Hindu Myth, Hindu History (Religion, Art and Politics)

Item Code: NAI340
Author: Heinrich von Stietencron
Publisher: Permanent Black
Language: English
Edition: 2013
ISBN: 9788178242156
Pages: 336 (40 B/W Illustrations)
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 inch X 5.5 inch
Weight 330 gm
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Book Description

About the Book


Translated From the German, This is a Major Work of classical Indological scholarship. It draws upon various sources and currents-folk, tribal, and the multilayered Sanskritic tradition-and offers important insights into the complex cultural history of Hinduism.


Starting from the centuries preceding the Common Era and continuing through the Gupta period up to the eleventh century, it traces continuity and change in religion and art within the formative period of what we know today as Hinduism. The terrain it covers ranges from the grammatical treatise of Panini and Patanjali, to the Dharma Shastras as well as the epics and Puranas to inscriptions and temple iconography.


Deploying these many perspectives, it looks also at Akbar’s religious reforms, which gain yet other dimensions vai such scrutiny.




It is to my many friends in India and to scholars in the English-speaking world that I dedicate this volume of select papers, most of them published originally in the German language. This is the first in a series of three or four books that will follow as the translation proceeds.


Most of the translations are to the credit of Mitch Cohen, Berlin, whom I was fortunate to meet during my stay at the Wissenschaftskolleg in 1996. One is by Dr Srilata Mueller, a former student of mine who is now an established scholar herself. Where no translator is mentioned, the possible shortcomings in the English expression are my own.


The credit for redaction and digital preparation of the entire book goes to Dr Martin Christof-Fuechsle: he too a former student and long-time associate of mine in Indian Studies, whose voluminous update of the Epic and Puranic Bibliography (ca. 2000 pages) is almost ready for print.


Bibliographical notes originally placed at the end of each of the original papers have been transferred to a consolidated bibliography at the end of the book.




Indology, potentially covering all aspects of Indian cultural history, has attracted German students from the early nineteenth century to the present day. Initially, travel to India was not as easy and common as it is today and the study of Indian culture was primarily based on literary texts, not on personal experience. As a con- sequence, philology was central as a tool for Indian Studies and basically has remained so, although personal experience of India has now added another dimension to this intellectual enterprise.


Within the vast spectrum of Indian Studies, some scholars concentrated on a particular period in time, such as ancient, classical, medieval or modem India; others on a particular subject like Vedic Studies, Buddhist Studies, Sanskrit grammar or classical kavya literature; others again on one of the many branches of the human intellectual quest such as poetry, philosophy, art, history or medicine; and still others on the perfection of the necessary tools and skills for exploring the past by means of linguistics, epigraphy, archaeology and numismatics. My own interests have centred on the history of religious ideas as embedded in society and, to some extent, shaping social reality. This meant a departure from fixed periods. It was rather the change that interested me, the gradual shift from one dominant concept to another, the adjustments of religion, art and social reality to changing times.


Since my initial training had been in classical German Indology with an emphasis on Vedic language and literature (together with its counterpart, the Ancient Iranian Awesta), as well as the Upanisadic tradition and early Buddhist texts, I was confronted from the beginning with significant conceptual changes in time. This made me turn to the corresponding social aspects as revealed in the Grhyasutras, Dharmasastras, Arthasastra, and the epics and Puranas. One of the papers in this volume, on temple priests and image worship, is the outcome of such investigation into the social consequences of religious concepts and their change in time.


The extraordinary wealth of mythological accounts contained in the epic and Puranic literature of India has captured my attention for many years. One of the results was the Epic and Puranic Bibliography (Stietencron et al. 1992), another a number of papers dealing with mythic accounts and their relation to philosophical concepts, as well as to works of art and social change. The papers on Bhairava, on the Goddess Durga Mahisamardini and on Kaliyuga included in this volume serve as examples of this section of my research interests.


When dealing with myths and their representation in art there arises another interesting question: Why is it that a certain mythical account is chosen by the artist at a particular time? Here the emphasis of research focuses on the socio-political environment of the artist, i.e., the historical situation which prompts the choice of one out of many possible themes for sculptural representation on a temple wall or in a rock cave. The paper on political aspects of Indian religious art is an example of this line of historical investigation in an area where religion, politics and the personal benefit of the artist or of the king-combine to produce a lasting work of art.


Puranas are also the source of my contribution to the debate on the date of the Buddha, which engaged well-known scholars from Asia, Europe and America in a conference organized by H. Bechert in 1988. The dominant tendency of most scholars in both Buddhism and History was to revise the traditional date (nirvana in 544/543 BC or around 480 BC) and bring it down at least to ea. 368 BC (i.e., a hundred years prior to Asoka’s coronation), if not still later. Among the major reasons to believe that the traditional dates are too early is the short list of leaders of the vinaya-only four as compared to nine kings in the Puranic lists-and evidence regarding the development of cities in the lower Gangetic plain. It was assumed that the sheer numeric strength of the early sangha, as reflected in the texts, presupposes that urbanization had already taken place in extensive measure: the large numbers of travelling monks could hardly be maintained in a village-based society. Since urbanization began rather late in that area, Buddhism had to be brought down by roughly 200 years. In contrast, my paper on the date of the Buddha shows that the traditional dates are based on literary information dating back to the time of Candragupta Maurya (two generations prior to Asoka). They not only correspond to the Puranic evidence, but are probably based on, or derived from, that evidence. This is no proof of historical truth. It only goes to show that the creation of “history” based on earlier literary sources-so common in later periods-is attested for South Indian or Sri Lankan Buddhism as early as the first century BC, when the traditional Buddhist chronology was established. It also challenges the contention of some scholars who hold that writing did not exist in India prior to Asoka.


Since religion in India and elsewhere has always been in close relation to the rulers, I was again and again confronted with the fact that kings interfered with existing religious practice or contributed to promoting new religious ideas. A well-known early instance is the Upanisadic king Janaka of Videha. Another famous case is the Mughal emperor Akbar’s attempt at religious reform. The latter was an intellectual effort of high order, designed to rationalize religion: in this respect it was contemporary to, or even slightly earlier than, Western Enlightenment and rationalism. It is a fact that none of Akbar’s Mughal successors dared proceed on these lines of reform. As a vision intended to reduce both religious pluralism and corresponding tensions in his country, Akbar’s effort was admirable.


One of my tasks as successor of the well-known Vedic scholar Paul Thieme to the Chair of Indology and Comparative History of Religion at Tubingen University-a position I held for twenty-five years, from 1973 to 1998-was to study Indian religions in a way that would be conducive to cross-cultural understanding, primarily for the benefit of my own students and, in a wider sense, for the world’s Christian community, in order to assist in creating a sympathetic understanding of Indian religious plurality.


For the average erudite European or American who has inherited an intellectual tradition based on categories developed by Greek and Roman thinkers and developed further by Christian medieval theology, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and sub-sequent philosophy, an approach to the Indian religious tradition necessarily starts by using Western terms and categories. It is at a later stage, after learning Indian languages and assimilating traditional Indian concepts, that a shift from European to Indian terms and categories can fruitfully take place.


I approached this task in two ways, both documented in this volume. One was to trace and document the “Preconditions of Western Research in Hinduism” and thereby expose the origin of certain misconceptions that have shaped average European understanding of India-even well into the British colonial enterprise. The other approach was an attempt to describe the spectrum of the Indian religious heritage in the language of Western terms and categories, including historical changes and innovations. This at- tempt-formulated in the paper on the proper use of the term Hinduism-cannot but break up so-called Hinduism into several distinct entities that would, in Western parlance, merit the designation “religion”, while Hinduism would appear as a “family of related religions”.


To clarify this point: according to the Western understanding, each historical religion undergoes change in course of time and may express itself in new concepts and in many forms of ritual practice. But if fundamentally new concepts or irreconcilable differences of doctrine about the ultimate reality appear, these cannot be tolerated within anyone religion. This is why both Christian and Muslim history is replete with attempts at extirpating heresies. The limits of tolerance are flexible, but if fundamental differences regarding the highest deity or the path to, and state of, liberation persist, the break is final and a separate religion is born.


There were religious movements in India that moved the same way. The devotees of Krsna, for example, whose final aim was to reach Krsna’s paradise Goloka, considered the Smartas as their most abominable enemies because their concept of liberation-to merge into brahman-was fundamentally different. As a consequence, the Smartas were at times considered so impure by the Vaisnavas that even to speak to or listen to them was strictly prohibited. Merging with Siva or reaching Sivaloka the ultimate aim of sivabhaktas was, of course, also no viable alternative.


It is thus evident that, when applying Western categories, the Saivas, Vaisnavas, Buddhists and Jains, each of them with a different theology, different sacred scriptures and different paths to liberation, cannot be understood as belonging to the same religion. To define religion by geographical origin, instead of doctrine and practice, as modem Hinduism does, is not compatible with Western intellectual categories.


Looking back at the gradual process of Western acquaintance with Hindu religion, we have to note that the perception of Hindu theology was tinged from the beginning by a basic misunderstanding. When confronted with Hindu religious practice and observing the peaceful interaction of what were believed to be Hindu sects, early Western observers considered them all to be part of a single religion. This religion was given various names, such as “Malabarian Heathendom”, “Gentoo Law”, “Hindoo Law”, etc., and it was only in the nineteenth century that the term “Hinduism” started to be generally accepted. Knowledge of theology followed relatively late and expanded slowly. But the more it increased, the more frequently it was felt that Hinduism was intellectually inconsistent, self-contradictory, chaotic, lacking theological coherence. Consequently, attempts at interreligious dialogue in the second half of the twentieth century often suffered from the fact that quotations from Hindu scriptures could be adduced to support the most divergent positions.


It was in this context that I tried to remove barriers of mutual understanding by delineating Hindu religious history according to Western categories. The result was a distinction between several Hindu religions, each addressing a different divinity as the highest Lord, possessing different goals in the human quest for emancipation, prescribing different religious practices and different values and norms. This attempt has met with criticism from right-wing Hindus in India. Yet it appears to me that there is more merit in demonstrating how Hindu religions-despite their theological and historical differences-are able to live and interact peacefully with one another, than to close one’s eyes to a long history of mostly peaceful but certainly vital competition for knowledge of the divine, for the attainment of spiritual aims, and for social recognition and material gains.


The paper on religious configurations in pre-Muslim India approaches the same problem of religious difference from another angle. It is based on a ritual that has a history of a thousand years and continues to be practised up to the present. Ritual is a domain more resistant to change than many other segments of religious belief and practice. In this volume, it serves as a historical example to testify to the acute perception of religious difference in Indian tradition itself, and to end an unnecessary debate. There has never been implied, in these studies, a diminution of the value and richness of Hindu tradition. On the contrary, it has been my intention to highlight the commendable capacity of Hindu religious thinkers to compete intellectually with one another in writing, art and social development without-with rare exceptions-taking to violence and persecution. As compared to Christian and Muslim history, this is an outstanding example of religious tolerance.


I have refrained from changing any of these papers and bringing them up to date. Research, fortunately, never stops yielding fresh evidence and new results. Thus, additions, corrections, and enlargements would be possible today. But honest historiography prefers to let the reader know the state of know ledge, perception or theory at the time of writing and first publication.











Political Aspects of Indian Religious Art



Calculating Religious Decay: The Kaliyuga in India



Orthodox Attitudes Towards Temple Service and Image Worship in Ancient India



The Puranic Genealogies and the Date of the Buddha



Bhairava: Facets of a Hindu Deity



The Goddess Durga Mahisasuramardini: Myth, Representation and Historical Role in the Hinduization of India



Planned Syncretism: Emperor Akbar’s Religious Policy’



The Preconditions of Western Research on Hinduism and their Consequences



Hinduism: On the Proper Use of a Deceptive Term



Religious Configurations in Pre-Muslim India








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