Cleanliness and godliness

The Religious Culture of India

March 22, 1996

A large book on a large topic, The Religious Culture of India sets out to introduce traditional Indian culture to the nonspecialist reader and to offer a stimulating and unusual interpretation of it to the specialist. Friedhelm Hardy insists that an understanding of the culture in which Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism have emerged and flourished is a sine qua non for understanding the religions themselves, and he is also right to aim to be as inclusive as he can in his exposition of that culture. The result is an amiably personal, wide-ranging work about a subject that clearly fascinates Hardy.

Reading the book's 24 chapters is often reminiscent of listening in to (one side of) a discussion between friends. This is hardly surprising, as they were originally delivered as the Wilde Lectures in Comparative Religion at Hardy's old university, Oxford, between 1985 and 1987. On the whole, the transition to print works well. It would have been nice, though, if the references had been compiled into a proper bibliography and brought up to date.

Hardy explains the motivation behind this work thus: "For many years I have found it disconcerting to be asked by friends, acquaintances and strangers what the study of Indian religions is all about, why I enjoy doing it and what possible benefits could be derived from it ... The twenty-four hours allotted for [the three courses of lectures] provided an opportunity unmatched by two minutes at a sherry party." This suggests Hardy's interrogators had adopted a hostile tone and his writing often reveals a surprising degree of defensiveness. He seems to assume that Indian ways of thinking will be very difficult for his western audience to understand unless western analogies are presented to them, and he also seems to imagine that many members of that audience will entertain some rather old-fashioned ideas about India, which it is his duty to put straight. Perhaps I am luckier than Hardy at sherry parties, but I do not find that educated westerners find Indian ideas hard to stomach, or that they are as full of 19th-century preconceptions as he seems to believe.

The erotic aspects of Indian religious culture cause particular difficulty. Hardy may be right when he says that "it is clearly difficult for us to make sense of, or relate to, a god who I commits adulterous love with hundreds of women I [or] a god who runs around naked, chasing the innocent wives of pious ascetics and reveals his full manliness in the process." But I find it hard to believe that a 12th-century Indian poet could really be so sexually inflammatory that it is necessary to select verses that "keep the degree of embarrassment for both author and reader at a bearable low". The introduction to Hardy's second general theme, that of love, contains a quite lengthy preemptive defence against possible attacks by "neo-Victorians" (including a reference to Lord Tebbit's famous bike); the comments about "obscene" temple carvings seem designed to abolish rather than investigate the problem they pose. Once again, Hardy seems to envisage a surprisingly hostile attitude among his readers. Is Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells really likely to work his way through these 600 erudite pages?

Probably the most striking claim made is that Indian religions are not truly polytheistic, but rather that there exist numbers of separate monotheistic traditions. Hardy introduces this idea by drawing a distinction between the "ordinary" gods or devas, whom he describes as "not I very important in a religious sense", and the concept of an eternal, omnipotent "God". It is a little alarming that Hardy sees nothing odd in stating that he proposes to render the Sanskrit word deva by the English "god", and the English word "God" by the Sanskrit Bhagavan . Also, I am not at all sure the devas can be dismissed so simply, and I am unconvinced by the conception of Hinduism as a set of discrete monotheisms. But it would be highly surprising (not to say dull) if a religious culture as complex and ancient as India's did not prompt a measure of disagreement among its students. Hardy has produced a rich and stimulating piece of work that will inform and provoke debate.

John D. Smith is lecturer in Sanskrit, University of Cambridge.

The Religious Culture of India: Power, Love and Wisdom

Author - Friedhelm Hardy
ISBN - 0 521 44181 1
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £55.00
Pages - 613

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