I had been interested in the teachings of Hinduism for some time but only had a scant knowledge about the religion. I was on the look out for a basic book on Hinduism, something not written to cater to the Western crowd, which I assumed would be over simplified. And also something not riddled with a lot of Sanskrit texts and their translations, which might put off a new student of Hinduism. I wanted a book written by some guru who was in one of the acknowledged schools of Vedic philosophy. After having read Swami Bhaskarananda’s Essentials of Hinduism, I believe I have found a book which touches upon almost all the major aspects of the Hindu culture. Though he is a disciple in the Ramakrishna order (believing in non-duality) he also writes in detail about the dual nature of reality.
One of the reasons I was not really interested in Hinduism was because, very unlike Christianity or Islam, we had so many scriptures and ancient texts. I did not know where to get started. I had listened to a few talks on the Bhagavat Gita and read a few chapters earlier, but I was not able to fit them into the bigger picture. I always wondered why our sages made understanding religion so difficult. Little did I know about the organisation of Vedic literature and the fact that there was something in it for every kind of person – those well versed in Sanskrit, those with little or no knowledge of the Vedas, and even to those who were uneducated (the Truths were conveyed to them through the stories of the Tantras and the two epics of Mahabharatam and Ramayanam).
In the book, Swami Bhaskarananda speaks at length about life and the Hindu society in general. Though he has quoted from ancient scriptures, most of what he has written about the stages of life, women, children, marriages, death, food and the Hindu ethics remain true even in our world today. In very simple language, he explains the various ways one can see God – right from the Nirguna Brahman (the Supreme Being without form, quality and attributes), to the more commonly revered Ishvars/ deities in Hinduism. Again we find two levels of worship which is prescribed in our scriptures. Those who can understand and relate to the ‘formless’ God can choose so, others who need some physical association with him, can choose fromm the thousands of deities we have, each of whom have qualities all of us need to emulate. The Advaita philosophy, where you see yourself as a part of the Reality itself, has a more atheist/ humanist view. In essence, there is something in Hinduism for atheists, agnostics, spiritual-ists and ritual-ists.
There are chapters in the book, explaining the Hindu thoughts on death, karma, reincarnations and predestination. These were concepts that always baffled me. I used to ask myself why we Hindus were so obsessed about death. I believe now that we have every reason to ponder about death, the common friend each one of us has, right from the time we are born. The Buddhists put it simply as ‘All beings tremble before danger; all fear death’. If there is some system that uproots this fear, why not learn about it? The explanations of these concepts, given by Swami ji in this book, can very easily be comprehended by even a novice to the field. I remember during one of the first Vedic Society meetings I attended here at Edinburgh I had asked why we study religion and put an effort to understand the scriptures and so on. I had been, like many of us, conditioned to think that we ought to get something out of what we do. Through Swami ji’s take on Realization and Moksha, I really feel that maybe there is something above all this that we see today. This will remain not-understood until we make an attempt to learn and accept.
This is what I have learnt from my very short experience in Hinduism that I have. If ever some Hindu talks about how not-so-good or complex the religion is - it is purely out of ignorance. Because he has not tried to understand it. I know this because I was one among them until a few months back. This book is a nice starting point for all of us to get a taste of what Hinduism has to offer. I was quite surprised at reading about what world thinkers had to say about Hinduism and the Indian culture, which is included in the book. For the people who still have doubts regarding Hinduism, I would suggest that you start with this section in the appendix. When such world renowned figures speak so much about Hinduism, shouldn't there be something in it that we have missed?