Dec 26, 2011, 01.30PM IST
It should be pointed out that the word Hindu is not found in any of the classical writings of India. Nor can it be traced to the classical Indian languages, such as Sanskrit or Tamil.
In fact, the word 'Hinduism' has absolutely no origins within India itself. Still, it persists, and traditions as diverse as Shaivism and Jainism, Shaktism and Vaishnavism have been described as Hinduism. This may work as a matter of convenience, but ultimately it is inaccurate.
When a book starts on a note like that, it makes you sit up and take note of what follows. And what follows, under the title of The Hidden Glory of India, is actually a handbook of Vaishnavism. Vaishnavism had its roots in the South, 'indeed the earliest evidence...is found in the South,' says author Steven J Rosen, '... then it moved North'. Formal systematisation of northern Vaishnava thought was eventually affected by several prominent teachers, most notably by Vallabha Shri Chaitanya and the six Goswamis of Vrindavan.
These teachers expressed their devotion to God, through bhakti. Their notions of godhead were not very different to the Vedantins. There was Brahmn, 'the lord's impersonal feature', and there was a Paramatma, 'a localised aspect' of the all-pervading God. There was Bhagawan, 'His supreme personhood', and of course there was Krishna who is 'the Supreme Lord, the embodiment of truth, consciousness and joy'. All this information forms the early chapters; and it would just pass as "I've-read-all-this-before", were not the author throwing up surprises. For example, in the chapter on Krishna, Rosen says it is Krishna who manifests Himself as Vishnu - and not the other way around as is popularly believed.
While this might unsettle established notions, others' explanations clarify. In the chapter on Hanuman, Rosen clarifies the use of the word vanara. "Vyasa describes him (Hanuman) by using the word vanara originally meaning 'proper to the forest' or 'forest animal', although it soon came to refer specifically to monkeys."
Rosen's book is attractively printed, and illustrated with superb prints of paintings. You will particularly like the image of Chaitanya dancing with his followers. That image, in the middle, marks a turn in the book; from the gods and philosophy to the more earthy aspects: incarnations, sacred places, dance, music, practitioners, festivals and vegetarianism. Much of this information is dry fact, but there are parts which are engaging. For instance, I didn't know that the sacred marks of Vishnu - the U-shaped tilak - represented the footsteps of Krishna, and a bit that's controversial, perhaps even biased, too.
When Rosen writes (and quotes) that "Jesus preached a doctrine similar to that of the Bhakti movements in India...Krishna is seen as God, Jesus' father...who can say that when Jesus prays 'our Father who art in heaven...,' is it not Krishna to whom he is praying?" You wonder if Rosen isn't being carried away by his own Vaishnava background. (Rosen is a member of ISKCON.)
While it certainly raises eyebrows, it also adds colour to a book that's quite an easy-to-read introduction to Vaishnavism.