This work is among the latest from the prolific Hindu American author and Vedic teacher David Frawley, also known as Vamadeva Shastri. It recapitulates and summarises in a limpid and systematic manner the exposition of the Sanatana Dharma that Frawley’s oeuvre represents on many topics: yoga, ayurveda, Indic astrology, ancient Indian history, the Sanskrit language, sruti and smrti and the legacies of modern Hindu masters and saints such as Sri Ramana Maharshi and Sadguru Sivananda Murti.
Despite the proliferating analytical, philosophical, historical and hagiographic literature on Hinduism now available in the world’s major languages, accurate knowledge and understanding of the Hindu Dharma as a complex and diverse world remains confined to a minority of spiritual practitioners and thinkers. There are still many prejudices and misunderstandings about the dominant Indian religious tradition and civilisation, commonly seen as archaic, superstitious and socially unjust.
In the contemporary worldview, which describes itself as secular but is heavily influenced by Judeo-Christian theologies, Hinduism is described, in keeping with the long-standing claims of Christian missionaries, Muslim apologists and colonial or neo-colonial intruders, as a surviving form of polytheistic or pantheistic paganism. That is enough to discredit it in the minds of most people, especially the self-styled progressive ones, who equate it with animal worship, theocratic caste divisions and “backward” theories and practices.
Even in India Hinduism is often unfavourably contrasted with Buddhism, widely regarded as a reformist egalitarian and rationalistic movement, despite the fact that the essence of all Buddhist teachings is to be found in the many schools of Hindu metaphysics, logic and psychology before and after the advent of Sakya Muni, the historical Buddha.
Frawley’s book methodically exposes and refutes the negative stereotypes and subjective criticism used to besmirch the Hindu tradition and demonstrates by quoting “chapter and verse” its universalism, its understanding of human nature and its promotion of diversity. The Hindu Dharma may be described as a Himalayan mountain around which innumerable individual and communitarian pathways charted by gurus of the past and present lead up to the crest. The latter remains ultimately undefinable and can only be alluded to in poetry or in philosophy as it has to be personally experienced. To reach that (self) realisation the non denominational wisdom (paravidya) taught by nature is distilled by texts and living masters so that people may learn to live in tune with the rhythm (rtam) of the universe and practise their individual and collective dharmas in keeping with their karmas. There is no demand to convert, as the truth lies in all beings and lands but an invitation to become a seeker, to open oneself to real enlightenment, not through a religious or political belief but in a quest for higher awareness. No greater tolerance and respect for the individual could be found in any other tradition.
As Frawley puts it: “Western scientists and physicists have given positive views of Hinduism and its teachings…. [It] is beginning to appear like a religion of the future, as a teaching for the emerging planetary age. Of all religions today Hinduism is the most synthetic and can integrate all spiritual paths.”
Rather than inciting or forcing outsiders to and assimilate, the Hindu tradition recognises and honours the divine element in all spiritual messages and wishes for the welfare and happiness of all living beings, and not only human beings, by inviting the latter to explore their own nature and discover the deeper mystery hidden within.
What to say of the persistent image of Hinduism as an oppressive “Brahminical” patriarchy which keeps people, especially women, the poor and the outcastes mired in servitude, ignorance and quaint rituals?
As the author writes in his preface, “this book is meant to encourage deeper thought and inquiry”. While acknowledging the harmful effects that the passage of time, political and social circumstances and forgetfulness have on all spiritual legacies he notes that the Hindu heritage is the one that best fulfills the definition of an “eternal tradition”, parts of which are found in all other “native” and prophetic or revealed religious systems. He further argues: “If we are going to judge Hinduism…by one of its very ancient law codes, then we should do the same for other religions. Hindus today have created new social customs in line with changing times […]The spiritual path of self-realization is eternal, but social customs must change with time.”
The vast and profound scientific and technical knowledge fostered and accumulated during thousands of years in Hindu polities gives convincing proof of that civilisation’s greatness and longevity. It encompasses geometry, mathematics, astronomy, botany, medicine, surgery, cosmology, music, dance, architecture and all other art forms, all leading to the discovery of a higher cosmic reality manifesting as consciousness.
Above all, the supremacy given to the personal realisation of an immortal self, in lieu of the unreasoned acceptance of an unquestionable, literal truth handed down through commandments by a historical figure is what makes Hinduism so relevant to the modern age for keeping peace and non-violence (ahimsa) between individuals and nations. It is also the key to devising a universal ethics, an ontonomy, more rational and logical than culturally determined, theologically inspired ones. The author emphasises the consonance of the Dharmic way of life with the ecologically sound and sustainable reshaping of civilisation urgently required in our age.
The last chapter of Part I is significantly entitled: Idolatry and Dogmatism: The Veils of Maya, thereby identifying the twin traps of confusing symbols with what they allude to and of claiming absolute validity for a relative truth. The notion of the “Ista Devata” lays to rest age old conflicts between worshippers of different icons and enables them to rise above the monotheistic, essentially hegemonic desire to see all people call the Supreme by the same name and adore him or her in the same way.
The book briefly presents the main religions presently being practised today in the world, showing that as long as they are not exclusive, hostile to outsiders, don’t anathematise other creeds and don’t indulge in aggressive proselytisation there is no incompatibility with the Sanatana Dharma.
Even in the face of violent assaults and brutal impositions of alien supremacist faiths, Hindus have remained, with few exceptions, open to and respectful of alien confessions.
The irony is that the same Hindus are now routinely accused of violating religious freedom by state-related and faith-based agencies from countries where tolerance was scarce or inexistent until recently and where many still have little patience with “polytheism” and “paganism”. Frawley emphasises the commonalities between the pre-Abrahamic spiritual traditions of all continents, usually lumped together as Neolithic, “animistic” or pagan, and the Sanatana Dharma and he calls for an alliance between all those spiritual lineages, which generally put realisation above belief and lead to spiritual liberation rather than miraculous salvation.
The second part of the book consists in a series of often asked questions and detailed answers about all aspects of the Sanatani doctrines and their ritual and civilisational praxis. It is not surprising for a Westerner raised in a Christian culture, who has adopted Hinduism by choice, to offer twin perspectives, inner and outer, that many born Hindus may not so easily acquire, but that are so critical to any sound comparative study of religions. This is perhaps the reason why the author’s tightly structured and well argued case is so instructive and compelling. Indeed perhaps the age of “Cosmic Dharma” as the unifier of mankind is drawing nigh.