Over a fabulous spread of home-made vegetarian food, I was listening to Rajan Mehra, chairman, Rupa Publications Group, telling me about, what he considers to be “the most important publication” of his career. Coming from a publishing house that has made its mark — and anchors its business — by publishing best-selling ‘chatpata’ books by writers that most famously include Chetan Bhagat, the 11-volume, 7,086-page Encyclopedia of Hinduism, is clearly a radical departure.
In the old Rupa office in Daryaganj, old Delhi, Mehra tells me, “Sometime in 2007, I was approached by LK Advani [Rupa published the BJP leader’s memoirs, My Country, My Life in 2008]. He told me about a project that the India Heritage Research Foundation, involving some 2,000 scholars based all over the world, were conducting. These were scholarly essays and notes on various aspects of Hinduism. Advani asked me whether I would be interested in getting involved.”
My hackles go up as soon as I hear about the BJP connection. Far too many ‘studies’ on Hinduism out there are either religious textbooks or are thinly disguised ideological propaganda. An encyclopedia of Hinduism blessed by Advani sounded anything but a rigorous work of scholarship. Wouldn’t this be like Jyoti Basu encouraging a ‘study’ on Marxism-Leninism?
Mehra proceeds to tell me the kind of ‘professionalism’ in the work and workforce that went into the production of this giant compendium. “A separate team was hired and it worked from 2008 to 2011 under the editorship of Kapil Kapoor, former Jawaharlal Nehru University professor, collating, editing and proof-reading each entry.” He tells me to take a look at the volumes and realise that, the encyclopedia is as much about the various cultures and cultural offshoots of Hinduism as it is about providing scholarly explanations about its religious and ritualistic aspects that are part of our “samskar” of which most people, practising Hindus included, no little about. “This has nothing to do with any political Hindutva agenda,” he adds.
Speaking to Kapil Kapoor, who took on the project before Mehra got involved, I get the same pitch. He is more forthright and tells me that “Hinduism isn’t a religion, it’s a powerful intellectual system”. The former JNU pro-vice chancellor and professor of English who also taught comparative linguistics, says, “Hinduism has no sacred text. It is a kind of manual for living based on ethical materialism. It is also deeply and widely interpretative.”
But keeping this ‘make what you will of it’ nature of Hinduism in mind, I ask him whether this encyclopedia, an interpretation of interpretations, is not going to open to criticisms both from those who have a very firm view of ‘Hinduism’ in mind and from those who see it as an exclusionary ‘communal’ enterprise? “Even most Brahmin scholars don’t know about most of the matters that they pass off as ‘Hindu’. Like nuclear science, Hinduism is essentially a system of knowledge and this encyclopedia attempts to explain various elements for both the scholar as well as the student of ideas,” says Kapoor. He also points out that while the oral tradition has been a preferred system of storage, enhancement and transmission of knowledge (“Why do you think Indians take so easily and lovingly to the television medium?”), putting this knowledge down in the written/readable text makes it available to many more. Reviewer: Hindustan Times
As for criticisms and counter-views, he says that in his introduction he has welcomed readers to send in criticisms. “In such a vast enterprise, there are bound to be omissions, mistakes and lapses. I only hope that other scholars point them out so that the process of knowledge collection is further filtered.”
The proof of the pudding, of course, is in the eating. So it is to the encyclopedia that I, a non-practising Hindu atheist, go to. The format is straightforward and along the lines of . Starting from ‘Abadhita-Jñana’ in Volume 1 (“non-contradictable knowledge…”) to ‘Zoroaster (Zarathustra)’ (“the founder of Zoroastrianism…) ten volumes later, the entries are crisp, provide background and foreground, and come with a bibliography (the entry on Abadhita-Jñana includes JF Staal’s 1961 book, .
The production is excellent, as is the quality of images that are scattered across the volumes. With entries that include the ‘Dhammapada’ (the main text of Theravada Buddhism), the ‘Chipko movement’ (the organised environmental movement to resist the destruction of forests in India’), as well as the ‘Saura Mandala’ (solar system), clearly, this is an encyclopedia that doesn’t define ‘Hinduism’ in any narrow, proselytising way.
There are many reference books that deal in a scholarly, non-religious manner on Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Sikhism. This fills a gap that was there for readers in English who wish to pursue knowing about one of the most prevalent thought and social systems. Despite the initial fears I had (of shoddy production, dodgy scholarship, a hidden agenda, and an introduction by Advani), this 11-volume encyclopedia is a startingly good treasure trunk for any one interested in the history of ideas to dip into. Reviewer: Hindustan Times