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A Dictionary of Hinduism


What is the subject of this dictionary? Under its own entry, I define the term ‘Hinduism’ as: ‘A noun of convenience, or construction, encompassing, whether actively or retrospectively, the religious and cultural traditions (i.e. the various beliefs, values, social practices, and rituals) of those identified by themselves or others as “Hindus”.’ This is plainly and deliberately a tautology. It might also be considered an evasion, reflecting a notoriously evasive subject. However, the cross-reference involved directs the reader from the abstract (’Hinduism’) to the concrete (’Hindu’), and so to the location of this religious and cultural complex in its original, geographical context of South Asia (essentially subcontinental India). This permits the understanding, if not precisely the definition, which, for workaday purposes, I adopted in the compilation of this dictionary. Broadly, it treats ‘Hinduism’ as a term used to designate a wide range of Indian religious traditions, which, in one way or another, have been, and continue to be, historically, ritually, theologically, ideologically, socially, and culturally linked. In line with the current consensus, the breadth of that range has not been understood as extending to traditions which, in the Common Era, have originated outside the subcontinent (e.g. Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism), or to those which have sooner or later come to identify themselves as autonomous (principally Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism). Nevertheless, for the sake of context, survey entries have been included on Buddhism, Jainism, Islam, and some other traditions which, for long periods of Indian history, have interacted, both positively and negatively, with what has come to be classified as Hinduism. Where groups or individuals have only subsequently (or sometimes never) been labelled ‘Hindu’, ‘non-Hindu’, ‘Muslim’, or ‘Sikh’—some of the medieval bhaktas, for instance—each case has been treated on its own merits, but with a bias towards inclusion. In short—and in spite of the neuroses of those academics determined to prove that the rest of the world is made up not only of Orientalists, busy constructing politically loaded ‘others’, but also of essentialists and literalists, who are bound to misconstrue ‘Hinduism’ merely because such a coinage exists—I have treated the terms ‘Hinduism’ and ‘Hindu’ as necessary, if not always entirely reliable, signposts, rather than as elephant traps for the unwary.

The more capacious and inclusive the definition of ‘Hinduism’, the greater the gap between its reality—the reality of what ‘Hindus’ have done and, in many instances, continue to do—and the information that can be transmitted about it. Much has been knowingly omitted. Hindu traditions have produced thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of texts in a wide variety of languages, but most of them lie unstudied and effectively unknown. From this position of near ignorance, only those which have been prominent among prominent traditions, and for that reason have seemed important to scholarship, have been included. In the same spirit, only those elements of Vedic mythology which have been most significant for later Hinduism, will be found here; many minor gods have been neglected. Similarly, of the thousands of Purāṇic myths, I have only attempted to retell those that have had some further ritual, theological, or devotional significance. Gurus and ācāryas are ubiquitous, and their hagiographies immense, but they too have been filtered for historical or widespread influence. Some living gurus, but no living scholars, have been given their own entries. Not every temple complex has been described, nor has much iconography; again, the criterion for inclusion has been further cultic or historical importance. Maps have been provided showing the approximate locations of the major sites mentioned, but for practical reasons, some smaller sites are placed through reference to either a nearby city, or the part of the State in which they are situated. A different dictionary of Hinduism could have been written as a series of survey articles; those that have been included here, such as entries on ‘caste’ and ‘food’, are largely topics which have received extended theoretical explication in the secondary literature. But that list too could have been endless, and in most cases readers have been left to conduct their own surveys, should they wish to do so, by following the asterisks from the information provided in individual entries. In short, it would be absurd to claim for this dictionary, as the great Sanskrit Epic, the Mahābhārata, does for itself, that ‘What is here may be found elsewhere, what is not here is nowhere at all’. Instead, I make the far more circumspect claim that, while much, if not all, of what is here may indeed be found elsewhere, usually in greater detail and at much greater length, the reader may also, in the first instance, find it convenient to have a concentrated version available in a single volume.

The cultural critic Raymond Williams once remarked that academic work is largely clerical. In that respect, this dictionary is exemplary: in terms of information and analysis, it is of necessity heavily dependent on the scholarship of others—scholarship which crosses numerous disciplines, from Anthropology to Zoology. To attribute sources in the normal way would, however, be perversely cumbersome in a work of this kind. I refer readers who would like to encounter this scholarship at first hand to the titles given under Principal Sources and Further Reading, and to their more specialized bibliographies. In this way, I hope that some of the academic debts I have incurred may be repaid through attracting the attention of a wider readership to areas that are sometimes neglected or overlooked. For that reason part of the bibliography is skewed towards sources I have found valuable above and beyond the common currency of Indological scholarship, including poetry and fiction. It is, in any case, supposed to be an indicative rather than a definitive list, and the majority of entries refer readers to the next level of detail, i.e. to longer introductory and survey articles.

The way in which this dictionary functions is intended to be self-explanatory, but readers may be interested in some of the underlying principles and hidden constraints which have informed both the choice of entries and the form they have taken.

The use of copious—some may think mechanical—cross-referencing to other headwords (indicated by an asterisk at the first occurrence of the word in a particular entry) is intended in itself to convey something about the interdependence of certain major themes, which persistent or regular readers will discover for themselves. (The only exceptions to this principle are those very common words, such as ‘India’, ‘Hindu’, and ‘God’, which almost any reader might expect to have separate entries in a dictionary of this kind.) Sometimes the connections may be unexpected, and, it is hoped, the more illuminating for that; at other times a particular individual may find them irrelevant. In so far as it can be sensibly limited at all, the range of possible meanings that the label ‘Hinduism’ has for me (and for the scholarship I have relied upon), will, in the end, be far more evident in this web, or nexus of cross-references, than in any single definition. Where connections seem especially pressing, or are not necessarily obvious, even among the asterisks, I have inserted directions at the end of particular entries to See X, or to See also Y. Most interesting, perhaps—and also probably most representative of recent academic study in this area—are the dozens, if not hundreds, of separate stories, which start, peter out, leave false trails, or take unpredictable turns on page after page of what follows.

It is worth noting that the length of any particular entry should not be taken as an invariable indicator of the importance of the term dealt with. Indeed, some of the more important terms may have relatively short specific entries, simply because they occur with such frequency in so many other contexts. Conversely, I have sometimes allowed less well known subjects (some modern religious movements, for instance) more space when basic information about them seems not to be easily available elsewhere, or they are not otherwise referred to in the dictionary. Nevertheless, since most information on this scale has to come from beyond any individual's more specialized interests, the author of a dictionary is largely at the mercy of scholarly fashions and clusters of research, so whereas the detail mined from some texts and practices has been thrown up in such quantities that it has had to be ruthlessly condensed to create readable entries, at the other extreme, entire traditions have, it seems, barely been noticed at all, and the compiler is left scrabbling for anything that looks like a reliable foothold. Linguistically, and to some extent culturally, there has been a subcontinental division, as well as a complex interplay, between the predominantly northern speakers of Indo-European languages (Sanskrit and its derivatives), and the speakers of the Dravidian languages of the South (notably Tamil). I have attempted to represent both of these major aspects of Hindu culture in this dictionary, although, in terms of available resources and coordinated information, it may be that a historical imbalance in the study of Hinduism in favour of the Sanskritic, at least in the Anglophone world, has been mirrored here as well.

Even when a particular text can, with good reason, be identified as the work of a single author, rather than the product of many hands and continuous accretion, it has frequently proved difficult to assign it an approximate date, even in terms of centuries. This is also true of the named authors of texts, and the origins of major movements or trends, such as bhakti and Tantra. Every set of dates, unless otherwise specified, should therefore be taken as a relative approximation. (This also applies to the dates in the Chronology.) Sometimes conflicting sets of dates are given, one assigned by the tradition itself, and one suggested (or more often contested) by modern scholarship. A common way of dividing up Indian religious history in the secondary literature, also sometimes employed in this dictionary, is to distinguish between four or more overlapping periods, typically the Vedic or Brahmanical (c.1700 bcec.200 ce), the Epic or Purāṇic (c.200 bcec.500/700 ce), the classical or mediaeval (c.500/700 cec.1500 ce), and the modern (c.1500 ce to the present). Some secondary sources (but not this one, which covers the period from c.1700 bce to the present) attempt to distinguish ‘Hinduism’, conceived as a product of the post-Vedic period, from Vedic or Brahmanical religion. Given that there have been few pan-Indian empires (perhaps none at all in the strictest reading), and that most ruling dynasties have exercized only a local influence, no attempt has been made, except at the level of specific, individual entries, to link religious developments and dynastic periods. The most important dynasties have their own entries in the text, and are included in the Chronology.

Italics are used only for the names of texts in their original language. Unless otherwise indicated, the reader should assume that language, when not English, to be Sanskrit, or a Sanskrit derivative. Apart from the common names of countries, Union Territories, and Indian States, all Indic words, with the exception of some Anglicized modern names, have been spelt with diacritical marks to aid pronunciation (a Pronunciation Guide is provided). Where relevant, alternative spellings, and spellings without diacritical marks which significantly change the appearance of the word, have also been given. Roman alphabetical order is followed: for example, entries under ‘S’ (which includes three different Sanskrit sounds—ś, ṣ, and s) are treated as though they all begin with the same letter. Where the names of Indian cities have been subject to change, I have usually kept them in period—Bombay in the 19th century, Mumbai in the 21st—or printed both versions.

By way of seeking indulgence for the inadequacies and peculiarities of a dictionary that attempts to exemplify, although never to encompass, the vast complex of human concerns we have come to call ‘Hinduism’, I can do no better than quote my namesake, the great Dr Samuel Johnson, who in the Preface to his A Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1775: §93) expressed the hope that:

there can never be wanting some… who will consider that no dictionary of a living language ever can be perfect… that a whole life cannot be spent upon syntax and etymology, and that even a whole life would not be sufficient; that he, whose design includes whatever language can express, must often speak of what he does not understand… that what is obvious is not always known, and what is known is not always present…

This seems especially apposite, insofar as ‘Hinduism’, like any great religious tradition, is itself a particular ‘language’—a language that, even if it happens to be one's native tongue, often requires translation. And although, for some of the reasons Dr Johnson gives above, no good translation can ever be achieved through a dictionary alone, it may not always be the worst place to start.

Finally, I must thank my editors at OUP—Ruth Langley for suggesting the project in the first place, and for smoothing its early passage—Judith Wilson for seeing it through the press. I am also grateful to my colleagues in the School of Religious and Theological Studies at Cardiff University for allowing me to coordinate a period of research leave with the push to complete a task which at times seemed to require, but never knowingly received, divine intervention.

Will Johnson

Cardiff 2008