Studies in Religion Magazine

January 3, 2022

Edited by Krishna Sivaraman, Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at McMaster University, this work comprises a series of 19 essays on “the classical period” by a group of scholars, almost all of whom are from India or Canada. (A second volume on the post-classical period is forthcoming.) The essays are arranged in eight parts, the headings of which are: “The Vedic Spirit,” “The Spiritual Horizons of Dharma,” “The Shamanic Spirituality,” “The Spiritual Quest for Immortality and Freedom,” “Vedanta as Reflective Spirituality,” “Vedanta as Devotion,” “Spirituality and Human Life” and “Contemporary Expressions of the Classical Spirit.”

I must emphasize at the outset that the scholarship demonstrated in the essays is of a high standard. Each author gives solid evidence of a comprehensive and thorough knowledge of the subject being discussed. As individual essays on a variety of topics, all are well worth reading.

Despite the general title of the series, this does not constitute a history in the conventional sense. Sivaraman has rather conceived the task as “presenting a synchronic picture of spiritually” (p. xxxi), by which I think he means allowing a number of different strategies which will together reveal the general Hindu spirituality. Thus, the approaches and scope of articles vary greatly. In some cases, the approach is one of it general introduction to the ideas of a tradition or thinker, with some attempt to focus on the idea of spirituality (e.g. Sagar Mal Jain on the Jains, Ravi Ravindra on Yoga, Harold Coward on the grammarian tradition, S. S. Ragavachar on Raunanuja. K.T. Pandurangi on Madhva and Sivaraman himself on the Sivadvaita of Srikantha).

On the other hand, there is not such general introduction to the spirituality of the Bhagavadgita; what is presented here is an essay by Arvind Sharma on the ramifications of the term buddhiyoga, which occurs three times in the Gita; and about it page towards the end of Ravindra’s article on Yoga. Similarly, articles on the Ramayana by K. K. Sundararajan and the Mahabharata by Arun Kumar Mookerjee are quite limited in focus, the former being mainly it treatment of Rama as ideal man and Sita as ideal woman, the latter a brief discussion of dharma as a goal in the Mahabharata. And Kenneth Post’s “Spiritual Foundations of Caste” is centered on the treatment of capital crime in the Chandogya Upanisad and two dharmasustras.

A further notable demonstration of the diversity of approaches is given in Kalidas Bhattacharya’s article “Vedanta as Philosophy of Spiritual life.” This is a highly abstract discussion of “knowing.” which actually presupposes a thorough familiarity with the ideas of Advaita Vedanta.

As I have pondered these diverse approaches I have had to conclude, that Sivaraman’s experiment does not quite work. The providing of good general introductions to some traditions and thinkers and the lack of such with respect to others (as noted above) lends a certain distortion to the general picture.

The question of distortion is raised by another, fact: most of these articles might have been included in a volume on Indian philosophy. This may have to do with the difficulty in defining “spirituality”; Sivaraman attempts to provide a common focus for the articles via the term adhyatma. “pertaining to atman”, which he regards as a to “spiritual”; in the West. The overall effect, however, is to render the volume, largely an introduction to the categories of “’Veda”’ and Darsana.” I found myself asking, “Is classical Hindu ‘spirituality’ so elitist, so much a matter of the high intellectual tradition?” I had hoped for more imagination, some fresh insight on what spirituality might have meant in this classical period. (This would involve, I think, a much more wideranging discussion of the epics and texts on dharma than is provided here, and some treatment of early puranas.)

I have one further difficulty with the book. I am well aware, as are all who work in this area, that the transliteration of Indic languages into the accepted Latinated forms requires a high degree of vigilance, and few writers manage to avoid errors totally. But in Hindu Spirituality there are hundreds of such errors. In the case of some essays. I found myself continually sidetracked into reading for errors in diacriticals. This lack of care is, to say the least, unfortunate.

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