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Review of Ashok Mishra’s Hinduism: The More We Change The More We Remain In The Western Narrative


Ashok Mishra has written an ambitious book on Hinduism. The objective of the book is to explain the architecture of Hinduism, the critical elements of the architecture, and trace the trajectory of the evolution of Hinduism from its ancient times till today. Naturally, it is an ambitious book – to summarize everything into a few hundred pages.

A Summary of the Book

The book is written in 6 Parts. Part-1 is a collection of essays that create certain narratives around critical elements of Hinduism such as Dharma and so on. It also indulges in tracing the trajectory of Hinduism. Part-2 is a deep dive into the Vedas – their structure and substance. Critical elements of the Vedas have been presented with deep elaboration.

However, the focus is on the Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka. The Vedanta is separated and gets special treatment in Part-3. It is presented as India’s own Age of Reason. Part-4 is an elaboration of the Architecture of Hinduism in the puranic, ritualistic and devotional dimensions such as daana, teerthayatra, vrata.

Part-5 is an extension of how Hinduism views the evolution of a being through Samskaras. Part-6 is a collection of assorted essays where the author presents his views on some aspects of Hinduism viewed with suspicion and circumspection by modernists.

At an intellectual level, the book has four layers. In its lowest strata it is a compendium of critical elements of what we call Hinduism. In its next level, it presents all these elements in a composed Architecture. Usually, every author claims it as an Architecture that naturally emerges from defining texts.

But invariably every author is presenting one’s own version. In the third layer, the book presents a trajectory and evolution of Hinduism in a certain way. In this attempt, it is naturally trying to project it through a historical lens – an unavoidable consequence of painting a trajectory.

In the fourth layer, it contains the author’s own perspectives that are explicitly stated as being so. This layering cannot be easily seen when viewed only through its structure but can be reconstructed through a careful and critical reading of the book.

In this review, we shall look into each of these layers instead of its structural parts.

Layer-1: As a compendium of elements of Hinduism

The book deserves unbridled appreciation for its attempt to present conceptual elements of Hinduism from its defining texts in such great measure. Apart from richness, conceptual elements are also presented in as much respect to the defining texts as possible.

The sheer amount of scholarship that is present in this book is astounding. For a beginner, this provides an opportunity to make a giant leap into the world of Hinduism. Naturally, everything cannot be covered in a single book.

That can neither be deemed as a limitation of the book. From a particular dimension of the philosophical universe, if one can get a view that is as large as possible, that is a significant achievement in itself.

From the dimension of critical texts of Hinduism, the book provides a very large view – which deserves an appreciation. The book succeeds as a compendium. It provides a launchpad for the keen to deep dive into more important aspects of Hinduism.

However, the book limits itself to presenting a singular view of Hinduism. There is an absence of a glimpse of other dimensions and that can severely limit the view of a future reader. There is a risk of readers developing a limited perspective of Hinduism. This aspect will be elaborated in some detail towards the end of this review.

Layer-2: The composed Architecture of Hinduism

The Architecture of Hinduism is quite an all-encompassing one. The fundamental philosophy of Hinduism is such that every element of life has a place in it. The search is always for the right place. Given this, representing the entire architecture in its enormity along with all its elements and in the right perspective is a significant challenge.

While the enormity and completeness cannot be a reasonable expectation, the ‘Drishti’ or the perspective is a critical necessity. What is the perspective from which the architecture is presented? And how do we assess this?

The key to this evaluation is an investigation of what the book views as the foundational perspective of Hinduism and how it views elements of Hinduism in its light.

In recent, India has developed confidence in its being not a religion in the western sense of the word. Dr. Balagangadhara has made the strongest case for why India has no religion in the western sense. Further, India has also developed the confidence that Dharma is not religion – one of the biggest misconceptions of the colonial era.

The book recognizes it. In addition, it is to the author’s credit that he calls out the ‘Purushartha’ as the most fundamental element of Hinduism and a key differentiator. “Acquiring artha and fulfilling kama (desires) by consistently following the righteous path of Dharma leads to ultimate freedom, the final liberation!

This is how the ultimate mission of life came to be defined” – (quoted from page 26 of Chapter Dharma – What is it if not religion?) this beautiful sentence elevates the value of this book.

However, the book does not go beyond. In spite of its significant indulgence in the Vedas, it does not establish integrity of other elements of Hindu thought with its fundamental mission – the Purushartha. As a result, it presents a compendium of elements without their interrelationship.

All the elements of the Architecture are visible but the specific shape of the Architecture is not evident. In addition, it does not establish the philosophical foundation from which the Purushartha perspective emerges.

There is a complete absence of how the Hindu thought views Srishti, Sthiti, Laya differently, and the Vedic concept of Rta that truly makes Hindu thought stand apart is wholly absent. As a result, the rest of the book stands in isolation.

Other elements of Hinduism seem to have evolved independently or loosely evolved from Purushartha. The book strives to integrate everything through Dharma. However, it could have strived for greater philosophical integration.

This loosening is not without a consequence. As it tends to become a compendium, it lends itself to a modern interpretation. It is in the blurring of the composed architecture that the colonial era created space for a re-interpretation of Hinduism in its own religious mirror image. Over the layer of a compendium, this book too begins to develop this tendency, in spite of the author striving to present a native perspective. This, really, is the risk that all of us who are educated in modern paradigms suffer.

There are other achievements of the book though. It recognizes that today’s Hinduism is the result of a complex engagement between the Vedic thought and other cultures for a few thousand years. This complex engagement is not covered in the book though. That, however, is not a limitation. In addition, it recognizes that Vedas are performative knowledge.

It is a practicing community alone that can present its interpretations correctly. The author explains the entire context in which the Vedas were interpreted during the colonial era and how faulty the methodology was. Yet, the book suffers from a problem that all modern narratives suffer. Hinduism is a complex of Philosophy, Principles, Code, Traditions, Practices, Customs, and Rituals.

A textual approach to this complex presents a limited world view. Although the book presents these elements – it does not present the complex engagement between these elements. The reality of how Hinduism operates with the elements of its complex architecture – that is the essential difference of Hinduism.

This dimension is somewhat missing in the narration. This is a consequence of viewing Texts as Canonical and viewing everything from its lens. Hinduism has a very different role for its Texts, very different from the west. They were guides for realization and principles for operation. They were less of canonical law.

The process of how we realized Principles from Philosophy, Code from Principles, Traditions based on these three, Practices from Tradition, Customs and Rituals around Practices – and how this could continuously change with times is an essential feature of Hinduism. This is not a linear evolution. This dimension is missing from the book.

An important miss in this dimension is the Sutras. While many Sutra-form texts are referred to – there is a complete absence of why India evolved a paradigm of Sutras. That has nearly guided everything else as opposed to the model thinking of the west.

It has its strengths and limitations. Such an essential dimension of Hindu thought, paradigm, and instrument – of knowledge and operation, its near-total miss from the book shows our own limited appreciation of what Hinduism is. This is the result of viewing Hinduism in the mere dimension of ‘religion’ which we have learnt from the west.

Even in the attempt to release itself from the clutches of religious framework, the book continues to remain within that realm. This just shows that we have a long way to go in our attempts to view our heritage from our own perspective.

Yet, another miss is the Artha and Kama dimension. While the book presents the Purushartha perspective as a significant differentiator, the unique Artha and Kama perspectives of Hindu thought do not find sufficient space.

The principle of Ishwara, hence Moksha from the standpoint of the individual, gets immense space. The Grihastha dimension gets a proportionate space. Dharma as a principle and from the dimensions of Grihastha, Moksha get very good coverage.

But the result of Dharma and Moksha on Artha and Kama, and how Bharata evolved differently until India happened, are missing. This way of thinking in itself is the result of Modern education, guided by Protestantism, that was presented to us during the colonial era.

We are simply unable to overcome this limitation psychologically. The Civilization is yet to acquire an escape velocity to fly beyond this ‘Avarana’.

In summary, what the book achieves is the first layer, it gives it away in the second layer. The author is certainly aware that there is something complex at play here.

A discussion on Devala Smriti – one that was written in the 10th Century to bring back Hindus who suffered the Islamic assault for 300 years in Sindh – is a good case.

However, the explanation that the author gives for this phenomenon is way too simplistic and is guided by limitations created by modern thought.

Layer-3: The Trajectory of Evolution

Hereafter, the book firmly acquires a nature that is largely influenced by modern paradigms. A strong sense of history is one of the contributions of Modernity – this also has its roots in Christianity.

Ever since the British put their first steps on Bharata, that is India, the tendency to draw a historical trajectory of anything and everything has increased. This has two dimensions. Tracing trajectories without hard-time lines and tracing them with hard timelines. What falls in between has a greater tendency of the latter than the former.

This book falls into the third category. As a result, there is a linear evolution of Samhita, Brahmana, Aranyaka, the Upanishads, Sutras, and Smritis. Further, there is a separation between the Meemamsa and the Vedanta.

As a result, there is a detailed discussion on why Atharvaveda was initially not accepted as Veda but added subsequently. The list is huge. In addition, Puranic Hinduism is different from Vedic Hinduism. The substance of this narrative is quite familiar.

However, Tradition does not accept this view. The Book has every right to take a different view. But it must represent the Poorvapaksha authentically before presenting a different world view. To be precise, the integrity imagined between all these texts by the Tradition is completely unrepresented by the book.

As a result, the question of contending with it does not arise at all. “While the Vedas have seven levels of meaning to the mantras leading to the Supreme Self, academic approaches to the Vedas don’t go beyond the outer mind, which is why the true Vedas remain unknown to the academic world” – Dr. David Frawley recently on Twitter.

This comment can be made on really everything in this book in spite of its rich bibliography. The Traditional perspective is missing and few Traditional scholars find themselves in the bibliography.

Dr. David Frawley is obviously missing. In its prologue, the book refers to Sri. Sri. Aurobindo as an influence. However, that fascinating metaphorical perspective and tradition of interpreting the Vedas are missing too.

As a result, the trajectory that the book paints is not very different from what is already a part of the colonial perspective with minor variations. It is not to say that the book accepts all colonial narrations – historical inclusive.

The author explicitly appreciates the need to overcome the same. However, the paradigm and methodology continue to what the west evolved. As a result, it merely presents the same with minor variations.

Layer-4: Author’s own Perspectives

The limitations observed in Layer-2 and Layer-3 become evident in the final layer ie., the author’s own perspective. An ideal structuring of the book would have been to present explicit views separately covering all standard structural elements in the beginning.

However, the book intersperses the author’s view throughout the book. As a result, literally, every chapter and section has something of the author’s own view that operates on the readers subconsciously. It takes effort to reconstruct and present that view. In this section, let us see some samples of the same.

As discussed the book is both a historical view as well as a philosophical one. As a result, the Aryan Invasion/Aryan Migration Theory cannot escape its presence and mention. The Author steers clear by presenting all three different narrations that are clashing with each other.

At a certain stage, the author even seems to not take an explicit stand in favor of any. However, indirectly in many places, the author assumes that the Aryans came from outside and presents related narratives. Hence, subconsciously the Author seems to have accepted that world view.

However, the Saraswati river evidence is completely missing in this discussion. Dr. Michel Danino, Dr. Koenraad Elst, Shrikant Talageri are completely absent from Bibliography.

As a result, these discussions are standing on very shaky foundations and could have altogether been missed without any consequence to the book. The ambition to be the ‘Everything of Hinduism’ has resulted in this blurring of perspective.

The most important such section, where the author presents his views in high density, is on the Atharva Veda and other elements, such as occult practices. The author perceives them as unworthy of being part of the Vedas.

This is a case of lack of perspective. Firstly, the metaphoric dimension of Vedic expressions is largely missing. Secondly, in the Purushartha perspective, everything that is part of Artha and Kama is within the fold. Dharma encompasses all of them.

Hence, all aspects of life in their physical, psychological, metaphorical, and metaphysical dimension are only natural to be found in the Vedas. The Mantra shakti is an important aspect of the Tradition. This limited interpretation is the result of how Protestantism defined Spirituality.

This perspective has also guided the separation between Puranic Hinduism and Vedic Hinduism. The book is full of such worldview problems.

At many places, there is needless derision of the average educated Hindu and his/her lack of perspective of the complexity of the tradition. Once again, for the scholarly ambition of this book, those comments were unnecessary slipping into the average.

As it is, such comments can be made on the book itself – for the sheer number of dimensions of the Tradition left out. Those comments made a disappointing reading and one finds them completely out of place. It would be great for such comments to be edited out in future editions.

The Result of Everything….

The greatest contribution of this book is in its presentation of Hindu concepts as a compendium. The compendium dimension alone could have been a contribution of greater significance if that had been the primary focus.

In addition, striving to escape from the clutches of colonial thought can be pleasantly seen throughout the book.

However, unless we appreciate that we are handicapped by our methodologies and instruments, largely shaped by colonial thought, we are unlikely to make significant progress.

It is Dr. David Frawley and Dr. Chittaranjan Naik who has taught us to develop our own instruments and methodologies. We have a long way to go in reimagining our philosophical, intellectual, and social heritage through our own lenses and represented through our own methodologies. This may be a project of a few hundred years.

We must go on.

Hinduism – Ritual, Reason, and Beyond is available for purchase on Amazon.


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