Hindu Practice

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Editor(s): 
Gavin Flood
  • Oxford: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     2020.
     512 pages.
     $125.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780198733508.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Hindu Practice, edited by Gavin Flood, belongs to The Oxford History of Hinduism Series, which explores the religious traditions that fall under the umbrella term “Hinduism” from various perspectives, areas, and periods. The title under review is a collection of essays devoted to Hindu religious practices from the premodern to modern period. It begins with an introduction, which sets the stage for the whole volume, and is itself divided into six sections.

In the introduction, the editor theorizes the term “practice” and explains the significance of the study of religious practices in Hinduism, stating that “Hinduism is a religion of ritual par excellence” (11). He then narrows down the term “practice” to “eschatological practice” or practice “oriented towards liberation and spiritual ascent” (11). The following sections of the introduction collectively outline the primary practices in the history of Hinduism, namely Vedic sacrifice, temple worship (pūjā), Tantric practice, yoga, and devotion, and simultaneously give an overview of each chapter. After the introduction, the volume is organized into seventeen chapters within three asymmetrical parts treating different themes: textual sources, histories, and modern practice and politics. The first part explores practices derived from foundational Hindu texts like the Upaniṣads and Epics. The second part traces histories of practices from a variety of texts and traditions. While the first two parts are more focused on premodern practices, the last part deals with the transformation of contemporary practices in the Indian political context.

The contributors are all established scholars in their fields and are well-tasked to present each area of Hindu practices. Together, the chapters reflect the dynamics of Hindu practices, offering several perspectives across religious communities and timeframes. Among them, the chapters in the second part, which is the largest, best illustrate the continuity and changes of practices. For example, chapters 4 and 5 both chart the history of renunciation from the early and later period, respectively. As a pair, they chart the development of the practice of renunciation chronologically. In the same manner, the history of Haṭhayoga is presented in chapters 7 and 8 with varying themes and periods. The last part shifts the focus to practices developed in the post-independence period of India. The chapters in this part coherently show how practices during this time have become entangled with politics at the communal, national, and international levels. However, its scope is more limited than the first two parts.

The whole volume is engaged more with practices represented in textual sources than the practices that can be observed within religious communities, as is evident in chapter 12 on musical practice in Samāj Gāyan and chapter 17 on the devotion to gurus. The majority of sources used in the volume are in Sanskrit and/or within Vedic orthodoxy rather than vernacular literatures, except for some chapters like chapter 12 and those in the third part. Moreover, the volume shows an effort to include a usually marginalized topic in Hindu studies—women's practice—in chapter 13 on women’s observances.

Although the volume cannot represent the entirety of Hindu practices, it is a great contribution to the study of Hinduism and can serve many groups of readers. For those in the early stage of Hindu studies, it provides a very useful entry into the study of Hinduism in general with a focus on practices. It is accessible despite the use of technical terms throughout and references to texts that might not be familiar to all readers. Scholars of Hindu studies can also benefit from the large number of sources cited and the insightful discussions of histories of practices. Ultimately, the readers are repeatedly called to consider religious practices as one of the critical characteristics of Hinduism and reapproach Hindu studies with social and anthropological attention.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Manasicha Akepiyapornchai is a PhD candidate in Asian Studies Department, Cornell University.

Date of Review: 
July 9, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gavin Flood is professor of Hindu studies and comparative religion at Oxford University and a Senior Research Fellow of Campion Hall. He is also Senior Research Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies and Yap Kim Hao Visiting Professor of Comparative Religious Studies at Yale-NUS, Singapore.

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