‘The Eternal Religion: Glimpses of Hinduism’ book review: The Ancient Core

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The foundations of Sanatana dharma are grounded in spiritual guidance, profound philosophy and continual scholarship. Our ageless religion has weathered the buffets of millennia, and yet may be comprehended in its pristine form, without accretions of history. Yet, its flexibility, its vastness and multiplicity may render it too difficult for laypersons to conceive. There is more misinformation and misapprehension about this ‘eternal religion’ than knowledge about what it truly is. One common lacuna is the obsession with its theology/mythology and rituals, while its spiritual core is ignored. What little information about the religion has been propagated recently is more basic and limited despite its immortal wisdom and spiritual guidance.

Against such a backdrop, The Eternal Religion: Glimpses of Hinduism by Karan Singh comes as a sorely needed resource book. Not only is it almost impossible to distil the essence of a religion this extensive, to do so within the limited word count of a book is an extraordinary task, and it takes a writer of great lived experience to attempt it. A unique feature of the book is that while it delineates what seems to be a collation of broad knowledge, there pops out a sentence that either poses a philosophical query or factoid quite stunning, unheard of.

The reader rediscovers the familiar and questions anew, just as the ancient texts meant to question each of us.

The book covers enormous ground through a simple though effective framework in four parts. The first segment concisely presents the bare basics of Sanatana dharma: origins, its holiest texts, many forms, deities, practices, thought leaders, foundational concepts, evolution through the centuries and Hinduism’s current form. Interspersed throughout are commentary from the author’s vast research. “Madhava also held a doctrine, not generally found in Hinduism, that souls who consistently indulge in evil can ultimately get so weighed down that they can be permanently expelled from the universe to a state of eternal damnation.” While all of us are familiar with this notion of purgatory from Christianity, it is new that Hinduism posits an alternative to the ‘bad karma leads to bad fate’ belief systems. While discussing the extensive pantheon, the text succinctly explains its significance. “This has led to the erroneous view, still extant in some quarters, that Hinduism is polytheistic. It certainly encourages the worship of many forms and symbols, but it must be understood that behind these myriad forms is the same all-pervasive divinity mirrored in a thousand different ways.”

Deep exposition of an essay series has topics including Shiva, the Vedanta, takeaways for the global community, Swami Vivekananda, the message of plurality and the essence of Hinduism that frame the next segment. Each of these subjects are deftly dealt with to elaborate upon the philosophy that underpins our worship: “…the unity of all existence, the divinity inherent in each human being and the four-fold path of yoga to join the two, the concept of the human race as a single family, and the commitment to the wider welfare of the society and the world” sum up the basic teachings. Writing on religion sometimes borders on the pedantic yet here it is exquisite and insightful. “In the Bhavagad Gita, one of the greatest religious texts of the world, the purity of karma is expanded to encompass all actions done as an offering to the divine.”

The other two segments expand on the previous in varied ways. Quite removed from the tone of the book so far, the third borders on the personal, and describes the catharsis and rejuvenation a person undergoes while undertaking the ancient Hindu practice of pilgrimage. These are both travelogues and journals from years back, inviting the reader into the world of believers or pilgrims, and their connect with temples and places of worship. The final segment contains handpicked excerpts translated from texts that define Sanatana thought: the Veda, Upanishad and the Bhagavad Gita. Here is an example: Neither sun, moon, nor fire/ Lights up the place they reach, From which no one returns. That is my supreme abode. Part of me has become the life of the world/ Everlasting, yet in the world of the living/ This part absorbs the senses and mind/ Whose home is in matter.

The Eternal Religion: Glimpses of Hinduism

By: Karan Singh

Publisher: Speaking Tiger

Pages: 278

Price: Rs 599

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