The fact that I have categorised this article under ‘books I have loved’, goes on to show that it is not a book review in its conventional sense. I am not going to write about the pros and cons of the book. I loved the book and will give a summary of the book along with the salient features that stuck me.
I read this book over a couple of days in a hospital waiting room. Once I started the book or every time I restarted the book, I got lost in no time and forgot about the surroundings, till someone came and tapped my shoulders.
This book is written by Karan Singh, an Ex-Cabinet Minister in the Congress Government. So the book is not coming from a member of the saffron brigade. Nor is it written by one of those so called foreign scholars. Hence, we may expect a fair degree of neutrality along with the right amount of compassion, unlike the contents in the plethora of books on Hinduism which either exalt it to the point of exaggeration or portray it as nothing more than a religion of snake charmers, idol worshipers or charlatans selling solutions for premature ejaculation.
In this collaboration of essays the author discusses the basics of Hinduism. Outlining the message of the Bhagavat Gita and the Upanishads, he argues that Hinduism is not a cult, nor a bunch of dogmas but a religion of the highest order that speaks of an immanent and transcendental god. It also offers a philosophy of life that cuts across ethnic and geographic barriers between men. According to him, the essentials of Hindu religio-philosophic teachings are pervaded by the ideals of universalism and love for humanity.
The author drives home the relevance of Hindu unversalism to an age in which nations are armed for mutual annihilation. He maintains that successful application of the Hindu seers will help humankind to overcome the worst crisis facing it in the nuclear age, and will lead to restructuring the world on the all-embracing principle of freedom and equity. the text is followed by the author’s lucid translation and commentary on Mundak Upanishad.
However, what the blurb does not talk about is the recurring theme in the book that Hinduism has five basic tenets . The author returns to these tenets again and again. These five tenets, in brief, are as follows:
- The concept of Brahman, the unchanging undying reality that pervades the entire cosmos. The vedic seers saw that everything in the universe changes and they called the creation sansara, that which always moves. But they also perceived that behind this change there was an unchanging substratum from which the changing worlds emanated like sparks from a great fire. This supreme all pervasive entity known as brahman has been beautifully described in various upanishads.
- The second great insight of the vedic seers was that, as the changing universe outside was pervaded by Brahman, the changing world within man himself was based upon the immortal spark known as Atman. The human entity is born again and again across aeons, gathering a multitudes of experiences and gradually moving towards the possibility of perfection.
- Having perceived the existence of Brahman without and the Atman within, the great seers realized through their spiritual insights that Atman and Brahman are essentially one. This concept of Tat Twam Asi (that thou are) is beautifully expounded and illustrated in Chhandogya Upanishad.
- The fourth basic tenet is about the supreme goal of life which is to realize the deathless Atman within and its unity with the Brahman.
- The fifth one is the concept of Karma – a concept that includes Action, Causality and Destiny.
In the chapter, Secularism – a New Approach, the author emphasises the need for an Indian approach to secularism as opposed to the western approach which is prevalent now. According to the author, India has never had an organised church , so the European concept of secularism was never relevant to our requirements. The following are the three premises suggested by the author to form the basis of our secularism:
- The term Sarva-dharma-sambhava (Not favoring a particular religious denomination over others) is a far more meaningful formulation than Dharma-nirapekshata and is much closer to the view of Mahatma Gandhi on secularism.
- When the conflicts among various religions and religious sects which create serious law and order problem, it is clear that the myth of religion being a purely personal matter can no longer be sustained and the state has to take cognizance of religion as social force.
- The myth that, as education increases and living standards improve religion will steadily lose its hold over the minds of people and become increasingly peripheral, has been debunked by the facts that more places of worship are found in developed societies than the underdeveloped ones.
The author also touches upon the subject of environmental preservation and other issues faced by the global citizen and how the solution can be found combining modern findings with vedic wisdom. At the end the author hopes that the world recognizes ‘Basudhaiva Kutumbakam‘ (The whole world is one family) as propounded by the ancient seers so as to realize the oneness of the human race and rise over individual and class differences to end the conflicts among nations and groups.
Thus, major parts of the book explore the insights of the ancient seers as found in the Upanishads and other Hindu scriptures in general and the Bhagavat Gita in particular. In a way, though the eighteen essays along with the appendix containing commentaries on Mundaka Upanishad, the author presents the soul of Hinduism, as opposed to its body which are the various rituals associated with the religion ans which are also the major focus of many of the western writers and Indian intellectuals.
If you want to have a feel of the soul of Hinduism and get many of your long held myths (which you might be unaware till you read this book) about the religion get busted, this book is a must read for you.