT do. It does not say “Thou shalt not kill” or “Thou shalt not lie” and then carve out exceptions for self defense or saving a life or sparing someone’s feelings. Rather, Hindu scriptures direct people to follow the path of goodness which requires them to be worshipful, to take actions that are in harmony with the universe and humankind and to pursue true knowledge.
Virtue is its own rule and following dharma, the eternal law, is the highest virtue.