The Encyclopedia of Hinduism (EH)—perhaps, and strangely—the world’s first comprehensive encyclopedia on Hinduism, was launched in India in a 11 volume series with 7,216 pages. The preview ceremony held on the banks of the Ganges in Hardwar during the Kumbh Mela had the Dalai Lama and other spiritual leaders bless the publication that took close to two decades to complete.
Surprisingly, this encyclopedia had its seeds in the United States even as the Indian subcontinent remains its strongest demographic foothold. EH had its birth in Pittsburgh in 1987, though its contents have been written by scholars from around the globe.
Indrajit Hazra writing for the Hindustan Times says about EH, “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.”
Rajan Mehra, the chairman of Rupa Publications Group called EH the “most important publication of his career.” The BJP leader, L.K. Advani published a blog in praise of the Encyclopedia.
Intrigued by the interest EH has generated, I spoke to K.L. Seshagiri Rao, the key editorial man behind the series who worked on it between 1987 and 2006, and Kapil Kapoor the Editor-in-chief who spearheaded the editorial unit till its publication. Rao has a Ph.D from Harvard University and teaches Religious Studies at the Universtity of Virginia and Kapoor is the former pro-Vice Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi and a professor of English.
How was the idea of the Encyclopedia of Hinduism conceived?
Rao: A post-graduate student of mine at the University of Virginia, where I used to teach Asian religions, asked me to recommend an Encyclopedia of Hinduism where he could research and get information on Hinduism. I had to tell him that there was no such manual on Hinduism. Then I started thinking about it and shared my ideas with Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswati, the founder and spiritual head of the Hindu Jain Temple in Pittsburgh. He gave me the green signal and full support to work on the Encyclopedia project. It became a major academic enterprise, and Swamiji later founded the India Heritage Research Foundation (IHRF) to sponsor and sustain it.
Note: The first volume of the series contains an introductory chapter titled “Blessings of H.H. Pujya Swami Chidanand Saraswatiji” that states this explanation as the source of the encyclopedia: “The idea that came to me that day, more than two decades ago, came from the Divine.”
The introductory pages mention that it was the need to disseminate correct information on Hinduism “in the West” as one of the causes for its creation. Could you elaborate?
Rao: There are encyclopedias of other great religions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism and Sikhism, but Hinduism did not have an encyclopedia back then. The Encyclopedia of Hinduism will remedy this appalling omission. It makes available to the world, the authentic heritage of Hindu culture, its ethical legal, artistic, medical and scientific achievements, and most importantly, its spiritual insights, values and accomplishments.
How would you introduce this Encyclopedia to prospective readers?
Kapoor: First, the word Hinduism is only about 200-300 years old. What we call Hinduism is a cultural community and an intellectual system. It is not a “religion” like other religions—there is no single belief system with a single text like the Koran, single institution like the Church, a priestly class like the Maulvis, bound to certain interpretation only. Hinduism has many gods and allows godlessness too; you can speak against Hindu gods and beliefs, as there is tolerance for dissenting opinions. In the encyclopedia we have projected it as a powerful intellectual culture.
Has Hinduism been addressed as a religion in the encyclopedia or as a system of beliefs? I found both references in the preliminary pages…
Rao: What is religion? Do they say dharma is religion? The word religion comes to us from the West. So far as the Hindus are concerned, Hinduism is not a religion but sanatana dharma, a way of life. Hindu tradition is not a belief system. It is a spiritual tradition with moral and spiritual disciplines (sadhana)that are intended to be practiced.
Kapoor: The preliminary pages may contain some such references, as some learned scholars and elders have given their best wishes and blessings in those pages, as is the Hindu tradition of doing things.
To bring this project to fruition, was an in-depth study of Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas and other epics like Ramayana, etc. undertaken?
Rao: The intention was not to interpret basic texts, but to record how they have been interpreted by saints, sages and scholars through its history. The authors of the Encyclopedia include philosophers, archaeologists, historians, social scientists as well as experts in the different languages of India such as Sanskrit, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Gujarati, etc. The scholars were asked to write articles on saints, sages, poets, scholars who have contributed immensely to the Hindu tradition. A few examples are Tulsidas, Kabir, Guru Nanak, Alwars, Nayanmars, Purandaradas, Thyagaraja etc.
What sources were used to make the series?
Rao: The basic sources were Sruti, Smriti, Puranas, Ramayana, Mahabharatha Brahmasutra, Yogasutra, Bhagavad Gita as well as the writings of saints, sages and scholars in different Indian languages.
Are there any references to the scandals that some popular “saints” were involved in while being guardians of Hinduism?
Kapoor: If you check the Britannica Encyclopedia on Christianity, there is no mention of the violence that was committed on people over the centuries. TheEncyclopedia is not for propaganda material. So why do we need to include the negative aspects of saints and sages in our work? We are not doing a critical exposition of Hinduism here.
What kind of work force was employed in the making of this series?
Rao: The Encyclopedia, with contributions from about 1,500 scholars, is mostly written by Hindus in India and the United States. There were some non-Hindu scholars who wrote about Buddhism, Jainism, Sikkhism, Christianity and Islam, in other words, other religions. 70% of the contributors came from India, and 30% from the West. But many of those from the West are Hindu scholars, working in different countries.
Hindu studies have been pursued by Middle Eastern and Western academics too. This has given rise to diverse perspectives, which do not always coincide with indigenous interpretations. The Encyclopedia discusses such diverse perspectives and endeavors to arrive at an understanding that is sound from a scholarly point-of-view.
What was the process in putting this momentous book together?
Rao: First, a huge Entry List was prepared with contributions from scholars in different fields. From that list 10,000 entries were selected. Then for each entry an appropriate scholar/expert was identified. More than 8,000 articles, which were edited down to about 7,500 articles. The central office in Pittsburgh arranged workshops, conferences and seminars in the various universities in India and the world to identify scholars and supporters. Manuscript editing conferences were organized in Rishikesh and New Jersey.
Articles, handwritten or typed mostly, were collected, processed, catalogued, and documented by a database maintenance team in Columbia, South Carolina.
What were the biggest challenges you faced?
Rao: The chief problem was financial; Pujya Swamiji worked very hard to raise funds for the project. Sometimes, he was successful; sometimes, he received only promises.
Since the series is out, have you started getting feedback from readers and critics and what are your objectives for the next edition?
Rao: I am 84 years old, and cannot do much now. I can only recommend and give suggestions as to what should be done next on matters such as:
• Translation of the Encyclopedia into several Indian and Western languages
• Expansion of the project
Kapoor: We have invited readers to draw attention to errors, omissions and other issues that may be wrong, since this is the first edition. Since the release, I have got hundreds of calls from people pointing out errors in punctuation and grammar, etc. These are minor things. We are looking forward to more constructive criticism in time to come.
Buddhism, Jainisim, Sikhism and other Indian religions/traditions have been introduced as off-shoots of Hinduism in the Encyclopedia, but weren’t they revolutionary movements against Hinduism in the first place? Will this not be seen as an attempt at derailing rebel movements by a larger religion and co-opting them instead of allowing them to exist as alternates to Hinduism?
Rao: If Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists call themselves a separate tradition, we have to respect their opinions. But they all agree that they arose from and took some insights and values from Hinduism, and in some cases discarded some values of Hinduism. And it is true that we are trying to assimilate them within our system. We are absorbing the insights and values of Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism and other religions. We are not only tolerant, but also highlight the good points of other religions and absorb them.
Are you accepting articles for the next edition?
Rao: As of now, articles are not being collected. But that will change. There are still many articles and research items that need to be included. Like the south Indian and north Indian temples, south Indian philosophies, saints and sages—not all have been covered. Much more needs to be done.
Kapoor: I believe this is just the start. Given the chance, this Encyclopedia, given its timeless subject, can go upto 50 volumes easily. A lot more can be done.
Suchi Sargam is a journalist in India.
THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF HINDUISM By India Heritage Research Foundation. Mandala Publishing, India. 2013. English. 7216 Pages. $804. Hardcover. 11 Volumes. Available at Amazon.com.