The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Indian Religions: The Spiritual Traditions Of South Asia Edited by Peter Heehs, Permanent Black, Rs 795

Spanning four millennia, this anthology attempts to provide an introduction to the religious movements of south Asia. The Hindu, Sufi, Sikh, Buddhist and Jain religions are explored through scripture, poetry, philosophy, hymn and sermons. The development of belief systems, shifts in thought, the major proponents and modern mystics are all covered, from 3500 BC to 1990 AD, in almost 200 extracts.

The result is a 500-page “introductory reader” and a layman’s guide to spirituality in the Indian subcontinent. Indian Religions edited by Peter Heehs is not an in-depth look. It could not have been one given the vastness of its scope.

The volume is both well-researched and organized. Heehs has structured the book lucidly, first outlining the major belief systems originating in the subcontinent — Vedic, Vedantic, Jainism, Theravada Buddhism, Samkhya and Yoga — in the section titled “Foundations”. Having established the basic operating tenets and principles in brief introductions to each, Heehs then includes a number of extracts from the scriptures and literature.

The translations have been chosen for their “readability” in English and relevance (including a few from W.B. Yeats, Sri Aurobindo). They focus mostly on the experiences of mystics down the ages, rather than the didactic teachings of scriptures. In, “Developments”, Heehs outlines the theological structures based on the foundations he had already addressed: the Bhagavad Gita, Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, the Tantras, and the Puranas. Heehs gives little space to the final category in this section, because “dharma” is not relevant to his exploration.

While the tenets of Buddhism are well developed and presented here, the study of the Bhagavad Gita remains vague. Part Three, titled “Elaborations”, is too rushed and Heehs does not do justice to the historical work of any of the philosophers he includes. By contrast, he spends much time and space on bhaktas in Part Four, “Reformulations”. In the chapter titled, “The Bhakti Movement”, in keeping with his stated aim of discussing direct personal experiences with divine forces rather than intellectual discourse (as discussed in the editor’s introduction), Heehs goes into great details while dealing with figures such as Mirabai and Chaitanya, which makes for interesting reading. He however admits not knowing how much truth there is to the legend.

A significant hole in this anthology is the limited mention of Islam. Two chapters on Sufism are hardly sufficient in an edition on Indian religions, though the concentration here is on traditions that have evolved in the country itself. Heehs includes one chapter on the development of Sufism and another on “Popular Sufism” where the works of six Sufi thinkers are highlighted.

The fifth and final section on modern developments is divided into two parts. In the first, “Twelve Mystics of Modern India”, Ramakrishna and Krishnamurthi, Sai Baba of Shirdi and Sri Aurobindo, all find mention. The concluding chapter, “Four Mystic Poets” includes Rabindranath Tagore, Bhai Vir Singh and Subramania Bharati. Between the concluding sections, two Sufi thinkers find mention — Hazrat Inayat Khan and Muhammad Iqbal.

Little attention has been paid to the sociological factors that have led to the development and spread of religious systems. Although outside the scope of the book, but a brief mention of these forces would have provided a useful context. The wisdom of attempting to include so much in such a confined space is, however, debatable. Indian Religions can be of use to only beginners.

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