Hinduism

A Very Short Introduction

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Kim Knott
Very Short Introductions
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     2016.
     160 pages.
     $11.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780198745549.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Hinduism is an incredibly diverse tradition that spans the length and breadth of history. This term, itself somewhat problematic, is the moniker of a tradition that seems to contain as many paths and practices as there are adherents. As such, introducing Hinduism concisely can be extremely challenging. Kim Knott’s Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction admirably attempts to do just that in one pocket sized edition. Within this 160-page volume, primarily focused on contemporary Hinduism, Knott considers the questions of definition that intrigue many scholars of Hinduism, namely, “how to define it. Is it appropriate to call it ‘a religion’? Is it like Christianity or Islam? In what ways does it differ? Does it, in fact, challenge our notions of what a religion is?” (xiii). This introduction, then, is Knott’s attempt at wrestling with these fundamental questions by exploring the various characteristics of the Hindu tradition via nine succinct thematically-organized chapters.

This book, though small in size, addresses many themes that are crucial to any introductory text on Hinduism, including understandings of the divine and the self; the role of the epics and the divine heroes found within them; Hindu dharma; and the transmission of knowledge through priests, gurus, and storytellers. Knott also discusses colonialism, Hinduism in modernity, and Hinduism outside of India as well as some challenges involving caste and gender issues and the evolving roles of women and dalits. Knott returns, at the close of the volume, to the questions that began it all, and the impossible task of defining Hinduism. Adding to the list of what many scholars have claimed are unifying principles or characteristics of Hinduism (adherence to the caste system, the centrality of the Vedasdharma, and Aryan identity) Knott maintains that “the popular narrative traditions of the Ramayana, reverence for the Bhagavad-gita, the presence of the divine in many names and forms, the place of the guru, and the sacred land of India, might also constitute defining features” (105-106). She maintains that Hinduism, through its evasion of definition and category, challenges our preconceived notions of what “religion” is (110).

One of the many strengths of this volume is Knott’s discussion of varying perspectives on Hinduism. This is the very first thing addressed by Knott as she begins chapter 1, utilizing an analogy of a library/bookstore to demonstrate the many facets of and perspectives on Hinduism. We can peruse any section of said establishment and indeed find a book that covers some aspect of the tradition; however, we would often begin in the religion section because of the Western perception of Hinduism as a religion. It is within this chapter that the reader is introduced to insider and outsider perspectives and the intentions often found behind each. Further, it is here where Knott, in a successful attempt at transparency, discusses her own background and thus the perspective she has when approaching the subject matter. This disclosure, while underscoring differing perspectives, demonstrates the need for understanding and accepting the potential predispositions that scholars carry when researching and writing. Knott says that as a woman she felt it was important to include Hindu women and other Hindu minority groups (low caste, dalits). As such, Knott gives attention to important contemporary issues facing Hindu women such as dowry deaths and prenatal sex determination. 

Hinduism: A Very Short Introduction is part of the Very Short Introduction Series published by Oxford University Press, which offers introductions on a wide variety of subjects that are scholarly and highly informative while also being extremely concise. Knott’s Hinduism is a wonderful addition to that series in that it takes a complex subject and presents it in a manner that is exceedingly accessible. Knott’s volume would be well suited for individuals, both academic and non, who wish to embark upon an exploration of Hinduism, including students who are taking university courses in which Hinduism is introduced or discussed. As such, it would be a wonderful course textbook that could, with some additional reading, provide a strong overview of the Hindu tradition. Its small physical size removes any trepidation that the reader might feel when approaching subject matter that can be encyclopedic in nature. Further, by providing a suggested reading list at the end of the book, Knott gives the reader the means to expand their knowledge base if they so wish. The structure of each chapter around a particular topic or theme as opposed to a chronological overview, as seen in other introductory texts, gives the reader an opportunity to learn about Hinduism in a fluid and engaging manner.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jessica Ford is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Ottawa.

Date of Review: 
September 22, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kim Knott is Professor of Religious and Secular Studies. Previously at the University of Leeds but now at Lancaster University, she teaches the study of religions, including Hinduism, and researches religious/secular controversies and religion in public life, focusing on the media, conflict and security.

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