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Part I Hinduism: Sources and Worldview The long history, the vastness, and the heterogeneity of Hinduism offer enormous challenges to each and every description of the tradition. The very question of identifying the beginning of Hinduism has become one of the most controversial topics in Indian studies. For the time being two irreconcilable notions are being heatedly discussed in scholarly and popular literature. The first chapter attempts to weigh the merits of these. The identity of Hinduism rests primarily on the particular line of verbal revelation on which the Hindu tradition is grounded. The Vedas and the other books, which are held sacred as scriptures by Hindus, differentiate Hinduism from other religions possessing their own specific holy books, and they permit at least in a negative way a definition of the essentials of Hinduism over against what is not Hinduism. While acceptance of the Veda as revealed is certainly the most basic criterion for declaring oneself a Hindu—the preferred self-designation of Hinduism in Indian languages is Vaidika dharma, the “Vedic Law”—there is another genre of literature that has shaped the minds and hearts of present-day Hindus much more profoundly: the two great epics, Mahābhārata and Rāmāyana, and the voluminous Purāṇas, the true Bibles of Hinduism. Typical for Hinduism, it has not just one, but eighteen such scriptures, accepted as revealed by the followers of the various greater traditions. They exalt Viṣṇu, Śiva, Devī to the highest position; they contain the colorful myths for which Hinduism is famous; they instruct their readers in matters of worship and hygiene, promise health, wealth, and eternal salvation to all who recite them. The itihāsa-purāṇa literature is enormous—it has hardly any parallel in another culture. While not all Hindus are fully acquainted with it, many know surprisingly much from it. There is one book, however, that virtually all Hindus know and many recite daily by heart: the Bhagavadgītā, the Song of the Lord. It has become a classic also in the West; there are scores of translations in English and other 16 PART I: HINDUISM European languages available. It is a Kṛṣṇa book, but it articulates much that is typical for all of Hinduism, and it contains advice and hopes, that most Hindus accept as expressing their own aspirations. The relative geographic isolation of the Indian subcontinent facilitated the development over long periods of time of a civilization that was little influenced from the outside. Cosmological and other ideas developed and found fairly universal acceptance throughout India. Together these could be termed the Hindu world-picture. The Hindu worldview appears in a number of variants, but it also shows a surprisingly large number of common features—features distinctive enough to set it off against the worldviews of other civilizations. All observers—including Hindus themselves—would describe Hinduism as polytheistic. Nowhere else in the world do we find such a profusion of gods and goddesses, of semidivine beings and demons, ramifications of genealogies of gods and manifestations of divinity in human and animal forms. But that is only the surface of Hinduism, the colourful appearance of a tradition, which has enormous depths. While Hinduism could never be conceived as a parallel to biblical or Islamic monotheism, it has developed its own sophisticated notions of the unity of the highest principle, and many forms of Vaiṣṇavism, Śaivism, or Śāktism have theologies, in which One Supreme Being is given the title and role of Lord or Mistress, the creator, preserver, and destroyer of the whole universe and the savior of those who believe in him or her. ...


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