Prejudice in Hinduism studies: The case of Microsoft Encarta - chapter 16 part 1

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The scholarship of certain sections of the academic community studying Hinduism has been controversial in the Indian community. In this article we try to examine whether there is truth to this controversy, and whether such academics influence the mainstream portrayal of ‘Hinduism’ in standard sources. We use the Microsoft® Corporation’s Encarta® Encyclopedia as the reference for this study.


In this article we discuss the differences, in both approach and result, of Encarta’s articles on Hinduism in comparison with the articles on some of the other major world religions in Encarta. Encarta Encyclopedia is published by the Microsoft Corporation, which claims that it is the
“Best-selling encyclopedia brand”. Encarta is widely used as a reference source in American schools. In particular, because of its widespread use among children, we would expect Encarta’s coverage of religions to be even-handed, sensitive and unprejudiced.

In particular, we contrast Encarta’s treatment of Hinduism, with the two other major religions—Islam and Christianity. On occasion, we also refer to the treatment of other religions like Judaism and Buddhism. The purpose of this article is not to make value judgments or a comparative study of the religions themselves. In studying such vast and complex phenomena as the major religions, one can always find conflicting or questionable issues, just as one can find highly elevating truths. What aspects of the religion get highlighted is a matter of editorial choice. Our interest is not in comparing the religions per se, but in understanding the differences in editorial choice—both in the selection of content as well as style in the scholarly treatment of these
religions in Encarta.

The Contents Page

Our study begins with the main contents page for each of the religions. In some cases, the contents page contains, in quotes, a single highlighted statement about the religion. In the 2002 version of Encarta, these quotes are present for Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism, and not for Christianity and Islam.

• Judaism: “The God of creation entered into a special relationship with the Jewish people at Sinai”.
• Buddhism: “Karma consists of a person’s acts and their ethical consequence”.
• Hinduism: “Rama and Krishna are said to be avatars of Vishnu though they were originally human heroes”.

We note that the one statement chosen to describe Hinduism repudiates Hindu belief, while the statements for the other two religions reflect a balanced, positive, or neutral stance. Notice also the use of ‘said to be’ in Hinduism while the statement on Judaism is presented in the editorial voice as a presentation of fact. To understand this representation, let us draw up a hypothetical quote on Christianity to parallel the quote on Hinduism.

• Christianity: Jesus Christ is said to be the ‘Son of God’ though he was just a human.

Irrespective of belief in the truth or falsity of this statement, or the parallel one in the case of Hinduism, when such a statement is the highlight of the commentary on a religion, it reflects a certain attitude about how the subject is approached.

Fundamental Principles

In the article on Hinduism, we find that the ‘Fundamental Principles’ are divided into four sections—‘Texts’, ‘Philosophy’, ‘Gods’ and ‘Worship and Ritual’. We find the sequencing of ideas within this section fairly haphazard—generally moving to specifics without laying out the general—giving the impression of a somewhat incoherent system.

The canon of Hinduism is basically defined by what people do rather than what they think. Consequently, far more uniformity of behavior than of belief is found among Hindus, although very few practices or beliefs are shared by all. A few usages are observed by almost all Hindus: reverence for Brahmans and cows; abstention from meat (especially beef); and marriage within the caste (jati), in the hope of producing male heirs. By writing the above, the author takes the richness and diversity of Hindu thought and tries to approach it from the point of view of an orthodox church defining a single ‘canon’. Failing to find the ‘canon’ or articulate the underlying worldview of a system that allows many paths to flourish within it, the author quickly gives in to start listing mainly social practices. Let us see how the same issue is treated in Christianity.

Any phenomenon as complex and as vital as Christianity is easier to describe historically than to define logically, but such a description does yield some insights into its continuing elements and essential characteristics.

In the description of Christianity, Encarta approaches it from a point of view of humility—the problem being of the expository limitations of the author. No such humility is visible in the description of Hinduism, where the author quickly reduces any notion of complexity to an anthropological viewpoint.

Dealing with ‘Contradictions’

Let us see how the articles deal with supposed contradictions.

Although Hindus believe and do many apparently contradictory things—contradictory not merely from one Hindu to the next, but also within the daily religious life of a single Hindu—each individual perceives an orderly pattern that gives form and meaning to his or her own life.

The article on Hinduism is very clear that there are contradictions, and highlights this aspect. The articles on Christianity and Islam are either unable to find any contradictions, or don’t find them the most significant aspect of the religion to cover. (For more on how contradictions are covered in Christianity and Islam, please read page 172, chapter 16)

The key to understanding both the diversity as well as the unity of Hinduism is neither in the search for a ‘canon’ (a strongly Christian worldview), nor in the anthropology of particular practices. It is in recognizing that the philosophical foundations of Hinduism have celebrated diversity of path and individuality (which itself is a distinctive feature), while at the same time encouraging theological debates to further understanding.

In the articles on Christianity and Islam the problem, if any, is usually depicted as that of the author’s inability to adequately describe complexity rather than one of internal contradictions within the religions. The author of the section on Hinduism apparently faces very little difficulty—she carries on with an anthropological description of practices ‘from above’—sure that any contradiction that is found is inherently in the religion itself, and not in any lack of understanding or expository ability.

Peaceful ‘Jihad’ and Violent ‘Ahimsa’

A further study about the difference in approach and attitude in the articles on religion can be found in the description of subtle concepts. We take two—jihad and ahimsa, in particular, both of which may be somewhat familiar to the lay reader.

Many polemical descriptions of Islam have focused critically on the Islamic concept of jihad. Jihad, considered the sixth pillar of Islam by some Muslims, has been understood to mean holy war in these descriptions. However, the word in Arabic means ‘to struggle’ or ‘to exhaust one’s effort,’ in order to please God. Within the faith of Islam, this effort can be individual or collective, and it can apply to leading a virtuous life; helping other Muslims through charity, education, or other means; preaching Islam; and fighting to defend Muslims. Western media of the 20th century continue to focus on the militant interpretations of the concept of jihad, whereas most Muslims do not.

The most important tenet of sanatana dharma for all Hindus is ahimsa, the absence of a desire to injure, which is used to justify vegetarianism (although it does not preclude physical violence
toward animals or humans, or blood sacrifices in temples). [Emphasis added]

In both cases, the authors treat subtle subjects in the respective religions. In the article on Islam, the author presents a sympathetic view of Jihad, and attempts to favorably influence Western perceptions. In the article on Hinduism the author adds decidedly unfavorable editorial asides seeking to ‘correct’ possibly favorable perceptions by introducing ‘contradictions’. The tone of the article again is of a higher entity looking down on lowly customs and illogical ‘native’ interpretations as in, ‘ahimsa . . . is used to justify’. This is an illustration of the very different viewpoint (dare we say ‘agenda’) from which the article on Hinduism is written. While the articles on Islam and Christianity attempt to uplift the reader to a refined understanding of those religions, the article on Hinduism attempts to denigrate instead. (For more on how Christianity and Islam would be explained if one went by the logic applied to Hinduism, please read page 174, chapter 16)

This is, surprisingly, not the only example of the technique of negative editorial asides in the article on Hinduism. Thus we see:

Svadharma comprises the beliefs that each person is born to perform a specific job, marry a specific person, eat certain food, and beget children to do likewise and that it is better to fulfill one’s own dharma than that of anyone else (even if one’s own is low or reprehensible, such as that of the Harijan caste, the Untouchables, whose mere presence was once considered polluting to other castes). . .

A positive portrayal of ‘Svadharma’ (literally ‘Self-Dharma’) would introduce it as a high statement to an individual to discover and understand their purpose and calling with the cosmos in order to actualize it. Yet in the hands of the Encarta author it becomes an excuse for an aside on the historical practice of untouchability that is derided in contemporary mainstream Hinduism.

Philosophy or Anthropology?

The article on Hinduism appears quite disjointed in its understanding of philosophy, anthropology, cosmology, and mythology. The ‘Fundamental Principles’ leads with anthropology. As we see below the section on ‘Philosophy’ is mostly ‘mythology’ depicting ‘cosmology’—the very limited coverage of the well-developed schools of Hindu philosophy is relegated to a list in the section ‘Rise of Devotional Movements’, as a topic of History. Without setting out the philosophical principles, the underlying beliefs and practices of Hinduism, the coverage of ‘Gods’ and ‘Rituals’ appears particularly bizarre. Let us see how the section on ‘Philosophy’ begins.

Incorporated in this rich literature is a complex cosmology. Hindus believe that the universe is a great, enclosed sphere, a cosmic egg, within which are numerous concentric heavens, hells, oceans, and continents, with India at the center. They believe that time is both degenerative—going from the golden age, or Krita Yuga, through two intermediate periods of decreasing goodness, to the present age, or Kali Yuga—and cyclic: At the end of each Kali Yuga, the universe is destroyed by fire and flood, and a new golden age begins.

Firstly, this is not philosophy, but as the author points out, cosmology. Secondly, as a description of Hindu cosmology, it is fairly inadequate and reductive. It fails to point that there are multiple
creation myths in Hindu texts. Also, as far as Hindu cosmology goes, people like the notable astronomer and author, Prof. Carl Sagan, have pointed that the calculations of the age of the universe based on this cosmology works out to be fairly close to our current scientific estimates—and “(Hinduism) is the only ancient religious tradition on the Earth which talks about the right time-scale”. Mentioning any of this, would, of course be quite contrary to the tone of the article. Rather than presenting the creation myth as a story and presenting the hidden elements of scientific truth, the article gives a reductive description, preceded by the phrase ‘Hindus believe’. (For more on how the Biblical creation myth is handled, please read page 176, chapter 16)

Let us see how one would present a section on Christian ‘Philosophy’ with the same approach as in the case of Hinduism.

Christians believe that all humans descend from one man and woman, called Adam and Eve and calculated the age of the world to be about 10,000 years. They believe also that the female Eve
was created from male Adam’s rib by God to be his wife (which is used to justify Christian attitudes towards women such as a historical denial of equal rights). Christians believe many contradictory things—for example, that an all-loving, forgiving God puts human beings in everlasting Hell, if they sin without repenting in this life. [Emphasis added]

This would be a similarly reductive account presenting ‘Christians’ as irrational, and failing to grasp the multiple levels of subtleties involved in understanding a religion. As we see in the description of Hinduism, this is precisely the approach of the Encarta article.

Despite a very rich philosophical tradition, the anthropological view dominates the article on Hinduism. Both the articles on Christianity and Islam, lead instead with the philosophical ideas. Apparently the broadness of Hindu philosophical ideas like, Vasudhaiva
Kutumbakam (the world is one family), and the ideas of religious pluralism (“many paths lead to God”) that continue to guide most Hindus, find no place in the Encarta article.


Nowhere is the anthropological view more apparent than in the treatment of ‘Gods’. Firstly, an inadequate attempt is made to put the idea of ‘gods’ in proper perspective for a Western reader. The word ‘deva’ in Sanskrit, is less akin to the ‘God’ of Christianity, but more so to ‘angel’ (a power higher than man but lesser than ‘God’). Secondly, the concepts that ‘God’ is ‘unknowable’ and that different deities are thus representations of different aspects (nama-rupa) of ‘God’, is glossed over. The Encarta article also completely misses the concept of the Hindu trinity—that any Hindu child could recite—a key idea in the presentation of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva as creator, preserver and dissolver, and their female counterparts as three aspects of the One God. That the male and the female energies coexist in Indian thought and the idea of God as both male and female (at the same time being beyond gender) is also missed. Having skipped all the structure, the topic of ‘Gods’ is presented as a confusing ‘curio-shop’ of unrelated deities and sects, complete with sensational descriptions of blood and gore.

Shiva embodies the apparently contradictory aspects of a god of ascetics and a god of the phallus. He is the deity of renouncers, particularly of the many Shaiva sects that imitate him: Kapalikas, who carry skulls to reenact the myth in which Shiva beheaded his father, the incestuous Brahma, and was condemned to carry the skull until he found release in Benares; Pashupatas, worshippers of Shiva Pashupati, ‘Lord of Beasts’; and Aghoris, ‘to whom nothing is horrible’, yogis who eat ordure or flesh in order to demonstrate their complete indifference to pleasure or pain. Shiva is also the deity whose phallus (linga) is the central shrine of all Shaiva temples and the personal shrine of all Shaiva householders; his priapism is said to have resulted in his castration and the subsequent worship of his severed member.

While ‘phallus’ is just one interpretation of ‘linga’ there are many others as well, notably ‘symbol’ for the divine ([as in] Lingyate anena iti lingam). Apparently the author, whose interests appear to have a limited focus, continues to find contradictions from that single point of view—missing both other common interpretations as well as the underlying symbolisms. A disproportionate interest in the dimension of esoteric ‘sects’, ‘phallus’, ‘skulls’, ‘flesh’ and ‘ordure’ dominates the article and we find that practices and aspects far more prevalent and relevant to contemporary times—like Yoga or Chakras, meditation or mantras, breath and Pranayama are practically absent in the article. (For more on depiction of Durga/Kali in the Encarta article, please read page 178 and 179, chapter 16)

As the section on ‘Indian Philosophy’ in Encarta states:

‘Most of the poems of the Veda are religious and tend to be about the activities of various gods. Yet some Vedic hymns and poems address philosophic themes . . . such as the henotheism that is key to much Hindu theology. Henotheism is the idea that one God takes many different forms, and that although individuals may worship several different gods and goddesses, they really revere but one Supreme Being.’ [Emphasis added]

Has the Encarta article on Hinduism lost all keys? While there is a passing mention of this concept in Encarta, it is, characteristically, watered down from the clearer statement above.

In this way Hindus have been able to reconcile their Vedantic monism (see Vedanta) with their Vedic polytheism: All the individual Hindu gods (who are said to be saguna,‘with attributes’) are
subsumed under the godhead (nirguna,‘without attributes’), from which they all emanate. [Emphasis added]

Finally, let us see how the article describes Rama and Krishna, considered as incarnations of God (as Vishnu).
Most popular by far are Rama (hero of the Ramayana) and Krishna (hero of the Mahabharata and the Bhagavata-Purana), both of whom are said to be avatars of Vishnu, although they were
originally human heroes. [Emphasis added]

The article appears to speak with the certainty of divine knowledge!

Let us see how a similar issue, the divinity of Jesus is treated in the article on Christianity:

The ultimate mystery of the universe, called by many different names in various religions, was called ‘Father’ in the sayings of Jesus, and Christians therefore call Jesus himself ‘Son of God.’ At the very least, there was in his language and life an intimacy with God and an immediacy of access to God, as well as the promise that, through all that Christ was and did, his followers might share in the life of the Father in heaven and might themselves become children of God.

We note both the subtlety of thought and the sensitivity of expression in description, versus the heavy-handed certainty by which the article on Hinduism speaks, of happenings and events further back in time than the historical Jesus. Is this certainty born out of knowledge of fact, or simply a disregard for the corresponding religious sentiment?

Read chapter 16 part 1 from page 169 to 180

Pdf of the book is available for free download here.

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