A book review and critical analysis.
The purpose of this paper is to explore the authenticity of a biased religious attitude pertaining to the Indian civilization, in particular religious teachings, by western scholars; and to review these works. In addition, looking at an older and a more modern work will provide a review and an examination will be given to see if these biased attitudes persist.
To perform this task, I will examine and review the writings of Edmund Davison Soper and his book “The Religions of Mankind”. The Book was published by The Abingdon Press: New York: Cincinnati in 1921. The reason this book has been selected for review was that Edmund Davison Soper was a professor of Religious history at Northwestern University.
Research reveals that this work is still referenced and available for purchase to this day. I shall use several other references to aid in my argument and review. It is important to note that no disrespect is intended toward Edmund Davison Soper, his family, or descendants. It is not an attack on the man, or his belief. I consider him an expert and representative of the attitudes and mentality of his time. It is the mentality of the time that pervades to this day that I intend to argue in this paper.
As Professor Soper points out in his book, “Born in a Christian land and nurtured in an atmosphere which is a part of our common, heritage, it is inevitable that we should have a Christian bias[i].” He continues to discuss the issue and importance of being fair-minded and free from unreasoning prejudice. Initially this presents the authority of the writer and commentary within the highest light. Regrettably, this becomes questionable when as early as page 43 it is noted that the highest form of religion would be Christianity, Mohammedanism (Islam) then Buddhism. Professor Soper’s criteria are that they represent the missionary idea. Since Hinduism was not involved in these types of missionary activities at the time, it clearly could not qualify as a quality religion.
In defining religion, it clearly appears that religion is defined in terms of emotions and intellect. In fact he quotes, Schleiermacher, “The essence of the religious emotions consists in the feeling of an absolute dependence.”[ii] This is quite interesting especially since it demonstrates a prevailing Christian bias. Soper considers Schleiermachers definitions one of the most famous of the time, though Schleiermacher certainly predated Soper by a considerable amount of time and Soper is referencing attitudes from the 1700s!
Though not stated directly, it is possible then that Friedrich Max Muller would have influenced the current mindset of the time with his incorrect dating of the Vedas. In fact when questioned about the dating by colleagues, he confessed that the date was merely hypothetical and stated, “whether the Vedic hymns were composed in 1000 or 1500 or 2000 or 3000 BC, no power on earth will ever determine.”[iii] The point I am trying to make is that biased or incorrect information can only lead to biased and incorrect conclusion. We already see a Christian bias being prepared in the initial stages for the later commentary on Hinduism.
Within Hinduism, it would be correct to say that the ancient seers were clearly animists. But animism has often been viewed as a lesser-evolved consciousness, especially in the modern era. At the time of this writing, animism was considered the worship of the dead or ancestors. If one takes a moment to examine this value of ancestors, we see within a variety of religions, the teaching of the value of ancestors.
Even within Christianity we see the quote, “The sons shall pay for the sins of the father”. [iv] Within our current modern world of genetics, one quickly discovers that the activities of the ancestors are handed down to the subsequent generations manifesting in some, and not in others. A common example would be alcoholism.
This disease can manifest in the next generation, or skip a generation and manifest later. All doctors when considering cancer ask about one’s family disease history. One aspect of ancestor worship is nothing more than the recognition of genetic transference, though it is clear that the Rishi’s used different terms than the literal term ‘genetics’ to describe this process. Yet, all too often some have referred to ancient people as primitive because of ancestor worship, yet this is one of the most common religious attributes and one of the oldest; yet for Hinduism is assigned as somewhat less.
Are these people animist, primitive or do they demonstrate a more sophisticated awareness then the professors commenting on them? This question is quickly answered, “Like everything else in the life about him, the animistic savage takes religion for granted…”. (Soper) Words like ‘savage’ clearly indicate a biased attitude against what we would call tribal people or tribals, and the potentially advanced animistic philosophy that manifested thousands of years ago. Clearly a biased presentation exists, but what was the prevailing attitude on Hinduism per se.
20th Century thoughts on Hinduism.
We see all the false teachings currently presented to this day within this work by Dr. Soper, the Aryan invasion myth, and the improper dating of the Rg Veda. Commenting on the importance of the Brahmana’s, professor Soper states, “…[the brahmana’s] are an arid waste of irrational theorizing with no inspiration or uplift about them.”[v] The professor continues to give a decent introduction to the Upanishads or what would be called Vedantic philosophy, but states, “This philosophical theory [referring the concept of Brahman] has crippled Hinduism through all the years and holds out little promise for the future…”[vi] clearly this is a biased and prejudiced statement of the time.
While attempting to provide insight into the attributes of Shiva, Dr. Soper refers to Shiva as the destroyer representing only the dark or cruel attributes of life. Clearly there is no understanding of Shiva at all. But the crème de la crème presents itself when it is stated that Monier Williams, the compiler of the famed Sanskrit dictionary, reported that 90% of the Indian population were demon worshipers. This attitude and bias is further expanded with a powerful quote regarding a teaching on Shaktism, stating, “[when] the female principle or shakti is worshiped with rites which at times descend to the lowest level of vileness.”[vii] Soper continues to state that the most advanced groups are ones such as the Brahmo Samaj, it appears that the professor feels this group might be more advanced as they are more closely associated with Christianity.
In his final comments on India, the professor comments that she “[India] much sooner than [later] may realize that in the person of Jesus Christ all her aspirations and longings may find complete fulfillment.”[viii] One would believe that any lack of clarity would be resolved with the final comments.
What has changed?
To examine what has changed we will need to examine a leading western authoritative work commonly available to the masses. I have selected “Our Religions[ix]” published Harper Collins, 1993 and edited by the famed Arvind Sharma to review. Almost immediately we are introduced, several pages into the section on Hinduism, that, “It is really hard to identify a Hindu.” Strangely, the Indian Supreme Court seemed to be able to at least set some basic standards, and first in these standards is a belief of the Vedas. In this book, we are told that the Hindu population is slowing in India. At this point we are about eleven pages into our study of Hinduism and still they do not have any type of definition or clarity.
Things such as the Hindu Marriage and Divorce Act are referred to. I am introduced to yoga, but only on the most fundamental level. I am told that hatha yoga is about the body, though this is not completely true, but possibly this limited view is given to appeal to a mass audience. While in its initial stages, hatha yoga in the west may have numerous physical elements to it. It also contains a great degree of mystical elements. These teachings are present even within the Hatha Yoga Pradipka.[x] With the modern examination of Hinduism, there is no mention of the very important Nath sect or other important traditions.
A few pages later the reader will get a one page or so introduction to Ramana Maharshi, and then Ramakrishna. Finally by page 30 the reader is introduced to the texts such as the Puranas. The reader is told that God is primarily visualized in three forms, Shiva, Brahma, Vishnu, one must wonder what happened to Brahman? As Brahman does appear in the Puranas to some degree and it is difficult to not acknowledge the importance of Brahman with the Vedantic tradition.
While the term Brahman does appear haphazardly in the book, it does not receive the importance, acknowledgement or attention that should be afforded to Brahman. But of course Vedanta, one of the most compelling philosophical teaching systems to manifest in humanity, is largely ignored. And the Upanishads are not even listed as important texts alongside Tantras or Agamas, though they are referenced occasionally. There is a reference to the Devi or Goddess. We are introduced to the Tantras providing powerful insight into such facts as Ganesh was featured on the “Simpsons”[xi]
Which, in my opinion, is an area of concern as to why this is even mentioned. But then again, why is there constant reference to Christianity in a section explaining Hinduism, as if to imply Christianity is the yard-stick by which others should be measured.
Within the Rg Veda references we find the same worn out scholarly dogma packaged differently. The tiresome 1500 BCE date for the Rg Veda is given, in fact the writer cannot even agree if Hinduism is part of the Vedas. We see the Dravidian speaking migration theory that is constantly being shown to be incorrect, just as is the “Aryan invasion” was shown to be a myth.
The commentary on the Vedas presents only the Sayana and Yaska naturalistic presentations. While valid within their systems, it is commonly known that there are and were other interpretations of the Vedas. While there is a more positive presentation of Hinduism than was found with professor Soper, it often contains the same outdated and incorrect information as professor Sopers commentary from 1921, birthing the question did any scholarly knowledge of Hinduism occur in the past 70 years between these books publication?
We do see a reduction of religious bias when comparing the two books. But clearly there is a continued distortion of the facts pertaining to the Vedic dates and Hinduisms relationship with the Vedas. While it could be argued that the Puranas represent modern Hindu society, with their rich references to Vedic kings, lineages, and traditions. The Puranas do contain information pertaining to Vedangas and upavedas[xii] and when considering all of these facts it is extremely difficult to separate Hinduism from the older Vedic teachings. This is little doubt Our Religions is an improvement over its 1921 counterpart; I found it surprising the regurgitation of false academic dogma of the day, and little insight from the actual traditions.
Upon careful review, the reader will discover a powerful religious bias in the writings of Soper from 1921. There is little doubt that there is a biased continuation of scholarly views from the 1800s towards Hinduism. Likewise, there is a continuing thread of distorted and false knowledge into the late 20th century. What will the 21st century hold for Hinduism? Hinduism must unify and present a clear picture of itself to the world. It must not allow biased scholars to color the view of Hinduism with outdated concepts and ideas. To achieve this will require the religious spiritual leaders to step forward and help Hinduism in its healing process of centuries of religious biased presentations.
I propose a new model is created, the Hindu Religious Scholar, which would come from the various dharmic traditions that comprise Hinduism. These religious scholars would be recognized/authorized by the various sampradayas to compile and preserve information from a tradition. These individuals would be authorized to speak and educate the public regarding Hinduism, as well as serving as a counter balance to academic views by representing a dharmic view toward the history and teachings of Hinduis (Sanatana Dharma).
The Religious Scholar would earn Bachelors, Master and Doctorate religious degrees awarded through the sampradaya themselves. The Religious Scholar would not serve as a Guru or Swami rather they would address the void of academic acknowledgement relative to the teachings of the traditions themselves. While one might argue this is the duty of the Guru’s and Swami’s, regrettably there appears to be a reluctance to stand against the modern academic ‘authority’ and their self appointed expertise on all things Hindu. Therefore, there is a need for a new group to emerge to address the growing challenges facing Hinduism.
By Yogi Baba Prem
Th. D., Yogacharya, Veda Visharada
Universal Yoga/Florida Vedic Institute
[i] Soper, Edmund Davision “The Religions of Mankind”, Abingdon Press: New York 1921 page 13.
[ii] Schleiermacher, Friedrich, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers (1799; Eng. trans., 1893)
[iii] Lal, B.B. “Why Perpetuate Myths?”, http://www.geocities.com/ifihhome/articles/bb1002.html
[iv] King James Bible
[v] Soper, Edmund Davision “The Religions of Mankind”, Abingdon Press: New York 1921 page 159.
[vi] Soper, Edmund Davision “The Religions of Mankind”, Abingdon Press: New York 1921 page 162
[vii] Soper, Edmund Davision “The Religions of Mankind”, Abingdon Press: New York 1921 page 174
[viii] Soper, Edmund Davision “The Religions of Mankind”, Abingdon Press: New York 1921 page 179
[ix] Sharma, Arvind (editor) ‘Our Religions’ San Francisco: Harper San Francisco 1993
[x] Sanskrit Texts “Hatha Yoga Pradipka”
[xi] The Simpson’s is a popular cartoon program featured on the Fox television network. All trademarks are the property of their owners.
[xii] Vedangas and Upavedas are limbs of and secondary Vedas or Vedic teachings.
It should be noted that Abingdon Press, an imprint of The United Methodist Publishing House. I do not know if this was true in 1921. But this clearly shows a biased agenda by the publisher. (Author note)
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