by R. C. Zaehner (1913-1974)
This book came into my possession by accident. Susan bought a dozen or so books for a dollar at a used book store, including this one. It was heavily marked up by an earlier reader, through the third chapter (of eight).
Zaehner has assumed the task of explaining the Hindu religion, a task as enormous as the religion itself. Of course he had to concentrate on only certain concepts, and certain historical trends. Nonetheless, the result seems broad and deep enough to convey to this Western reader the nature of the beliefs that originally went into the religion, and some of the ways that it has been transformed through the years. The book takes a mainly chronological approach, from the Vedas through Gandhi.
I first read most of this book about two years ago (1990). After seeing the movie Mahabharata, I decided that I should reread it; I think having read the book greatly increased my understanding of the movie.
Zaehner’s main thread is the way that the interpretation of the concept of Dharma has changed. From the early emphasis on revealed law, to codified laws, the term has been made to serve many masters and to mean many things. Zaehner emphasizes the view in the Mahabharata expressed by Yudhishthira, the King of Dharma, that his personal dharma, or conscience, was superior to the dharma expressed by the gods themselves, face to face to him. This view cost him another cycle of rebirth. His last chapter is entitled Yudhishthira Returns, and is about Gandhi, and his view that dharma is also to be found in each person’s conscience, rather than in scripture.
Whether or not Zaehner’s view accurately portrays the many threads that make up the fabric of Hinduism, this is a strong theme, and is clearly understandable to any reader. It is unfortunate that so few will actually read it, as illustrated by the early reader’s notes, which stop long before the story is told.