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An Encyclopedia of Hinduism? Just One More Step in Understanding and Preserving the Religion's Legacy

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This week, the University of South Carolina hosted a conference celebrating the launch of the Encyclopedia of Hinduism. To be sure, it's more than just an encyclopedia -- it's an effort to tell the life story of the world's oldest active major religion.

In an age where we can "wiki" just about anything, an encyclopedia of this magnitude might seem dated, but in reality, that's far from the truth. That's because many Hindus in the United States, especially second, third, and fourth generation Americans, need a resource such as this to understand the diverse and expansive nature of the religion. Heck, 11 volumes might not even come close to covering all the intricacies of a religion that has evolved over 5,000+ years. This is an important step in preserving the philosophies and practices of Hinduism that meets both community needs and academic standards.

Hal French, a longtime professor of religion at the University of South Carolina and an associate editor of the project, emphasized the diversity of voices incorporated in the project. He noted that the India Heritage Research Foundation, which compiled the encyclopedia, welcomed different perspectives and did not limit its focus to Hinduism. Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism and even Abrahamic religions are given space in the encyclopedia.

"Hinduism has been a fertile seedbed from which many ideas have emanated," French said, referring to the rise of traditions such as Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism. "I think that's true of India as a whole."

What makes the Encyclopedia even more significant is that it combines both Eastern and Western scholarly perspectives, an important step in reconciling some of the long-held tensions between the two.

"They've recognized the validity of insider and outsider voices," he said. "It's an interfaith effort."

But this reconciliation among academics is only part of the story. The larger issue is how the encyclopedia is part of an ongoing effort to articulate the religion to those outside of temples and ashrams.

The problem for many Hindus is that the narrative of the religion has been in the hands of others for centuries. Since 19th century Orientalist Max Muller's depiction of Hinduism and its subsequent acceptance within academia, scholars in Europe and the United States whose views challenge such assumptions face an uphill battle in trying to get their views accepted. Just as significantly, there has at times been an acknowledgement by scholars that undermining Hinduism and Indian history was in the best interests of maintaining a Eurocentric narrative of world history, namely the lionization of civilizations such as the Greeks and the Romans. As the late American art historian Thomas McEvilley noted, "Through such chronological manipulations, the threat that the Indian past presents to the Greek miracle is defused by chronology."

It also has not helped that many Hindu Americans, particularly those educated in the post-colonial era in countries such as India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Guyana, to name just a few, have largely accepted the frameworks of religion imposed upon them by others. As a result, Hinduism has been oversimplified, distorted, and reduced to talking points -- caste, curry, cows and karma as many like to call it -- among even its adherents. It's hard to change people's perceptions of Hinduism when the reductionist version of the religion has been accepted at face value.

Of course, there have been numerous attempts by Hindu groups and individual Hindu Americans to challenge the narrative and try to assert agency in articulating the religion, but some of these attempts have become politicized, dismissed as reactionary, poorly organized, or seen as fighting rationality and scientific evidence with emotion. The dismissive responses from scholars who embrace Eurocentric models of Hinduism are often based upon the (false) premise that the religion can only be studied objectively by those outside of it. However, some attempts to challenge inaccurate and downright racist frameworks of Hinduism have been successful, such as when a group of Hindu American parents worked with the public schools in Fairfax County, Va., to develop a supplemental packet to counter distortions in textbooks. The packet was the culmination of a collaborative effort among parents, the Fairfax County school board and several noted academics in the region. That's why an academic effort to reassert the voice of Hindus on the meanings and significance of the religion is both welcome and long overdue.

While the Encyclopedia of Hinduism's publication should be celebrated, it's just one more step in the long journey of Hinduism into the core of the American public sphere.