Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices

Publisher: Routledge, London (1994)

Rasamandala dasa

Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices
Publisher: Routledge, London (1994)
Author: Julius Lipner
ISBN: 0-415-05181-9


The author himself describes the compilation of this book as 'a Herculean task'. Anyone who has seriously studied Hinduism (what to speak of trying to teach it!) will empathise. This multi-faceted and amorphous subject stealthily defies all attempts to tie it down, or capture it within a conceptual framework. Lipner's opening chapter includes a comprehensive analysis of this problem and he rightly observes that Hinduism, however defined, appears to embrace the full gambit of philosophical and theological stances. He also expresses his dilemma in trying to accommodate diversity whilst attempting to make the whole picture 'hang together'. This he does well, though from the Gaudiya Vaishnava perspective he fails to quite grasp the essence (as we'll discuss later).

Reading this book was refreshingly easy, though academically challenging. My much-used dictionary failed on a number of occasions. The style is lucid and varied, intertwining descriptive and philosophical narrative with personal anecdotes, traditional stories (including a prolonged version of the gambling match from the Mahabharata) and a striking description of the Kumbha Mela festival (which, to my mind, vividly contrasted our neatly ordered, monotone lives). Disappointingly though, the text rarely confronts the predominating Western world-view. The author, despite the claimed phenomenological approach, often fails to suspend his own bias. Nor does he acknowledge or reflect on his own subjectivity. Particularly evident is his affinity for the reform movements (such as the Arya Samaj) and his concommitant attitudes towards women and caste, by which I suspected aversion to all types of hierarchism. I sensed also a heavy leaning towards rationalism reflected in phrases such as 'even educated Hindus' when discussing astrology, or, in the following excerpt, 'It is remarkable how deep-rooted the belief is, even among educated people, that sexual activity results in the loss of spiritual and even physical power to accomplish things'. This rather Darwinian concept of validating and stratifying society according to degrees of modernity and education may be expected from such an accomplished scholar, as also his predilection for empiricism. When exploring the history of Hinduism he comes up with the same old Aryan invasion theories and the much-quoted 'fact' that Aryans ate beef!

What really struck me, though, while reading the book, was a certain ambivalence. At one point the author demonstrated rare discretion in contending widely-held assumptions. In the next sentence, I perceived his inability to grasp the real essence of 'Vedic' thought.

This latter point became apparent in Chapter One where he writes, '...the expression eternal (sanatanadharma seems to imply that Hinduism cannot or should not undergo change'. An interesting point to explore, yet he seems to subsequently dismiss the term omitting its etymological meaning. Ironically, when later discussing the epithet 'Hindu', he quotes Kabir: 'Neither a Hindu nor a Muslim am I' and again, '...Rama and Allah are One.' Here he's touching on points quintessential to the notion of sanatana-dharma (and not, may I add, just from the Gaudiya Vaishnava perspective) and yet fails to recognise it. Later on he adds, 'I have yet to discover a Hindu sanatana-dharma in the sense of some universally recognised philosophy...' This statement is blatantly a truism! Lipner continues by establishing a false dilemma, 'Thus sanatana-dharma can properly only mean an ancient and continuing guideline for an orientation in the world which may draw on the ancient codes of varnashrama dharma ...' This doesn't quite make it; not only in failing to extend the time axis unlimitedly but to express the ever-present, all-pervading and axiomatic nature of sanatana-dharma.

I felt the basis of Lipner's miscomprehension became clear in the Ninth Chapter, where he discusses at length the doctrines of rebirth and karma. His exposition is thorough and includes an exploration of the free choice/ providence polemic. Towards the end though, (page 246) he argues, '...in what sense may a particular individual be said to be responsible for the past karma of its karmic chain? ... For the ego of this life, which...is crucial for the notion of moral accountability is not the ego of a previous life, nor will it be the ego of a future existence.' And further, 'When no obviously rational explanation is available, fate/karma steps in as the answer.' And he summarises, 'In short, the doctrine of karma and rebirth, with or without the aegis of divine providence, is a distinctive Hindu way of papering over the cracks in a rationale appraisal of existence.' His is a sophisticated form of the all-too-common argument that (this) religion is for those who don't have scientific knowledge. To a Vaishnava it is clear what is the root of Lipner's misconception, and indeed misrepresentation-his failure to pick up on the nature of the true self (the true ego as opposed to the false) which continues from body to body and therefore is accountable.

Upon reading this I was convinced of the author's leanings towards Judaic-Christian doctrine as well as empiricism (although I don't believe they're so much different). I must admit to feeling the compulsion to launch into an offensive on the 'one-life-heaven-hell-paradigm' with all its philosophical cracks and crevices. What I really began to suspect is that equating the self with the body is the root cause of a number of (hence) inter-related doctrines, including: the concept of linear time/ the notion of unidirectional progress/ exclusivity/ reliance on empiricism/ lack of concern for animals/ fear or lack of appreciation of the subtle/ condemnation of asceticism, etc. I was reminded of Arthur Schopenhauser's statement, 'Were an Asiatic to ask me for a definition of Europe, I should be forced to answer him: It is that part of the world which is haunted by the incredible delusion that man was created out of nothing, and that his present birth is his first entrance into life.' My conclusion: Dr Lipner is very expert at 'licking the bottle of honey', but fails to grasp the philosophical root of Vedic thought.

Despite the book's shortcomings (found in many similar texts) it has some outstanding features (which are, I suspect, far less common). Of relevance to devotees is an enlightening discussion on the relationship between sruti and smriti with particular reference to Ballabha 'dissolving the distinction' and 'enlarging the concept of Veda' (page 61). Lipner's treatment of the guru-disciple relationship is equally sensitive. He writes, 'but subservience did not mean servility, as it often seems to in the modern context.' He also dispels the notions that Hinduism is totally fatalistic (as its opponents often claim) or that it is completely relativistic (as claimed by many school textbooks, possibly in pursuance of Ramakrishna). I was particularly happy with his confrontation of Zaehner (Our Savage God, 1974) who inferred a relationship between the theory of transcendence and a famous cult murder of the late 60's (page 213). Lipner accuses the author of mis-contextualisation and adds, 'Zaehner's is a not uncommon (Western) misunderstanding about Upanishadic morality, and one often resorted to for tendentious purposes.'

Dr Lipner also confronts other widely-held assumptions. What stands out most prominently though is his appraisal of the relative positions of dvaita (personalism) and advaita (impersonalism). All too often Sankara's monistic position is held to be comprehensively representative of the Hindu tradition. Dr Lipner is clearly aware of this error. For example, in discussing the Upanisads he writes, '...Radhakrishnan favours an Advaitic, i.e. monist, interpretation.... This represents only one important traditional systematic approach to the Upanisads, and by no means the dominant one.' (Chapter 2, Note 14). And again, 'There seems to be no doubt that the Gita is a genuinely devotional text...so that the monistic interpretations appear strained.' Another common misconception, amongst scholars and Hindu intelligentsia, is that bhakti and the monistic doctrine are compatible (how common this is in school textbooks!) Lipner admirably refutes this: 'In this [impersonal] vision, which is jnana proper, all dualistic distinctions, including the finite-infinite divide, dissolve into an all-consuming monistic experience. Then there is nothing to show bhakti to.' This argument is remarkably consistent with Vaishnava thought.

Again without resorting to monism, Lipner also resolves the often perceived tension between belief in a multiplicity of deities and the claim that 'God is One'. He calls this 'inclusive monotheism', which may be a term useful to devotees.

It is significant, I feel, that the final chapter focuses on bhakti and liberation, although Lipner's concept of bhakti does not always concur with ISKCON's. For example he states, 'A God keen to enter into a personal saving relationship with the world. In short, a God of pravritti.' And again, 'The Lord himself is chained to all, the Lord is creation-bound.' He seems to not have completely grasped the transcendental nature of the Lord and again I perceive a particularly Christian point of view. Nevertheless, Lipner's contribution towards a better understanding of the Vedic tradition in terms of the existence (and possibly pre-eminence) of a personalistic theology is, in itself, an important one-and, I believe, a significant one-for ISKCON and how it is perceived in the world.

Despite some of its shortcomings, this book is a valuable contribution to understanding Hinduism. I heartily recommend it both to the academic world and to devotees wishing to understand their broader tradition and how it is perceived by others.

Rasamandala dasa
ISKCON Educational Services, England