DAILY PHOTO: Jagganath Street Art, Puri

Taken in Puri in December of 2021

DAILY PHOTO: Konark Sun Temple as It Was and Is

Taken in December of 2021 in the Archeological Museum of Konark
Konark Surya Mandir [Note: the tower and three sub-temples collapsed.]

BOOK REVIEW: Why I Am a Hindu by Shashi Tharoor

Why I am a HinduWhy I am a Hindu by Shashi Tharoor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

There are two core premises in this book. First, Hinduism is non-dogmatic and can be almost whatever a given believer needs it to be, and, therefore, the objectionable elements associated with it [e.g. casteism] aren’t the religion’s fault. Second, Hindu nationalism represents a break from Hinduism’s historical proclivity for acceptance, which (circling back to the first point) results from the fact that believers aren’t forced to accept particular beliefs, thus making it easier to accept that believers from other sects have different perspectives.

Overall, the book’s first part does a fine job of showing how Hinduism has historically been accepting, non-dogmatic, and pluralistic; and the second part neatly describes the many ways in which the Hindu nationalist movement has abandoned those same values – ironically moving away from Hinduism’s open and agreeable nature to adopt the parochial and fanatical ways that they’ve decried in others.

As common among those wishing to glorify religions as faultless, Tharoor does some whitewashing. He argues that casteism (as with other faults) isn’t the religion’s problem, but society’s. However, Tharoor doesn’t make a convincing argument that the caste system could stick devoid of religion’s authority, or even that there’s a clear distinction being made.

When I reviewed Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd’s Why I’m Not a Hindu, I mentioned that I was reading these two diametrically titled books to get a clearer picture of the religion. What I found was that they’re both anti-Hindu nationalist works, though coming from very different perspectives. I did learn a great deal from reading each of the books, though they largely talk past each other as opposed to offering the head-to-head one would expect, given the opposing titles.

I would definitely recommend reading this book, with the proviso that one be cautious for instances of embellishing or glossing over, which – it seemed to me – did take place.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Why I’m Not a Hindu by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political EconomyWhy I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

As a foreigner living in India for almost a decade, I’m always looking for books that offer insight into cultural and political realities that remain obscure even after many years in country. I stumbled upon this book and the diametrically titled book, “Why I Am a Hindu” by Shashi Tharoor. I figured the two books might cover the pro / con accounting of Hinduism through two personal accounts of how a couple of thoughtful individual’s perceptions of the religion differ.

Having read this book, chronologically the first, I discovered that the two books might not mirror each other as well as I’d thought. For one thing, this book is really more about: a.) why dalitbahujans shouldn’t be considered Hindu, and b.) why following the dalit cultural framework would be better for India than following Hinduism. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t count off many theological points that rub the author the wrong way, socio-politically speaking. It also displays no shortage of anger (which one could certainly be argued is righteous, but nonetheless detracts from the feeling of scholarly objectivity that one might hope for in such a book.) But, at the end of the day, this is a book about caste, and how the system is used by the few to oppress the many. [It also turns out that both books cast themselves in opposition to the Hindu nationalist movement.]

In short, the author argues that the “high castes” of Hinduism (i.e. Brahmins and Kshatriyas) are parasitic, misogynistic, violent, oppressive, corpulent, and demanding of “spiritual fascism.” On the other hand, the Dalitbahujans are painted as productive, egalitarian, democratic, creative, less materialistic, and capable of creating a sustainable path toward a healthy India of the future. I don’t know whether I came away with a much better insight into the truth of the situation, but as a social scientist I learned that what is true is often not so important as what is believed to be true – the latter can have huge impacts regardless of its objective truth. I say this because the author does make a lot of gratuitous assertions – unsupported statements — and these are particularly difficult to process when they address the motives of high caste people. He also sometimes whitewashes the “sins” of other religions to make the argument that Hindus are the worst / most unreasonable of all religions.

While it’s certainly true that the caste system has been oppressive and that the oppressed are within reason to be angry and to insist upon change, it’s hard for me to get a good read on what is true regarding the details because the author takes a preaching-to-the-choir route and doesn’t really provide the evidence an outsider would need to judge. That said, the book still offers a great deal of value because it tells one what the author (and presumably many others) feel to be the truth of the situation.

I found this book insightful and thought-provoking. There may be better books out there in terms of supporting arguments, but it’s a solid counter to the throngs of books by the Hindu intellectual elite. [FYI – The book will drive typo-haters insane, it’s loaded with missing letter typos, etc.]

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Avadhūta Gītā by Dattātreya

The Avadhuta Gita - Song of the AsceticThe Avadhuta Gita – Song of the Ascetic by Dattātreya
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Free Online: Sankaracharya.com

An Avadhūta is a mystic who’s transcended a dualistic view of the world, avoiding distinctions between self and everything else. Often, these sages are compared to those of various spiritual traditions who display divine madness, theia mania, crazy wisdom, or whatever one wishes to call it (e.g. the Nyönpa of Vajrayana [Tibetan] Buddhism, or sages such as Ikkyu [Zen] or Saint Simeon [Christian.]) That’s because said individuals may behave in ways that seem strange because the conventions of society often doesn’t make sense in the context of the Avadhūta’s worldview.

“Avadhūta Gītā” translates to “Song of the Free Soul,” and it consists of eight chapters of poetry that read like sutras or epigrams (concisely stated bits of wisdom.) The poem can feel a bit redundant as it repeatedly hammers home the experience of a world free of duality and distinction, singing the virtues of oneness in oh so many ways. That said, other valuable lessons are eloquently conveyed throughout. For example, chapter two explains why one shouldn’t worry on the bona fides of one’s teacher, but rather take from him or her what is of use and not worry if a teacher doesn’t know everything. It makes the apt comparison that one doesn’t need a freshly-painted and ornately-trimmed boat to cross the river, anything with essential boat-like qualities will do.

There are many English translations of this poem. I compared two, and they read quite differently but conveyed the same gist. I’m not qualified to speak to how either compared to the original Sanskrit, but I didn’t feel either translation greatly outpaced the other in terms of conveying ideas (though one was more eloquently composed [though arguably with less clarity.])

If you’re interested in Yogic and Indian philosophy, I’d recommend giving this poem a read.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Jnana Sankalini Tantra by P. Prajnanananda

Jnana Sankalini TantraJnana Sankalini Tantra by P. Prajnananda
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page


Tantra is in a class with quantum physics as a topic that everybody likes to talk about but no one seems to understand. But the situation is worse because everybody can have an opinion about what Tantra is and who’s to say one is correct and another is not. Therefore, there are many conceptions of Tantra floating around out there. Unfortunately, I can’t say that this book will clear up the topic, though it does offer a great deal of information in a readable package.

In the West, Tantra is mostly about having longer and more satisfying orgasms during sex. In India, that is seen a great oversimplification, but there’s an entirely different muddling of the topic. If there were pro-Tantra and anti-Tantra parties, the topic could remain clear despite differing views on the validity of the approach. Everybody might agree about what Tantra is, but veer apart as they say why they like it or loath it. However, there’s another faction, and that’s the mainstream religious personalities who want to selectively utilize bits and pieces of Tantra that they find useful, while suggesting other parts of it are all just a misunderstanding. And, again unfortunately, that is where this book stands.

As my criticism may not make sense otherwise, I’ll try to explain something I was taught about Tantra. As it was described to me, Tantra (the yogic version, Buddhist Tantra may vary entirely) was—at least, in part–a practice of engaging in endeavors that might be considered distractions on the path to overcome them. Whereas, mainstream religion says, “x is bad, never do x,” Tantra says “x can be a distraction, and so I should engage in x in a mindful way so that it no longer controls me.” This is where the focus on sex comes in. It’s not that Tantrics were perverts; they just believed they could achieve some manner of transcendence through its practice.

My primary complaint is that this book selectively takes what it likes and strains credulity by suggesting the material it dislikes is all a misunderstanding of a selective code. So there is this idea of the five principles (panchatattvas or panchamakara) and they are five practices of Tantrics consisting of consumption of: alcohol, meat, fish, roasted/fried foods, as well as sexual activity. Now, most of these are objectionable to the modern Hindu, but the author says that these were all just code for a practice of breathing with one’s tongue pressed to a certain spot on the roof of one’s mouth. Why was kechari mudra so super-secret that one had to call it sex or fish-eating? (And why would one use a code consisting of activities one finds severely objectionable?) I don’t know, the reader is just left to believe that it makes sense.

Now, should I conclude that the entire work is in code? For example, when it says that finding a good teacher and following them is important, might they really be saying that I should “Find a river otter to take to Disneyland?” No. Because only the parts that the author and his sect finds contrary are encoded, everything else is to be taken literally.

Now, the offending section is only a small part of the book, and the topic of yogic Tantra. However, the degree to which it strains credulity makes it difficult to believe anything else the books says.

The book is in two parts. The first part is an introduction to jnana sankalini tantra (JST), and the second part is the 110 verses of the JST—said to be a dialogue between Shiva and Parvathi on Tantra—with analyses by the author.

I believe that this book contains a lot of interesting ideas, but, being a neophyte to the subject but with a degree of expertise in detecting faulty logic and religious dogma, I didn’t feel I could trust the book entirely.

If you are a mainstream Hindu who wants a palatable description of Tantra that doesn’t offend your sensibilities, this is probably a great book for you. If not, I don’t think you’ll have any better idea of Tantra is than when you started.

View all my reviews