Book reviews
Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas

Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas

by Katinka Hesselink - Spirituality on December 4, 2014

Getting to know the Sanskrit Puranas

There are several ways to approach Hindu myths. One is to study what stories Hindus tell each other these days. Another is to delve into the oldest texts containing such myths in existence. This book follows the latter method.

Translating versions of classic Hindu tales that had not, or rarely, been translated before – this anthology is a great reader not just for those who are interested in Hinduism, but also for the expert who doesn’t want or isn’t able to read the originals. We meet Visnu, Krishna (aka Krsna), Siva, the Goddess, seers, kings, rivers and supernaturals not previously mentioned.

Organized by topic, each chapter starts with an excellent introduction by Cornelia Dimmitt. As in: you get the essence of the background, the myths, the themes and the context of Hinduism as a whole. If there is such a thing.

Which brings me to the one disadvantage to this anthology – by putting all these myths into one book, it suggests a unity to ‘Hinduism’ that is probably not quite an accurate picture of religion in India when these Puranas were composed, nor or religion in India since.

Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas was recommended to me by Leiden University for a course ‘Introduction into Hinduism’.

Origins

Hindu myths about the start of it all…

What’s the origin of the world? Where did TIME come from? And the Gods? How is it all interconnected? How is space organized?

In this chapter you’ll find some interestingly creative answers to these questions – and you won’t be spared contradictions between the puranas much.

Learn about yugas, Brahma, Vishnu and the Cosmic Egg.

Visnu / Vishnu

Visnu is one of the three main Gods in Hinduism. The other two are Shiva and Brahma.

What connects the many myths of Visnu is that he comes whenever humanity has need of him. Whether it’s to save the world from drowning (he literally saves the Earth from the bottom of a primal ocean), or incarnates as Krishna to inspire humanity – the one constant is helping humanity. You’ll read about the four forms of Vishnu, the twelve avatars, the 22 avatars – and a few of the stories of individual avatars.

Avatars in this context are the incarnations of Vishnu.

Krishna / Krsna, Krshna

Though Krishna is technically an avatar of Vishnu, he is so popular – and has been for ages – that devoting an entire chapter to him is no luxury. Especially since the stories about him are so much fun.

We follow Krishna from childhood, through youth, into adulthood and ultimately to destruction.

Krishna as a child is playful and divinely powerful. As a youth he is playful still, but in a romantic sense. As an adult he is a leader whose ultimate defeat is seen as just what had to happen: all those involved went to heaven after all!

Shiva / Siva

Siva is a weird god: on the one hand an ascetic, on the other a family man of sorts. His wife Parvati is the most fleshed out female god in the Hindu pantheon: she has to be to be able to win the ascetic god as her mate.

Shiva wins himself a wife, reluctantly, but then proceeds to kill his child – which is then saved by getting an elephant head… Ganesha is since one of the most popular Gods in Hinduism, with both wisdom and protection as his qualities.

The Goddess

They had to get the feminine in this anthology, but the fact is that the Puranas were written by men, for men. Women, even goddesses, were usually side characters. The main stories about the Goddess (In Hinduism all the Gods are one anyhow, so all goddesses are ultimately one Goddess) are mostly connected to the God they are with – see Parvati as the spouse of Siva.

When a goddess IS independent, she is usually violent, powerful and hard to stop. She is needed for certain jobs, but once unleashed she may wreak havoc all over…

Seers, Kings and Supernaturals

Rivers, pilgrimage, Vedic Gods, and more

I liked this chapter least. The stories were not very interesting – some about why certain rivers are sacred, why specific pilgrimage places are sacred, how king such and such dealt with king so and so… etc.

We see some Vedic Gods make an appearance. Indra for instance has ants to deal with… Gods and demons fight it out… For some reason it all just doesn’t make very interesting reading. No doubt these stories were important in the Puranas, so they need to be represented here, but I skipped many of them.

  • Classical Hindu Mythology: A Reader in the Sanskrit Puranas. Editor: Cornelia Dimmitt, Translator: J. A. B. van Buitenen
  • Hardcover: 386 pages
  • Publisher: Temple University Press,U.S. (1978)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0877221170
  • ISBN-13: 978-0877221173
  • Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 6 x 1.1 inches

More Academic Books about Hinduism

  The Rig Veda (Penguin Classics)

In India religion is politics even more than in the US – don’t be fooled by the 3 star average rating: this is a great selection of some essential Rig Vedic Hymns – and there really is nothing better available.

In The US a ‘Bible abridgment’ might get similar low ratings, because nobody can agree what should be in it. But the Rig Veda is far larger than the Bible, so an abridgment can’t be avoided. This one is scholarly and also the only one available.

Mrs. Doniger is controversial with Hindu’s these days, so this translation has a lot of negative reviews. Personally I trust her scholarship.

  Darsan: Seeing the Divine Image in India

Darsan = the effect of the look of a Sacred Man, a statue of a God…

Darsan is essential to Hinduism and this book explains it.

 

An Introduction to Hinduism (Introduction to Religion)

One of the books Western universities recommend their first year religion students ought to read about Hinduism. Balanced and of course containing the main themes in Hinduism.

 

Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization

A great collection of information on just what the title suggests: Hindu myths and symbols. And a guide is what you’ll need: Indian art is full of symbolism that a lay person just can’t interpret.

 

The Ramayana: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic (Penguin Classics)

There are two Great Epics in India: the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Both are too long for easy consumption, so it makes sense that an abridgment be made. This one has great reviews.

The Buddhist Handbook, by John Snelling

The Buddhist Handbook, by John Snelling

by Katinka Hesselink - Spirituality on December 2, 2014

I bought a previous edition of this handbook in the late 90s. The current edition was updated after the author’s decease so it probably involves no more than updated information on the organisations listed and perhaps some minor alterations to the biographies.

This is precisely what the title suggests: a complete guide to Buddhist teaching and practice. That is: excepting for meditation, as it is traditionally taught from teacher to student directly, not from books.

Personally I did not miss that. I tried out meditation on my own, based on books and internet sites but found that I could not turn it into a practice without the guidance of people who had also done it. So I guess I agree with the tradition: meditation is best learned by doing it with live guidance.

However, the naive reader may wonder what else there is to say about Buddhism. Isn’t meditation at the heart of the tradition? Well, no. Mythically of course Buddhism revolves around prince Siddhartha Gautama first leaving home and all his riches, learning meditation, almost starving himself, taking it a bit easier, more meditation and then enlightenment. His subsequent teaching is an afterthought to the story, even though he did that for about 60 years.

However, in practice, throughout the centuries, Buddhists have on the whole hardly meditated at all. Even monks were and are more often employed leading ceremonies for lay people, reciting texts and so on.

These days meditation does play a central part, because it fits so well with our modern needs.

In ‘The Buddhist Handbook’ John Snelling goes into the Indian background to Buddhism, the life of the Buddha, basic teachings and practices as well as developments of Buddhism in India, South East Asia, China, Japan and Tibet. He even covers less well known strands of Buddhism in Mongolia and Russia. The book concludes with his overview of the reception of Buddhism in the West, the psychologicalisation of Buddhism and a who’s who of Buddhism.

In all this book can be recommended for any Buddhist who wants to look beyond his own tradition – and that means it’s almost compulsory reading for anybody aspiring to be a Buddhist teacher.

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