About the Book
This is the book of Hinduism designed to explain many South Asian Practices, some not confined to Hindus only, that have very often been misunderstood in North America. The book contains essential information on standard Hindu sacraments and rituals, on dress codes, customs and festivals, on worship practices and sacred images. It provides a sampler of prayers, points for reflection and liturgical formulae. It notes peculiarities of émigré Hindu experience in the United State and Canada and incorporates insight from the author's experience as a Hindu chaplain. The most substantial and interesting portions of the book are those where Dr. Chakravarti offers in brief compass his studied reflections on Hindu philosophy, ethics and spirituality. The glossary is also a significant section of the book.
The book has been written in response to request for information from hospitals, ethnic squads in police forces, schools and boards of education, chaplains, social workers, and Hindus themselves. It will be helpful to students as well.
About the Author
Sitansu S. Chakravarti (b. 1938) taught Indian philosophy and religion for a number of years at the advanced undergraduate level in Calcutta. Subsequently, he was Associate Professor, and later Visiting Professor of Philosophy at Rajasthan University, India. He holds a Ph.D. in modern Anglo-American philosophy from Syracuse University, New York. He studied Hindu philosophy and religion from original texts in Sanskrit at Jadavpur University and Government Sanskrit Collage, both in Calcutta. Being well versed in both Western and Eastern traditions, he has combined them in contributions to professional journals and an encyclopedia of world spirituality. He has also represented Hinduism in Canada at national and international forums.
Hindu religious life has received its fair share of weighty scholarly treatment over the last two centuries. And there has been a massive effusion of testimonial and apologetic writing in English on diverse ways of being Hindu. What have not been readily available, however, are succinct, sensibly focused introductions to Hindu religion (and Hindu culture and society) immediately relevant to persons encountering Hindus in the course of their work in the professions of human service: e.g., doctors and nurses, teachers and school administrators, social workers, police, lawyers, correctional officers, judges and chaplains.
This situation is especially unfortunate for first generation immigrants. It is precisely to members of such professions that many immigrants, especially the needy and others in difficulty, must look for help and understanding. Yet in both Canada and the United States very few members of these professions have had any significant personal contact with Hindus, or more than the most cursory acquaintance with the Hindu tradition through study or reading.
Dr Sitansu S. Chakravarti, himself an immigrant resident of many years in the greater Toronto area, has set himself the task of narrowing the gap between what is actually known (to scholars and articulate Hindus) about Hindu life and what is accessible in reasonable convenient format to persons hard pressed for time, yet needing practical advice on how to relate well to clients, patients or other individuals who are Hindu. He has begun the task quite well, which is not surprising in view of his rich and interesting background. There is, of course, his own professional training in Eastern and Western philosophy (Ph. D., Syracuse) and his teaching at the University of Rajasthan. There is also a family tradition of interpreting the Hindu tradition, as exemplified by his father, the late Chintaharan Chakravarti, renowned scholar of Hindu Tantra. Moreover, the family of his wife, Rina (herself a teacher and author of a recent textbook on Bengali language), reinforces the Chakravartis' verve for maintaining and advancing the Indian cultural heritage. Rina's mother, Sampriti Devi, whose illustrations embellish this volume, is both artist and writer and sister of the noted Bengali film-maker, Ritwik Ghatak. Added to this stimulating family environment is the varied practical experience that Dr Chakravarti has acquired through work as chaplain, speaker, dialogue participant, and resource person in varied multicultural situations in Canada.
This concise book reflects the complexity and perceptiveness of its author. Dr Chakravarti is a Hindu Brahmin born in India, but he has passed most of his adult years in North America among those who are not Hindu. He is an academic by training but has gained practical human experience in other professions as well. He is involved in the work of Hindu religious organizations, and is acquainted with Hindu spiritual exercises, but has a positive appreciation of the intellectual orientation of the atheist. In particular he is at pains to report to modern readers about classical Hindu forms of non-theist and atheist thought and spiritual discipline. Indeed it is this interesting treatment of spirituality that gives this book a distinctive quality, over and above its practical usefulness.
For all its brevity and selectivity, Hinduism: A Way of Life covers a good deal of ground. It contains essential information on standard Hindu sacraments and rituals, on dress codes, customs and festivals, on worship practices and sacred images. It provides a sampler of prayers, points for reflection and liturgical formulae. It notes peculiarities of emigre Hindu experience in the United States and Canada and incorporates insights from the author's experience as a Hindu chaplain (surely a rare if not unique perspective in this part of the world). The most substantial and interesting, for me at least, portions of the book are those where Dr Chakravarti offers in brief compass his studied reflections on Hindu philosophy, ethics and spirituality. The glossary is also a significant section of the book and should be browsed.
The task before Dr Chakravarti and a generation of practical interpreters of the Hindu way of life as salient in specific professional contexts is a daunting one and will not quickly or easily be brought to completion. It is high time persons of Sitansu Chakravarti's qualifications, experience and personal command of the issues begin the work. The present book is a commendable pioneering effort in this task and should be of assistance, as well as interest, to many.
Although there has been an opening up to Eastern mysticism, including Hinduism, in North America in recent times, the knowledge of the religion is sporadic, and amounts to such coinage as karma, trinity, guru or Vedanta. Again, books that people base their 'knowledge' of Hinduism on do not always provide the right information or convey the right spirit of the religion as it is lived and practised by more than 600 million people all the world over.
The doctrine of karma, which goes hand in hand with the theory that we' had previous births, should not be taken as the main teaching of Hinduism. The goal of the religion is, by far, the realization of one's true nature, and not the occult search for one's identity in the past life. Atheism is accepted as an alternate way of spirituality in the religion, as we will see in the book. The genuine guru (sad-guru) is looked upon as the representative of God for theists, making the aspirant ready for the knowledge of his relation to the Supreme. To the atheist, he is the most important person, helping the aspirant to his self-realization. Either way, the guru is supposed to have a very special place in one's life.
Each book on Hinduism contributes its share to the 'trinity' of the religion that supposedly brings it, in some indeterminate way, close to Christianity. In fact, in a world religions class that I was called upon to address some time ago, I heard it said that this is a common area between both religions. The trinity of Hinduism, which comprises Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, i.e., gods in charge of creation, preservati0r:t and destruction respectively, catering to the concept of division of labour in the realm of spirituality, has been, unknown to many scholars in the Western world, virtually obsolete for quite some time. There are two reasons for this: (1) Brahma, the first member of the trinity, is very much less prominent in the Hindu pantheon than in earlier times. There is only one temple in India, in Pushkar, Rajasthan, dedicated to the god. In the process of the evolution of the religion, he has virtually disappeared except as a matter of historical legacy. (2) Vishnu and Shiva, the other two members of the trinity, have become responsible for all the three
functions themselves in their individual capacities. Thus, the idea of division of labour on which the concept of the trinity is based is no longer in operation. Instead of three, the Hindus have five now, all of whom are but various manifestations of the One.
Hinduism is not a single faith, but a religion with a single pattern of faiths. Vedanta, of the absolute monistic kind (i.e., Advaita Vedanta), belongs to this pattern. Thus, it does not exhaust Hinduism, reducing the other faiths in the religion to a questionable status, nor should it be considered as separate from the religion. It represents a faith based on one of the diverse interpretations of the Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads that form part of the Vedas.
Hinduism is accepted as a force in today's Western world through yoga and meditation, that many Hindu gurus and swamis in their ochre robes are busy teaching all over the world. A general eagerness to have some understanding of the religion is on the rise. It is also the case that a sizeable number of Hindus have adopted North America as their home during the course of the last two decades. These people are hospitalized when sick, attend old peoples' homes reaching the right age, and their children go to local schools. The chaplains taking care of the inmates of public institutions have to have some knowledge of the religion in order to be able to offer those belonging to the Hindu fold any service. The' Boards of Education need to be conversant with the broad religious practices of the pupils, the expectations and aspirations of the parents, and, above all, the life-style of the people which is, both covertly and overtly, grounded in their religion. Teachers are expected to know the background of their pupils, including their religious tradition, especially when values are taught in the class, to ensure, among other things, that a dichotomy does not exist for the children between home and school. Multicultural bodies, "too, need some information about the people they are going to serve.
This book is designed to satisfy the needs of people of all these diverse kinds, including those practising the religion, who might be looking for some authentic information on it for themselves as well as for their children. The mantras and passages in the original Sanskrit have been included, so that these could be used on the proper occasions. There are English translations following the originals to help those who do not understand Sanskrit. Chaplains will find the book useful. Although it is not a manual for Hindu rites
and rituals, they will find some hints on ministering to the dying or sick, when a Hindu priest is unavailable. There are universal prayers included here that can be used for inter-faith services. Chapter 9, Chaplaincy in The Hindu Tradition, is meant specifically for the use of chaplains. Teachers and Boards of Education will find the text, especially Chapter 11, Hindus in North America, useful. The latter grew out of several presentations to teachers of the Peel and Halton Boards of Education in Ontario. Chapter 10, The Human Value System: Ethics and Religion-A Hindu Perspective, would be relevant for value education. It is the outcome of a talk given at the annual conference of chaplains of Ontario in 1987. Some of the universal prayers can be included in the school prayers. The whole book would be useful to multicultural bodies, and people wishing to have some knowledge of Hinduism as it is practised. Students and teachers of world religions at high school or undergraduate levels will find this book helpful, too. Chapter 8, The Hindu Philosophy of Spirituality, adds a philosophical dimension to the book, which, the author believes, is an important perspective for understanding of the religion. Philosophy has been a part and parcel of the religion since ancient times. The rational support of philosophy has provided the necessary ingredients for a free flow of the diverse trends in the religion without giving rise to group enmity leading to religious war.
A general approach to a rational explanation of concepts and customs has been followed throughout the book. The symbolism in four of the main icons of the religion-Ganesha, Shakti, Shiva and Krishna-has been explained in some details which, hopefully, would make the concept of Hindu worship much clearer in conjunction with the section Hindu Worship-A Sequential Pattern. Explanations have been given of such well-known customs as the prevalence of vegetarianism among most Hindus, and not eating beef among traditional meat-eaters.
It is customary to characterize Hinduism as not so much a religion as a way of life. Of course it is a way of life, but this fact does not make it any less of a religion. To be precise, this very feature makes Hinduism all the richer a religion, so that it has been described as quite unique in being a personalized religion, as we will see in the text itself. The religion has no founder. Many of the scriptures are anonymous. Their dates vary several centuries, if not millennia, in scholars' accounts. The Hindu ideal has always been to downplay the ego, and dedicate all action to the will of God. Thus, although authoring a book has been considered important, mentioning the name of the author has, many a time, not been seen as appropriate. With the offering of the little ego on the altar of the universal self, i.e., God, for centuries, the Hindu lost also his love for historical details. In spite of the drawbacks that the process might have had on him in history, he has not yet forgotten his goal of reaching to a universal unity beyond all differences, where the small ego falls off, as Sri Ramakrishna says, like the bark of the coconut tree, leaving only its mark of a past existence behind.
The concept of surrendering to the will of God has its echo in the Lord's Prayer of the Christian tradition where the aspirant says: 'Thy will be done.' There are several concepts in Hinduism that have parallels in other religions. I will mention here a few more similarities that I find between the religion and Christianity. Such understanding of commonalities between religions, I believe, will go a long way to the realization of a common spiritual pursuit in man in all his diverse ways.
There is no concept in Hinduism corresponding to that of the original sin, but there is one of the original ignorance (mulavidya) which has similarities with the former. The Judaeo-Christian traditions might be misunderstood as discouraging knowledge, for eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, we are told, led to the fall of Adam and Eve from Heaven. Knowledge, however, has to be understood as being of two kinds: discursive, as is to be found in science, and spiritual, which goes beyond the domain of reason, in being of the nature of realization, rather than of intellectual understanding. The former is called apara, and the latter para in the Hindu tradition. Discursive knowledge, however useful it be, even in religious matters, does not lead to the ultimate union with God. The computer significantly called' Apple', showing part of the fruit eaten off, suggests its connection with the former kind of knowledge. Knowledge generated from the reading of the scriptures with the right attitude is of the other kind.
According to Christianity, Jesus is looked upon as the incarnation of God in flesh and blood, a bridge, as it were, between the mundane world we live in since the Fall and Heaven, the abode of God. The concept of divine incarnation is very much there in Hinduism, too, though Hindus do not believe in only one such incarnation. Rama and Krishna are accepted as the principal incarnations of God according to the Hindu tradition. The portrait of Jesus is placed along with theirs in many a Hindu home.
In both traditions the body is looked upon as the temple where the Lord dwells.
The constant dialogues that I used to have with my father, the late Chintaharan Devasharma, who was a devout Hindu and a great scholar on the religion, have been a continuous source of inspiration toward the writing of this book. His Bengali and English writings have been immensely useful. All this very much reminds me of the continuance of family traditions, cherished so dearly among Hindus. In the words of Kalidasa, the famous Sanskrit poet of India, ' ... The young one did not deviate from his cause (the father), even as the lighted candle does not from its source.'
I apologize for not having used the diacritical marks for transliteration. In some places, however, I have found it necessary to use two consecutive as in the same word in order to convey the phonetic value of long a as in father.
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