Encyclopedia of Hinduism and Mahakumbh

March 28, 2010
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Last week a special preview of 11-volume Encyclopedia of Hinduism being published by Rupa & Co. in association with the India Heritage Research Foundation, was held in Delhi. Three volumes of the set were put up on display at the Vivekananda Foundation Auditorium at Chanakyapuri, New Delhi. The Programme was a panel discussion on “Hinduism in the Contemporary World’’.

I was one among the 400 strong audience who listened with rapt attention to the enlightening and elevating discussion that lasted for over two hours. The distinguished panelists included Swami Atma Priyananda, Vice-chancellor Sri Ramakrishna Vivekananda Vishwavidyalaya, Dr. Kapil Kapoor, Editor in Chief, Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Dr. Kavita Sharma, Director, India International Centre, Dr. Lokesh Chandra, renowned scholar and author, and Sadhvi Bhagwati, Secretary India Heritage Research Foundation.

In a way, the tenor and content of that evening’s discussion reminded me of several such debates I had heard as a boy in my teens, still a student in Karachi.

Born in 1927, I spent the first twenty years of my life under British rule. My fondness for books started even while I was in school. A book much talked about those days was Mother India by Katherine Mayo. If an Indian read the book, he would either start feeling ashamed of his own country, culture and religion, or he would start hating the British colonialists who had created a climate in the country where slanderous books such as this one had been proliferating, Gandhiji had condemned this book as a “Drain Inspector’s Report.” Several books were written in reply to Mayo’s book. One of them was Lala Lajpatrai’s Unhappy India.

At the Vivekananda Foundation function, Dr. Kapoor, the Chief Editor of this Encyclopedia, forcefully argued that western culture internalized by the elite of our country because of the educational system thrust on us during British rule has made us ashamed and apologetic about our tradition, ceremonies, and customs, and specially about our languages, particularly Sanskrit.

Recounting an incident from Thomas Macaulay’s life, he said Macaulay wrote to his father in 1836 very proudly, “The effect of this (English) education on the Hindoos is prodigious. No Hindoo, who has received this education, ever remains sincerely attached to his religion. It is my firm belief that if our plans of education are followed up, there will not be a single idolater among the respectable classes in Bengal thirty years hence.”

A function similar to the one arranged in the capital is scheduled to take place at Rishikesh early in April while the Kumbh festival is on. Reverend Swami Chidanandji, President of the India Heritage Research Foundation, who conceived this idea of an Encyclopedia of Hinduism two decades back has invited His Holiness the Dalai Lama for the function.

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The Haridwar Mahakumbh has been on since January 14 – Makar Sankranti Day. It is to last till Baisakhi, that is, mid April.

In a book he wrote in 1999, titled No full Stops in India , Mark Tully, BBC Correspondent in South Asia for twenty five years, and a newsman who was expelled from India (he was Chief of BBC Bureau in Delhi at that time) by the Congress Government during the Emergency, has showered lavish encomiums on the Kumbh festival, and wrote :

“The Kumbha Mela is billed as the biggest religious festival in the world, but no one knows exactly how big it is. Perhaps the Gods keep records of the devotees who wash away their sins in the rivers Ganges and Jamuna at Allahabad during the festival. As far as mortals are concerned, satellite photographs, computers and the other paraphernalia of modern technology might give a reasonably accurate estimate, but they have not so far been used for this purpose. So all one can say is that the official guesstimate was that about 10 million people bathed on the most sacred day of the 1977 Kumbh Mela.”

“No other country in the world could provide a spectacle like the Kumbh Mela. It was a triumph for the much maligned Indian administrators, but it was a greater triumph for the people of India. And how did the English-language press react to this triumph ? Inevitably, with scorn. The Times of India, the country’s most influential paper, published a long article replete with phrases like ‘Obscurantism ruled the roost in Kumbh’, ‘Religious dogma overwhelmed reason at the Kumbh’, and ‘The Kumbh after all remained a mere spectacle with its million hues but little substance.’ The Times of India criticized the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s politics, but made no attempt to analyze or even to describe the piety of the millions who bathed at the Sangam.

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Mark Tully was born in Kolkata. But even after his retirement from the BBC he has stayed on in New Delhi and chosen to adopt India as his home. Tully is foremost among intellectuals in understanding India’s concept of secularism very correctly. He has emphasized again and again that ‘Secular State’ does not mean an ‘Irreligious State’. In India, he holds, secularism stems from Hindu tolerance. At another place he has recalled :

“One morning in Delhi I woke up to hear a debate on BBC World Radio service suggesting that no one should send Christmas cards because they were not secular. The secularist wanted to deny Britons all the fun, all the color of Christmas, the lights in London’s Oxford Street, the Christmas trees towering over passengers at railway station, the carol singers going from house to house, because they were demonstrations of Christianity. It was proposed that cards should carry the drab uninspiring message: “Happy mid-winter festival”. After hearing that view, I picked up my copy of the Hindu, a national daily, to see a front page picture of the Governor of West Bengal holding a Christmas party for children on the lawns of his house in the middle of Kolkata. The Governor was Gopal Gandhi, and he was following in the footsteps of his grand father who once said: “My Hinduism teaches me to respect all religions”.

L.K. Advani
New Delhi

28th March, 2010

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