Category Archives: Other Book Reviews

Lured By Hope – Book Review

Though every biography is only an interpretation, the way the author interprets the character will not only present a scholarly work but also demonstrate the author’s skill to unfold a drama when you read it. This is what I felt when I read this wonderful biography of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Ghulam Murshid, translated from Bengali by Gopa Majumdar, Lured by Hope: A Biography of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, New Delhi, Oxford, 2003.

What is more interesting is that the way it is translated by Ms. Gopa Majumdar makes the reader feel like it is not a translation. It forces the reader to identify with the character of the book. I felt this as I read the book and found it difficult to put down. If one has the time and interest, it can be read entirely in one stretch.

Continue reading

A Storm of Songs Book Review

Bhakti movement, is it a movement?

Bhakti is neither a ‘movement’ nor a ‘concept’ but a relationship where bhaktas express through their lives and songs (or writings, paintings, or through any other art form). But in using the modern concept of a ‘movement’, if one tries to dig out a movement, he will be neither successful nor do justice to the very bhakti itself.

This is what Hawley has attempted through this thoroughly researched, well-documented, and very scholarly book, A STORM OF SONGS: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement, London, Harvard University Press, 2015.

I would like to begin from what he himself agreed first about this modern concept:

The bhakti movement is a modern idea. It has roots in the early modern period, it answers to a modern search for nationhood and self, and it has crystallized only in the course of the last one hundred years. In fact, as we have just seen, it is unfinished, ongoing….(333)

And tracing back the meaning of it in Indian languages, he further confesses that, Continue reading

Maramalai Adiga – Book Review

9780199451814

Religion, Caste, and Nation in South India: Maraimalai Adigal, the Neo-Saivite Movement, and Tamil Nationalism, 1876-1950.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is nothing wrong in holding any particular ideology. In order to promote that ideology, one has to present the facts with proper research and analyse, no matter how others may disagree. But in the name of promoting a particular ideology, if one twists and turns the facts to accommodate her point of view, then it becomes propaganda. This is how one feels after reading this book.

In this book, Vaithees has done a great service for us to help us understand that any narrow-minded ideological narrative of any society that twists its cultural, social and textual facts won’t withstand the test of the time. My imagination of Maraimalai Adigal as the pioneer and champion of the pure Tamil movement was based on listening to a few who glorified him and his legacy as the golden period of (pure) Tamil revivalism in the early 20th century. That is now challenged by the facts presented by Vaithees. This does not mean that one can easily dismiss Adigal’s contribution to the revival of the pure Tamil movement or to the Neo-Saiva Siddhanta. But the overall picture one gets after the reading this book does not match with the idealistic picture presented by many Tamil ideologues and zealots. Continue reading

Lured by Hope Book Review

Though every biography is only an interpretation, the way the author interprets the character will not only present a scholarly work but also demonstrate the author’s skill to unfold a drama when you read it. This is what I felt when I read this wonderful biography of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Ghulam Murshid, translated from Bengali by Gopa Majumdar, Lured by Hope: A Biography of Michael Madhusudan Dutt, New Delhi, Oxford, 2003.

What is more interesting is that the way it is translated by Ms. Gopa Majumdar makes the reader feel like it is not a translation. It forces the reader to identify with the character of the book. I felt this as I read the book and found it difficult to put down. If one has the time and interest, it can be read entirely in one stretch.

Like the author, I sympathize and get irritated with Madhu in how his romantic view of life ended in such a great tragedy. Particularly the way he died and was buried will move one’s heart as such a great poet of our country deserves a more noble death and a more dignified burial.1 But he reminds us of the insensibility of life; he ended up paying a heavy price for his romantic hope of life. It is true what the author says about him that, “His was such an extraordinary character that, during his lifetime, some hated him, some loved him, some even pitied him—but one could ignore or dismiss him.”(2) Continue reading

Debating Vivekananda

Raghuramaraju, (ed.) Debating Vivekananda: A Reader, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2014

When I read this book, I got the impression that Swami Vivekananda either assumed he was the ‘chosen’ spokesperson and reformer of Hindus, or this view was imposed on him by the initial attention he drew after his Chicago address. Instead of attempting his reform on a small-scale and locally, he envisioned it for all of India (or even to the world as India would become the world’s guru) with misguided zeal and enthusiasm. The initial success he managed to see and tasted made him think that his ideals and agenda would work for the entire country and to the world (through his ‘Vedanta’). As Killingley observed:

‘…Vivekananda seems to have believed in future changes in the world that would both result from natural forces and depend on people’s response to his own exhortations.’—Yoga-Sutra IV, 2-3 and Vivekananda’s Interpretation of Evolution. D. H. Killingley, pp. 441-473, p. 464

It is good that he didn’t live enough to see the way his mission and movement retreated to the margins of the Hindu world, similar to many other attempts in the past begun in religious, social, cultural, and other areas (e.g. several bhakti sects, Ram Mohan Roy in social and cultural areas, the Brahma Samaj, Arya Samaj). Though we debate his legacy and see a visible presence of the Ramakrishna Mission throughout the world, the Hindu Worldview has managed to absorb Vivekananda’s words as a part of its own and keep its heterogeneity not only in its religious, social, and cultural identity but also as a civilization that entertains ‘change and continuity’ as before. Continue reading

The Limits of Scripture by Anantanand Rambachan

Synopsis cum Review

Unlike most other religions, Hinduism is concerned with evaluation rather than revelation. One can trace the signs of evolution even from the Vedic times. There are two main factors that led to such a process: internal and external. Though non-Vedic factors can be considered external, they contributed more to the assimilation of all such external challenges within the fold of Hinduism. Even heterodox factors like sramanas could not challenge such a process of assimilation and remained mostly internal. Since the coming of Islam, Hinduism has faced a real external challenge. Though there were a few attempts made by some to assimilate certain doctrinal aspects of each other, as “Islamic dominance in many part of India was primarily political and military”1 the encounter of both the civilizations, “after a short time”, as Panikkar observed, remained as “a problem of co-existence, with mutual toleration rather than the domination of one by another”.2 This even made Hinduism, “more rigid” in the words of Panikkar. But the major shift in such an external influence on Hinduism began from the West, particularly after the British.

In contrast to Hinduism’s earlier encounters with other civilizations and cultures, the British challenge was total – economic, social, religious, and intellectual. The main thrust of the Western incursion was directed toward the religion of the Hindus. Missionaries questioned the validity of Hinduism, denouncing it as a mass of superstitions. Hinduism was condemned as idolatrous and polytheistic. Social customs for which religious legitimation was claimed invoked the severest disapproval. These included such practices as the burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands, infant marriages, compulsory widowhood, and the institution of caste with the acceptance of untouchability. The structure of Hinduism was threatened by the concept of equality, which the British incorporated into the Indian legal system. Economically, India’s handicraft industry was subjected to the pressures of industrialization; politically, the divisions and fragmentations within Indian society were confronted with the British sense of community and nationalistic pride. The British, in other words, offered an observable, functioning, and successful alternative to the Indian system. 3

The internal challenges that Hinduism faced several times in her history forced her to move more towards orthodoxy, meaning accepting the scriptural authority of the Vedas. Any reformation that any individual or sampradaya wanted to bring should be in agreement with the Vedas. Though there were different opinions regarding which parts of the Vedas are authoritative (as in the case of Swami Dayanand Saraswati)4, there was a common understanding that Sruti holds the final authority. Such a view not only kept Hinduism intact but also helped various acharyas develop sound doctrinal and theological foundations on which their respective sampradaya could flourish. Even those who only paid lip service to the Vedic authority could not openly oppose its authority but were forced to trace back some connection in the Vedas to claim their idea as authoritative. Though an individual’s experiences were highly respected, experiences that were recorded under smriti writings were rejected in case of any contradiction with Sruti. Even though ‘experience holds the evidence’ become the watchword later in modern Hinduism, before the reformation, Hindu traditions were unaware of such technical terms or slogans. Continue reading

Passion of Language

Although as a joke I often say that Tamil is the only heavenly language, I am happy that Tamil is my mother tongue. Though there are only a few languages that have a classical status, Tamil does deserve it, not just because of the political pressure, but because of its recognition by non-Tamil scholars.1 So due to my passion for Tamil and the rich literature it has both on the secular and religious side, I naturally get irritated if anyone tries to underestimate its originality. In the field of comparative study with other languages, particularly with Sanskrit, if any scholar only refers to select sources that serve her purpose without presenting the whole picture, I doubt her very scholarship.2

So when I read Sheldon Pollock’s scholarly book: The Language of the Gods in the World of Men, I was a bit taken aback for his approach to Tamil in comparing with Sanskrit. I am not a scholar in any field, not even in my mother tongue, so I was waiting patiently for other scholarly criticism on Pollock’s approach. When I read Bilingual Discourses and Cross-Cultural Fertilisation: Sanskrit and Tamil in Medieval India,3 I was satisfied as Pollock’s thesis was not accepted as the final one in this bilingual discourse. Continue reading

Name Sells

There is a Tamil proverb, “Only if the water falls from the conch, then it will become holy water”[சங்கிலிருந்து விழுந்தால்தான் தீர்த்தம்]. This is came to my mind when I completed reading William Dalrymple’s book, Nine Lives; In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, (London, Blooms Bury, 2009, paperback, 2010).

For me there is nothing special in this book. His selection of characters and the way he writes their stories leaves his impression as a famous writer, but the subject matter is not so unique or special, at least for us Indians, as we are familiar with these people and information, although he does provides some extra information without giving any textual reference for it. (He does provide a bibliography for each chapters at the end of the book.)

Similarly, the way he narrates the sexual life of some characters in a subtle manner (Daughters of Yellama and The Song of the Blind Minstrel) forces one to guess if he is exposing (mocking) or explaining their life. Perhaps this is his speciality. In many chapters, wherever he gets an opportunity, whether in context or out of it, he says something about the sensuality in Hinduism. Continue reading

Caste Versus Hierarchy

Oriental Imagination

The Orientalists’ ‘Imagination’ of India made Indian intellectuals think in line with the image that they created about India. This is the summary of well-known critics of Orientalism (assuming I have understood those like Ronald Inden, Edward Said and Balagangadhara). I haven’t read Edward Said’s book Orientalism, but when I got Inden’s book (Imagining India, Ronald B. Inden, London, Hurst & Company, (1990), 2000), I kept it away after reading few chapters since I could not follow his thoughts. Later, somehow I completed it.

But when I got hold of S.N. Balagangadhara’s The Heathen in His Blindness: Asia, the West and the
Dynamic of Religion
(New Delhi, Manohar, 2005), he helped me understand the subject to some extent and I immensely enjoyed that book. When I got his recent book, Reconceptualizing India Studies (New Delhi, Oxford, 2012), I again faced some problem in understanding the rightful criticism of Orientalism. When I saw Inden’s book Text & Practice: Essays on South Asian History in our library, I began to read it to understand this subject in-depth. When I was reading the very first chapter of Orientalist Construction of India, several points become very clear to me.  Continue reading

What is Mukti?

The book by T.S. Rukmani, Samnyasin in the Hindu Tradition – Changing Perspectives is a specialized subject on Samnyasins. This book is mainly based on the interviews among 31 Samnyasis/Samnyasinis by the author first giving an overview ‘in the Cultural World of the Hindus’ (pp. 9-30) followed by a scholarly perspective (31-56), and ending with the analysis of the author both on the scholar’s and the Samnyasis (211-250).

The interviews with 31 Samnyasis is the main section of the book (57-209), which provide several interesting perspectives by the Samnyasis covering various topics like their background, interest in this vocation, choice, deeksha, choice of successor, family ties, travel abroad and attire, social work, personal rituals and sadhana, about initiating woman Samnyasinis, involvement in politics and Moksha. These interview provided new information which was not widely known related to the particular ashram or sect (sampradaya) and also about ‘retrospect and prospect’.

However for me the topic on Moksha helped me to reflect on my own understanding based on my bhakti in the Lord and also from Muktiveda. As the author gave a final summary on this subject, I will share it here first: Continue reading