Category Archives: Hinduism in Contemporary Literature

The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy): Review

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy is a fictional novel that focuses on the different aspects of love in Hindu culture. “The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.” (Roy 33, 168, 311). This line is present in the book in multiple places, in slightly different words, and is the most prevalent and recurring motif: that love is not something to be given freely, but is a highly monitored and structural system with rules of engagement that must be followed. Marriage, love, and sex are tied closely with the caste system in Indian culture, an article in The Economist quoting 90-95% of marriages are within the same caste (The Economist, 2015). Reena Kukreja also writes that “inter-caste marriages are taboo” as marriages are a way to maintain the social order of the caste system, which would be degraded if people were allowed to marry outside their caste (Kukreja, 2018). Ammu, the mother of the main characters Rahel and Estha, is a higher caste than her lover Velutha who is born into the untouchable class, a ‘paravan’. “The term “Untouchable” was eventually used to designate these people, who were “outside” the varṇa [caste] system” (Rodrigues 87). Their secret love affair ultimately ends in Velutha’s brutal murder at the hands of the police, as he is accused of the rape of Ammu and kidnapping of her children, by Ammu’s family. Her family does this to protect themselves from the shame of Ammu having a relationship with someone from a lower caste. “She had defiled generations of breeding…For generations to come, forever now, people would point at them…They’d nudge and whisper” (Roy 244). Though the children, Rahel and Estha, also care for Velutha deeply, it is culturally forbidden to engage with a member of the untouchable caste in this way. This caste system is so important, and rigid, that Vellya Paapen offers to kill his own son, Velutha: “He asked God’s forgiveness for having spawned a monster. He offered to kill his son with his own bare hands” (Roy 75).

Ammu and Velutha are forbidden to be together due to the Laws of Manu. “The Laws of Manu firmly promotes marriage within one’s own varna, suggestive of efforts to prevent racial mixture” (Rodrigues 79). This is a part of the Dharma Sastra literature that explains the duties and behaviours that are appropriate for each caste. There is no acceptance of class mobility, “for it is better to follow one’s own dharma (svadharma) inadequately, than to do the dharma of another varna thoroughly” (Rodrigues 79). Should one want to change their caste, there is no way to do so, and acting in a way that would signify or imply you were born into a higher caste is worse than not following your birth caste, even poorly. One issue that is not overly explored in the novel is the idea that the caste system is also inherently sexist. Shruti Chaudhry writes of “The gendered character of caste membership” and the implications “that endogamy could be breached by dominant/upper caste men but not by Jat women” (Chaudhry 2018: 5). The research here suggests that if men are without a wife, they may go find one from far away, so that her caste is not known and essentially adopt her into their own caste. For women this would be unthinkable, as there is evidence to suggest women were killed by their fathers for breaching the caste marriage tradition (Chaudhry 2018: 4). Kukreja agrees: “Dalit women suffer more due to the intersection of caste with gender and patriarchy” (Kukreja 2018: 511).

What is interesting in the book is that, though the family of Ammu is Christian, they still adhere to the Dharmic principles of the caste system. Even though there is no caste system in Christianity, and Christ’s message is largely supportive of the poor, downtrodden, and despised.  “…such activities as having sexual relations, eating the same foods together, or participating in particular religious rites with persons outside of one’s jati are not just undesirable, but actually go against the natural order” (Rodrigues 84). Despite the Christian influence the importance of marrying and associating only with those of your own caste persists. Ammu and Velutha’s love is against the natural order and is therefore unacceptable. “The ritual pollution associated with these groups [lower castes, untouchables] is believed to transfer temporarily to the higher castes through contact” (Rodrigues 87). Through the importance placed on the higher castes of maintaining their “purity,” one can understand the reaction of Ammu’s family. Not only was their daughter touched by a paravan, but she had a sexual relationship with a paravan. This sort of pollution and shame would extend not simply to Ammu, but to her entire family, where maintenance of cleanliness, and purity was of utmost importance. The shame that would be extended to include the family by way of Ammu’s relationship with an untouchable was seen as something to cover up and deny at all costs. “…the stigmatization of the Dalit [paravan] is deeply rooted in Hindu culture, supported by scriptural injunctions and religious practices that have endured for millennia” (Rodrigues 88).

A second theme that the book explores is the controversial state of a divorced woman. “She subscribed wholeheartedly to the commonly held view that a married daughter had no position in her parents’ home. As for a divorced daughter – according to Baby Kochamma (Ammu’s aunt), she had no position anywhere at all. And as for a divorced daughter from a love marriage, well, words could not describe Baby Kochamma’s outrage.” (Roy 45). A long quote, but one that does well to highlight the negative opinions that are held about women of divorce. Rodrigues (Rodrigues 106) explains that a love marriage is seen as something inferior to the traditional arranged marriage. Ammu violated not only the arranged marriage customs, but, in the eyes of her family, added to her shame (and theirs) by marrying for “love”. The children also suffer from this stereotype, they hold less, or maybe no value at all, due to the unfortunate circumstances of being children of divorce. “Mammachi said that what her grandchildren suffered from was far worse than inbreeding. She meant having parents who were divorced” (Roy 59). “In crucial ways, marriage forms the cornerstone of Hindu religious life” (Rodrigues 104). Especially for women, who have no earlier rite of passage into Hindu society, marriage is the rite of passage. This is obviously the case with Ammu and her family as she is stigmatized for being a divorced woman, even in the household of Christians.

The caste system is divided into small and smaller units called jatis. “Jati refers to the group into which a Hindu is born, and from which he or she should traditionally choose a marriage partner” (Rodrigues 83). As we can see here, the stigmatization of divorcees is tied closely to the caste system, which defines who may marry whom, and discourages divorce. Ammu originally married outside of the caste system entirely, then divorced, and finally engaged in a relationship with a paravan. Each step pushed the boundaries of socially accepted practises further and further until the inevitable ending of Velutha’s death. According to Rodrigues most Hindu marriages, to this day, are arranged marriages with caste, and skin color being important factors when choosing a partner (Rodrigues 104). Each of the important features of marriage that Rodrigues touches on here were violated by Ammu, and Velutha, during their relationship. The denial by the family in order to salvage some of their reputation led to the misguided beating, and death, of Velutha by the police.

Finally, shame seems to be an integral part of the book as well. Velutha, a paravan, was born into a shameful caste, and Ammu was also shamed for divorcing her first husband, and even the children are not shielded from shame. At one point Rahel talks back to her mother, Ammu, who responds by telling her young daughter: “…do you realize what you have just done?… When you hurt people, they begin to love you less. That’s what careless words do. They make people love you a little less” (Roy 107). “The moth on Rahel’s heart lifted a downy leg. Then put it back. Its little leg was cold. A little less her mother loved her” (Roy 131). There is also inherent racism that is felt by the children, for being treated so differently from their white cousin: “Littleangels were beach-colored…Littledemons were mudbrown…” (Roy 170). The racism is also mirrored in the Laws of Manu that seperation of the classes, or castes, is also implying a seperation of races (Rodrigues 79). Ever present throughout the book is this comparison of the children of Ammu, Indian children, to that of Sophie, their white cousin. The repetition of the laws of love which are directed at Velutha and Ammu’s secret affair are echoed in the love Sophie receives, that Rahel and Estha do not.

The God of Small Things creates an understanding of the issues of divorce, marriage, the caste system, untouchables, and the disparity between people in a way that is easily understood on an emotional level. It is leans towards highlighting the damages of the caste system, but it does get its message across in a unique and poetic way that allows one to feel as though they are experiencing the segregation of classes for themselves. Although it highlights the negative aspects of the caste system, it is enlightening to become attached to the characters and understand the struggle that they face in their culture. The stereotyping and degrading of unwanted peoples untouchables, divorcees, those of different religions, and races, the story allows one to connect on a deeper level to the issues that face those born into a lower caste with no chance of improving their life in a way that scholarly factual writing cannot.


Chaudhry, Shruti (2018) “‘Flexible’ Caste Boundaries: Cross-regional Marriage as Mixed Marriage in Rural North India.” Contemporary South Asia 1-15. Accessed November 27, 2018. DOI: 10.1080/09584935.2018.1536694.

Kukreja, Reena (2018) “Caste and Cross-region Marriages in Haryana, India: Experience of Dalit Cross-Region Brides in Jat Households.” Modern Asian Studies 52(2), 492-531. Accessed November 27, 2018. DOI:10.1017/S0026749X000391.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism – The ebook.  Journal of Buddhist Ethics Online Books.

Roy, Arundhati (1997) The God of Small Things. Toronto: Vintage Canada.

“Love (and Money) Conquer Caste; Marriage in India.” The Economist September 5, 2015, p. 44. Canadian Periodicals Index Quarterly. Accessed November 27, 2018.

This article was written by: Skye Helgeson (Fall, 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.

The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic (Linda Egenes and Kumuda Reddy): Review

The Ramayana is an ancient story believed to have been transmitted orally, in Sanskrit, for thousands of years until the great sage Valmiki wrote the story down in the form of a poem (Egenes & Reddy 2). It is believed to be enjoyed by over one billion people around the world and widely considered to be a one of the “great classics of world literature” (Egenes & Reddy 2).

Egenes & Reddy’s version of The Ramayana is broken down into sections, with the first one being the Prologue – The Qualities of Rama, wherein the great sage Valmiki is told of a man named Rama who has all the heroic qualities to make him the perfect person. Later that day, Brahma, the Creator, comes to Valmiki and tells him that he must tell the story of Rama to the world.

The next section in Egenes & Reddy’s version of The Ramayana is called the Bala Kanda, translated as ‘Childhood Book’, which describes King Dasaratha, his wives, and his sons. King Dasaratha’s firstborn son is named Rama and is the protagonist of the story. Rama has celestial origins and his upbringing has allowed him to flourish as a Dharmic warrior, having been educated in the four Vedas under the direction of the family guru. Rama wins his wife Sita by lifting Siva’s bow, which he is able to do because of his Dharmic nature, proving that he is worthy to be Sita’s husband. Rama and Sita live happily married, in the city of Ayodhya, for 10 years.

The next section in Egenes & Reddy’s version of The Ramayana is the Ayodhya Kanda, translated as ‘City of Ayodhya Book’, which is the story of King Dasaratha beginning to make arrangements for Rama to become king of Ayodhya due to the king’s old age. King Dasaratha announces his plans to his ministers, spiritual advisors, rulers from nearby kingdoms, and all the people of Ayodhya, who are all thrilled at the idea of Rama ruling the kingdom. After being manipulated by her servant, Queen Kaikeyi, King Dasaratha’s third wife, redeems a boon that had been granted to her by the king. Queen Kaikeyi requests that her son, King Dasaratha’s second-born, Bharata, become king and that Rama be exiled to the Dandaka Forest for 14 years. After much grief, and with Rama’s persistence, King Dasaratha follows through with Kaikeyi’s requests. Rama, ever the righteous son, prepares to retreat into the forest, along with his most favoured brother Laksmana, and his beautiful wife Sita. Rama leaving Ayodhya prompts the death of King Dasaratha, and Bharata becomes very upset with his mother for her malicious actions. He goes to the forest to find Rama to beg him to come and reign as king, however Rama does not want to dishonour his father’s request, and therefore declines Bharata’s appeal. Rama, Sita, and Laksmana continue through the forests toward Dandaka, stopping to visit sages along the way.

The next section in Egenes & Reddy’s version of The Ramayana is the Aranya Kanda, translated as ‘The Forest Book’, which describes the many raksasas, or demons, that Rama, Sita, and Laksmana encounter, and the subsequent battles that ensue. Rama and Laksmana being the great warriors that they are, easily win each fight. The forest dwellers, Rama, Sita, and Laksmana, make several stops at different asramas to visit with, and receive guidance from, the various sages and rsis that they meet. Rama and Laksmana receive celestial weapons from some rsis in exchange for making their forest safe from raksasas. One day, a raksasi named Surpanakha, who is described as being the opposite of Rama in every way, happens upon Rama and takes a liking to him. Rama being disgusted by her, turns her down. Surpanakha, embarrassed and angry, goes to attack Sita and Laksmana cuts of the raksasi’s nose and ears. Surpanakha tells her brother Khara what has been done to her and begs him to kill Rama, Sita and Laksmana. Khara sends his 14 strongest warriors to attack the forest-dwellers, however Rama defeats them with ease. Khara then leads fourteen thousand warriors to battle, and after a fierce war, Rama defeats them all using his skill and celestial weapons granted to him from the rsis and the gods. Ravana, the king of the raksasas, and brother to Khara and Surpanakha, hears of Sita’s beauty and Rama’s strength and victory against the other raksasas. Ravana comes up with a plan to make Sita his bride and enlists Marica, a fellow raksasa, to help him. Having lured Rama and Laksmana away from Sita by having Marica disguise himself as a beautiful golden deer, Ravana tricks Sita into believing he is a holy man. He then reveals his true self and attempts to convince her to become his bride and return to Lanka with him. Sita vehemently denies his requests to be his bride and repeatedly professes her love for Rama, which angers Ravana, so he kidnaps her and takes her to his kingdom of Lanka. Upon discovering that Sita is gone, Rama is distraught but determined to find her and rescue her. Sita is adamant that she will remain true to Rama by not giving into Ravana, but she is heartbroken and misses her husband desperately. Finding clues along the way in their search for Sita, the two warriors, Rama and Laksmana make several friends with fellow Dharmic individuals who are able to help them in their quest for revenge against Ravana.

The next section in Egenes & Reddy’s version of The Ramayana is entitled Kiskindha Kanda, translated as ‘Kingdom of the Monkeys Book’. One friend that Rama and Laksmana are guided to meet is Sugriva, the king of the monkeys, who vows to help Rama get Sita back in exchange for Rama’s help in recovering his kingdom. Rama helps Sugriva get his kingdom back and then waits several months for Sugriva’s help. Finally, troops from the monkey army are sent to all corners of the earth in search of Sita. Hanuman, Sugriva’s most trusted advisor, is the one who finds out that Sita is in Lanka, and where to find this kingdom. He makes himself very large and jumps across the ocean to Lanka to find Sita.

The next section in Egenes & Reddy’s version of The Ramayana is the Sundara Kanda which translates to ‘The Beautiful City Book’. Hanuman arrives in Lanka where he finds and approaches Sita cautiously. After earning her trust, he tells her of his mission and assures her that Rama is on his way to rescue her. Her resolve is strengthened once again knowing that her beloved husband has not abandoned her. Before Hanuman leaves Lanka to let Rama know of Sita’s whereabouts, he decides that he must pay Ravana back for taking Sita against her will. First, he destroys the pleasure gardens inside the palace, then he draws out Ravana’s army. He destroys many ministers and generals before being captured and his tail set on fire. Hanuman escapes capture by shifting sizes and sets Lanka ablaze before leaving to return to Rama. Once he returns, Rama has many questions about Sita’s wellbeing and whereabouts, feeling much stronger knowing that she is okay. They begin to devise a plan to get her back.

The next section in Egenes & Reddy’s version of The Ramayana is called Yuddha Kanda which translates to ‘The War Book’. Rama has made his way to the ocean, which Hanuman leapt over, but is unsure how he will cross. The monkey army builds a bridge over the ocean so Rama and Laksmana can head to Lanka along with millions of monkeys and other great warriors. Finally, they arrive in Lanka and after some time the war begins. All of Ravana’s troops – his ministers, generals, warriors, raksasas, brothers, and sons – end up killed in the midst of war. Rama’s troops all die as well but they have gathered special herbs that instantly heal any injuries and revive their troops from death. After lasting for many days, the battle is finished when Rama destroys Ravana. When Sita is finally rescued, Rama greets her with harshness and indicates that he cannot believe that Sita has remained virtuous during the entire time that she was with Ravana. Heartbroken, Sita sets herself on fire to prove that she has been devoted to only Rama, and she asks that Agni, the God of Fire, protect her from the flames. Of course, Sita has remained pure and so she is not burned by the flames at all, and Rama discovers that he is actually Visnu incarnate and Sita is Laksmi. Having proven that Sita has been faithful to her husband, they are finally reunited and return to Ayodhya to rule over the kingdom. Everyone is thrilled to see Rama, Laksmana, and Sita, especially Bharata, who had been ruling the kingdom on Rama’s behalf. After being crowned king, Rama and Sita live in happiness in Ayodhya for many years.

In the final section of Egenes & Reddy’s version of The Ramayana, the Uttara Kanda, translated as the ‘Epilogue Book’, it is revealed to Rama that the people of Ayodhya question Sita’s purity and faithfulness. Rama must now make a decision between being a Dharmic king or a Dharmic husband. He chooses his kingdom over his wife, and knowing Sita is pregnant, sends her off to the forest to dwell with Valmiki, the great sage, and to never return. Several months later Sita gives birth to twin sons, Lava and Kusa, who are taught the poem of Rama by Valmiki, which he called The Journey of Rama or Ramayana. One day, when the twins are grown, they are in Ayodhya with Valmiki and have the opportunity to perform some of their beautiful poem for Rama. Recognizing the story as his own, he asks them to tell him the whole story, and after several days of them reciting, Rama realizes that these are his sons. Sita is brought back to Ayodhya to prove her purity once more. Sita asks for Mother Earth to swallow her up if she has been faithful to Rama, and with that, the earth opens up and Sita is gone forever. Rama is devastated but after many years he returns to Brahma Loka, or the heavens. His sons, Lava and Kusa remain in Ayodhya where they rule their kingdoms.

The Ramayana is made up of many relatable events and experiences, which appear to fall in line with many stories of old that aim to teach people the basic differences between right and wrong, as well as to teach people how to treat others. The Ramayana has been so popular over so many years because it is a fantastic story containing great battles, super-human powers, struggles, victories, love, and loss. Egenes & Reddy’s version of The Ramayana has been written using beautiful descriptions of the characters’ thoughts and emotions which can allow the reader to really feel involved in the story and feel like they are making decisions along with the character. It can also make the reader feel like they are experiencing the emotions first-hand, which allows the reader to feel more immersed in the story. Rama and Sita, being depicted as such virtuous characters, encourages the reader to want to emulate them and act with more virtue.

With The Ramayana being part of Hindu culture for thousands of years, it makes sense that it has provided women with an image of what they should aspire to in marriage. Sita, who served as an example of the ideal wife, followed her husband Rama into exile, gave up all her belongings for him, and waited in chaste for him to rescue her. This allows women to emulate Sita in their devotion to their husbands. Likewise, with Rama being so dharmic, men also have a role model to look up to when manoeuvring through difficult situations. Rama proves that one can be dharmic even when faced with tough decisions in which many people would struggle to make the dharmic choice, such as when Rama chooses his kingdom over his wife. In this way, Rama provides a roadmap for men to follow and for women to support.

Additionally, The Ramayana provides brothers and friends a character to emulate in Laksmana as he honors and follows Rama into exile, leaving behind his wife in order to do so. Laksmana fights and struggles alongside Rama to the very end, while ensuring that Rama’s needs are taken care of before his own. Laksmana has different dharmic responsibilities than Rama does, allowing a more diverse range of men the opportunity to look up to someone and to help act as a guide in their day-to-day lives.

In many ways, The Ramayana acts as a guidebook showing people how to act in a variety of situations. It illustrates that no matter whether you are a king, a wife, a monkey, or a brother, you should always act in the most dharmic ways possible. It demonstrates that sometimes acting in a dharmic fashion is harder than it may seem because you need to take into account the hierarchy of one’s own responsibilities – but it is always doable. It portrays the idea that true love and honoring your spouse is possible, even when faced with adversity.


Egenes, Linda and Reddy, Kumuda (2016) The Ramayana: A New Retelling of Valmiki’s Ancient Epic – Complete and Comprehensive. New York: TarcherPerigee.

Related Topics for Further Investigation

The Mahabharata









Dandaka Forest







Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


Article written by: Jill Easton (Fall 2018) who is solely responsible for its content.

Autobiography of a Yogi (Paramahansa Yogananda): Review

Paramahansa Yogananda is said to be one of the most influential spiritual figures reaching people in both eastern and western societies (Goldberg 4). Yogananda wrote many books, but arguably the most powerful and well-known was his personal memoir: Autobiography of a Yogi, written in 1946. Although many have written about Yogananda as a yoga guru, less has been said about his unique approach to spiritual guidance or the influential life events that directed him on his path of enlightenment. I plan to focus on these two distinct aspects of Yogananda throughout the following literature review. In addition, I will provide an overview of his life and spiritual journey that took him from his coastal hometown of Gorakhpur, in the north-eastern area of Uttar-Pradesh (India), to America, and back again to visit a few prominent spiritual leaders including his Hindu guru, Yukteswar Giri. Of particular interest is the degree of influence Hinduism itself had in shaping Yogananda’s life and consequently the lives of his supporters.

Paramahansa Yogananda was born on January 5th, 1893 in Gorakhpur, India to a well-off Hindu Bengali family. The book begins with a recitation of Yogananda’s childhood and specific spiritual events which sparked his interest in spirituality. He describes his memories of being a fetus in the womb of his mother, Gyana Prabha Ghosh, where he knew all the languages of the world but selected the one in which he heard spoken to be his mother tongue. From the beginning, Yogananda described having an acute awareness of the spiritual world far beyond the average child. The many mystical phenomena that he experienced in his youth set Yogananda on an early path of spiritual devotion in search of self-realization. In his younger years, he sought out many Indian yogis in hopes of finding a virtuous guru that could guide him on his religious pursuit of enlightenment. Finally, at age 17, he found his guru: the esteemed, Swami Sri Yukteswar Giri in the city of Varanasi. Not long after, Yogananda became his disciple and went on to spend the next decade living in his Serampore ashram alongside other devotees under the guidance of his master. Yukteswar was a strict guru who showed great spiritual discipline, something he expected from all of his disciples as well. Despite Yogananda’s opposition, Yukteswar insisted it was necessary for him to finish school to prepare him for his foreseen future journey to America to be a spiritual leader for thousands of people. Following his graduation in 1915 from Calcutta University, he took his formal vows to become an official monk of India’s monastic Swami Order.

In 1917, Yogananda founded Yogoda Satsanga, a school for boys which merged modern education with spiritual teachings and yoga training. Three years later, Yogananda left India to fulfil his master’s envisioned prophesy: to travel to America and teach west society the sacred Kriya Yoga practice. As predicted by Yukteswar, Yogananda went on to lecture to thousands of people on the Hindu lifestyle and further established the Self-Realization Fellowship—a spiritual organization for the conservation and dissemination of his knowledge and philosophies. During his time in America, Yogananda became fast friends with a renowned botanist named Luther Burbank. Yogananda admired Burbank’s humble, generous, and loving character so much that he actually dedicated Autobiography of a Yogi to him.

In 1935, Yogananda returned to India for a year-long quest, giving Kriya Yoga classes all around the country. Along the way, he met many well-known individuals including the internationally famous social reformer, Mahatma Gandhi; the Nobel Laureate physicist, Sir C. V. Raman; the Indian guru who encouraged the practice of atma-vicara, Ramana Maharshi; the great female Hindu saint, Ananda moyi Ma; and Giri Bala, a yogi woman who was known not to eat anything, , among other notable figures (Yogananda 1946: 737). This visit was also the last time Yogananda saw his beloved guru, Yukteswar. After saying his final goodbyes, Yogananda departed back to America where he continued to practice, teach, and share his spiritual wisdom with all. In 1946, he wrote the famous book, Autobiography of a Yogi which acknowledged the influential people and events that fuelled and shaped his relationship with spirituality.

Yogananda was known for being completely devoted to his God and his guru, Yukteswar. Indeed, throughout the book, he attempts to share with the reader just how genuinely faithful and God-loving all the Hindu saints that he encountered were. The many ways in which individuals showed their love for God were tremendously diverse. Devotion was demonstrated throughout the book through prayer, meditation, and the dedication of one’s life to helping others (Yogananda 1946). Among all these methods the underlying feature was the loving of God above all else, including themselves. Yogananda’s aim with his training and literary work was to illustrate to those who desired enlightenment (regardless of their faith) that anyone could grow their love for God.

Unlike Christianity, Hinduism has been described to be a religion that is all-encompassing, woven throughout the everyday life of every Hindus (Lipner 3). In this general regard, Yogananda’s legacy is a powerful example of the pervading Hindu spirituality incorporated into his existence. To appeal to the West, Yogananda explained the unification of Hinduism, and he advocated for a spiritual synchronicity between the East and the West. The rhetorical methodology used by Yogananda included the emphasis of harmony between the teachings of Jesus Christ and Yoga taught by Bhagavan Krishna (Yogananda 2004: 1566). Indeed, Yogananda believed the core values of Hinduism were, in fact, true for all religions. Every religious belief system has the foundational element of devotion. He emphasised that there was a single unifying trait amongst all religious groups: the worship of the same almighty God. Yogananda also wanted to appeal to the science-minded individuals by emphasizing the similarities between science and religion in their fundamental principles.

Correlating with the sacred Vedas and Upanishads, Yogananda stressed the importance of disconnecting one’s self from their physical body, ego, material possessions, in exchange for self-realization. Echoing traditional Hindu scripture, he explained the cosmos as God’s project, where humans are simply actors who have the ability to change their role via reincarnation (Yogananda 1946: 453). This is akin to Rta in Vedic scripture, which is the cosmic order of things that must be preserved and maintained through having compassion for all creation, simple living, and higher thinking. Also, in accordance with sacred Vedic scripture is the principle of Ahimsa. In the book, Yogananda recounted a time when he was about to slap a mosquito that had landed on his leg when Yukteswar reminded him that all life forms have an equal right to the air of Maya, which, prevented him from killing the mosquito (Yogananda 1946: 190-191).

Ultimately, Yogananda’s teachings accurately reflected many traditional Hindu beliefs using methods that would particularly appeal to western society. For example, he evaded mention of the controversially sexist Hindu traditions associated with the caste system and Vedic culture as a whole, which would likely deter many westerners. One prominent example of a positive method for disseminating Hindu beliefs that Yogananda utilized was through Kriya Yoga—a meditative technique that inspires spiritual growth (Miller 178). Kriya Yoga was passed down through Yogananda’s guru line—Mahavatar Babaji taught Kriya Yoga to Lahiri Mahasaya who taught it to his disciple, Yukteswar Giri, Yogananda’s guru (Yogananda 1946: 232). Kriya Yoga, as Yogananda described it, is unification with the infinite through action or rite (Yogananda 1946: 393-394). Yoga is very popular in western society now, with Yogananda’s teachings being a founding influence of the initial appeal of Hinduism to the west. Autobiography of a Yogi taught people all over the world the core Hindu values, while the reader fell in love with Yogananda’s humbly devoted character.


 Goldberg, Philip (2018) The Life of Yogananda: The Story of the Yogi Who Became the First Modern Guru. Carlsbad: Hay House.

Lipner, Julius (1994) Hindus: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices. New York: Routledge.

Miller, Timothy (1995) America’s Alternative Religions. Albany: SUNY Press.

Yogananda, Paramhansa (1946) Autobiography of a Yogi. New York: Sterling Publishers Pvt. Ltd.

Yogananda, Paramhansa (2004) The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ      Within You. Los Angeles: Self-Realization Fellowship.

Related Topics for Further Investigation


Swami Order

Yogoda Satsanga

Kriya Yoga






Caste system



Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic


This article was written by: Hilary Williams (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.

Untouchable (Mulk Raj Anand): Review

India’s caste system has been around for centuries and is a very important part of the Hindu culture (Vallabhaneni 361). No other country can compare to the complexity of this system (Vallabhaneni 362). This caste or jati system determines where someone stands in society. People are placed into these castes when they are born because of the lineage of their family members, if one’s parent is born a Brahmin then they shall be a Brahmin as well. There are four different classes or varnas involved in the system; the highest ranking members are called Brahmins (Sultana and Subedi 19). The Brahmins are considered the purest of all people and are the priests or educators who have the sacred knowledge of the Hindu culture. They are expected to spread their dharmic knowledge to others to help them achieve steps in one’s spiritual life. The second highest rank is known as the Ksatriyas, the kings or warriors (Sultana and Subedi 19). Their job is to protect society and keep the order inline. The third group are the Vaisyas; these are the merchants or farmers who work in trade and agriculture (Sultana and Subedi 19).

These three groups, which are the three highest varnas, are considered to be ‘twice-born’ meaning they undergo spiritual rebirth and induction during adolescence. The fourth and final class is known as the Sudras (Sultana and Subedi 19). Considered to be at the bottom of the system, Sudras are the working class such as servants. The Sudras are known to serve the upper three varnas. There is one more group that does not belong in the caste system, known as Untouchables, who is considered so polluted that they do not have a place in the caste system (Sultana and Subedi 19). In the book Untouchable, it explains how people in the caste system treat each other. Bakha, the main character in the book, is part of the Untouchable group (Anand 3). Throughout the book, he explains his experiences of being an Untouchable and how it affects him and his family. Untouchable is able to portray to the reader what it is like to be an Untouchable in the Hindu caste system.

In Untouchable, Bakha is an eighteen-year-old boy in a family of five. His father, Lakha, is the head of their job of sweepers, in Bulashah, where they live (Anand 3). He has a sister, Sohini and brother, Rakha. He also had a mother but she had died when he was younger. Leaving Bakha to now look after the family since he was the oldest (Anand 6). Bakha is the one who has to get up early each morning and work as his brother tends to be distracted and occupied playing in the streets (Anand 14). His father, Lakha, is ageing and tends to stay home while the boys work. Lakha is known to be a ‘bully’ to Bakha, abusing him with verbal insults if Bakha is not doing what Lakha wants him to be doing (Anand 6-8). Other parts in the book, Lakha is able to support Bakha through his experiences of horrific attacks for being an Untouchable (Anand 67).

Throughout Bakha’s daily life, he is involved in many disputes about him being an Untouchable. In one incident that occurred, Bakha, being an Untouchable, is forbidden to enter temples because of how impure he is and if he was to enter, he would pollute it. Bahka was a curious boy and decided to observe a ritual happening in the temple without realizing that he was too close. Someone caught him and notified everyone (Anand 50). After going through many incidents of him being terrorized and threatened for being an Untouchable, Bakha has to start announcing his presence around other people to let them know a polluted being was around     (Anand 41). He is called a scavenger, a pig, a dog and many other vicious insults (Anand 51). Bakha hates that he is an Untouchable and how the other castes treat people like him (Anand 42). At times, Bakha forgets he is an Untouchable, he does not remember that if he comes into contact with people they can become impure (Anand 119). He wishes that he could leave the world because of how unlucky he is and what he has to go through while being so impure to society (Anand 105). He wants a better life where he can be treated like an actual human being with respect.

Later on in the book, Bakha, has an encounter with the ‘Great Soul’, Gandhi. Bakha was very intrigued with Mahatma Gandhi as he had never seen or heard him speak before (Anand 125). Gandhi did not agree with the name and loss of rights to the Untouchables, so he renamed them Harijans, he did this because he wanted to remove the label of ‘untouchability’ (Anand 124). This opened up Bakha’s eyes as he realized that he wanted something to change about the way he was being treated; he wanted to follow Gandhi’s vision (Anand 138). Bakha believed that with Gandhi’s teachings that his life for him and other Untouchables could turn out differently (Anand 121).

The caste system is a way of life for Hindus. They believe this system guides Hindu society as a whole as it benefits how they all interact in their daily lives (Raheja 497). This jati system of varnas is considered to be a social institution that people are born into without being able to switch groups (Sultana and Subedi 21). Each one of these groups has its own customs, rules, etc that they need to follow and live by (Raheja 502). There is this obsession of purity that Hindus want to acquire in their life. This division of groups among the Hindus not only shows the different customs or rules but also shows the differences between wealth, status and knowledge. Brahmins, who are the highest varna, separate themselves from the second group, Ksatriyas, by having this essential spiritual knowledge such as dharma that aids society (Raheja 501). They have to have this ability for them to be able to perform rituals to the Gods and Goddesses properly. The Brahmins are dominant in the caste system. Ksatriyas, do not have this spiritual essence but they do have the power to control the social order and protect it as they are the kings and warriors of this caste system (Raheja 501). This power over the social order is what separates them from the Vaisyas; the merchants and landowners. Vaisyas are the people that help bring the money to the society (Carlsson, Gupta and Johansson-Stenman 52). The Sudras, the bottom rank of the class system, are distinguished from the other varnas as the servants and working class who do not bring a lot to society. Their job is to help benefit the upper three classes. With the Untouchables, it is a whole other story because they are not considered to belong to the caste system at all because they are so polluting in the Hindu culture.

Untouchable: the word itself means “should not be touched.” This group is considered the outcaste of society. They do not belong anywhere and are segregated for their status. These people are known to be in poverty (Deliège 535) and they also work jobs that are considered extremely impure to the Hindu society. “They think we are dirt because we clean their dirt” stated Bakha in the book because he is a sweeper and toilet cleaner, two of the most polluting jobs someone can have (Anand 67). One other polluting job to have is the cremation of bodies during the Antyesti (last sacrifice or death ritual) because death is considered to be an impurity in Hinduism. This is why they are known to be Untouchables, as it is impure to be in contact with them since they are involved in these fields of work. The Untouchables is a very complex group that is divided into different jatis (Deliège 535). In India the terms that are now used to describe the Untouchables are either ‘Harijans’, meaning the people of God, ‘Scheduled Castes’ or Dalits, meaning oppressed (Deliège 535). These groups of people are so greatly discriminated that they are unable to be in the same places as their superior higher caste members. They are forbidden to wear jewellery or exquisite clothing, cannot enter the streets and houses of the higher castes and cannot access their own town’s water supply as they will pollute it (Deliège 535). The higher castes loathe the Untouchables and treat them like they are filth. In India today, there is a rise of a demand for rights for the Untouchables as they are fed up with being treated like dirt (Deliège 535).

Untouchable displays the very accurate situations that the Indian Untouchable caste has to go through in their daily lives (Anand 38). These people are treated inhumanely because of the rank they were born into. The caste system is able to distinguish people from each other in many ways but it is a way of life and an ancient tradition for the Hindu people. This order of differential hierarchy has been around for over a thousand years and not only is it a religious necessity but it is also an aid to keep society in a social structural system (Arunoday 1). Certain occupations can and cannot be achieved in these classes, for example, an Untouchable is unable to work in the trade or agriculture as they can pollute the crops and water that can disrupt the trade system in the town or village by making impure. The caste system determines social status right at a person’s birth. In the caste system the social status of an individual at birth is permanent; if one’s father is a Sudra, the son would also be a Sudra (Carlsson, Gupta and Johansson-Stenman 55). They are unable to avoid this socially and religiously structured society (Vallabhaneni 361). With this system, Hindus are not even allowed to marry outside of their varna. They must marry someone who belongs in their class. The caste system is a key aspect that helps portray the identity of someone in Indian society. (Carlsson, Gupta and Johansson-Stenman 54). With this system, it shows the differences between certain activities each class has access to. For example, an Untouchable is allowed to be educated but since they are in such poverty, schools are unable to run. Also, with education, there is a great deal of discrimination and bullying an Untouchable can receive from other children. Every single Hindu belongs in one of the castes in this complex system: it does not matter if they want to or not, it is a way of life in Indian society.


Bibliography and Related Readings

Anand, Mulk (1935) Untouchable. City: Penguin Classics.

Arunoday Sana, (1993) The Caste System in India and its Consequences, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, Vol. 13 Issue: ¾: 1-76

Carlsson, Fredrik. Gupta, Gautam. Johansson-Stenman, Olof (2008) “Keeping up with the Vaishyas? Caste and relative standing in India.” Oxford Economic Papers, Vol. 61, No. 1: 52-73.

Deliège, Robert (1993) “The Myths and Origin of the Indian Untouchables.” Man, New Series, Vol. 28, No.3: 533-549.

Raheja, Gloria (1988) “India: Caste, Kingship, and Dominance Reconsidered.” Annu Rev Anthropology, 17: 497-522.

Vallabhaneni, Madhusudana (2015) “Indian Caste System: Historical and Psychoanalytic Views.” The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol 75, No.4: 361-381.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2011) Studying Hinduism in Practice. London: Routledge.

Sultana, Habiba. Subedi, D.B (2016) “Caste System and Resistance: The Case of Untouchable Hindu Sweepers in Bangladesh.” International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, Vol 29, No. 1: 19-32.


Related Research Topics








Caste system


Websites Related to the Topic

This article was written by Mollie Kennedy (Fall 2018), who is entirely responsible for its content.

The God of Small Things (Arundhati Roy): Review

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy tells a story about the twins Estha and Rahel. Their life is filled with many tragedies that are caused by their family. The novel continues to flash back between several events at different parts in their lives. Velutha is one of the most important characters and is an untouchable servant to Estha and Rahel’s family. Another significant character is Sophie Mol and she is the twins’ cousin. Her tragic death affects both of the twins for the rest of their lives. There are several events that contain the character Baby Kochamma, the twins’ aunt. She plays a large role in manipulating the children and altering their lives inevitably. Overall the novel twists through many years of Estha and Rahel’s lives and tells a tale of traumatic events that can lead to detrimental effects in the future. It is a novel that deals with a lot of issues in the Indian society, such as loss of close family members and discrimination due to class system. A constant issue that intertwines its way through the novel is the issue of abuse. From the beginning of the book straight through until the end there are constant instances of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse. The novel not only deals with the corruption within the Indian society, but narrows it down to the corruption within a single family itself.

Estha and Rahel have dealt with a great deal of loss in their life. Sophie Mol, although she was only in their life for a short period of time, was one of the greatest losses that they had to experience. The reason behind this event being so traumatic is the fact that Baby Kochamma made them feel that they were the murderers of Sophie Mol. “She looked them in the eye. ‘You are murderers’ (Roy 300). In this quotation it is extremely evident that Baby is putting the blame directly on the twins for the accident that has happened. Baby is placing the blame on the twins to protect herself from the previous accusations she made towards Velutha. At the expense of two young, and innocent children, Baby chose to protect herself leaving traumatic scars on the young children. They were now weighed down with the death of another young girl, and for the rest of the rest of their lives were set to believe that they were murders.

Velutha was another important figure in the twins’ life, and he too was killed due to unreasonable circumstances. The caste system and the fact that Velutha was an untouchable were mostly to blame for this tragic event. Baby Kochamma sent the police after Velutha once she was made aware of his affair with Ammu. The twins were hiding inside the house when the police found Velutha and beat him within inches of his life. For two young children, listening to the sounds of this beating was unimaginably painful. Not only did they lose their dear friend Velutha but they had a front row seat to his torture. In the end they were forced to place false blame on him due to the fact that Baby made them believe that they were murderers. They now had to carry the weight of Sophie Mol’s death on their shoulders. On top of that they were also forced to blame Velutha for kidnapping them. Then finally in the end they had to take partial responsibility for Velutha’s untimely demise. That is a lot of blame placed on two young children. This incident is also a representation of the corruption within the police force: they were quick to act on Baby’s accusations, but when they realized that they had made a mistake they made someone else take the fall for their actions.

Another tragic death for the twins was the death of their mother Ammu. The most difficult part of this loss is the fact that Rahel went through it alone. Estha was away when Ammu passed and Rahel was unable to tell Estha: “There are things that you cannot do like writing letters to a part of yourself. To your feet or hair. Or heart” (Roy 156). This quotation not only shows the hardship that Rahel had to go through on her on but also how truly closely bonded the twins were. The fact that Rahel referred to him as another part of yourself really shows their connection. For Estha the loss of his mother was already heartbreaking enough but then on top of it all Rahel did not even write to him when it happened. This just adds to the number of things that happens to Estha that lead to his silence.

The class system in India deals a lot with the untouchables, people that are below the caste system and are said to ritually pollute those that come in contact with them (Rodrigues 87-88). There are many instances of Velutha particularly being treated in a very negative way due to his caste. “If only for he hadn’t been a Paravan, he might have become and engineer” (Roy 72). This quote shows that Velutha was a very intelligent man and if he had been born into a different family he would have been living a very different life.

The caste system in India is not only restricting people but is also harming their economy. There could be people that are capable of life changing things such as Velutha. He could have been a great engineer and could have contributed to society, but due to his caste he was unable to pursue anything other than being a carpenter. Now, even though the different castes are still treated differently, things have made a slight change. “Mammachi told Estha and Rahel that she could remember a time, in her girlhood, when Paravans were expected to crawl backwards with a broom, sweeping away their footprints” (Roy 71). Those days have now passed and the untouchables, although still treated poorly, have slowly become more and more accepted into society. Even though the caste system is not as rigid as it once was, it still plays a huge role in people’s lives. It controls who can work what jobs, and who is allowed to love who. This comes into play when Velutha and Ammu have their affair and eventually leads to Velutha’s death. Due to Baby Kochamma accusing Velutha of rape and sending the obviously corrupted police after him, Velutha is then beaten to death, all because of his caste. Baby was not happy that Ammu was sleeping with a Paravan and therefore made wrongful accusations towards him. Her discrimination towards another caste lead to the murder of an innocent man, and other traumatic events that trailed on afterwards. Throughout this novel you can see that the caste system is an issue and can lead to catastrophic events, like death in this case yet, it is still alive today in India and discrimination is still present towards those that occupy the lower levels of the caste system.

The last topic, and what appears to be the most frequent throughout the book, is abuse. The one instance of abuse that is most evident throughout the book is Estha’s encounter with the Orangedrink Lemondrink man. This event is one of the many reasons that Estha no longer speaks. It completely took away his childhood and also created a constant state of panic within Estha at all times. A study that took place in India in 2007 stated that 53.22% of 12,447 children were sexually abused and 21% of those children reported that it was a severe form of sexual abuse, (Kacker 74-75). This issue has been around for a long time and the numbers are astounding. For Estha this was a life altering moment, he was never the same again. He was constantly worried that his molester would one day come and find him again. This is happening to over fifty percent of the children in India and needs to be controlled.

Throughout the book it is shown that there is a lot of domestic violence between all members of the family, and the way that the book is written it makes it seem as though it is a normal thing to happen in the average household. When Pappachi retired and Mammachi was still in her prime he took a great offence to this. “Every night he beat her with a brass flower vase. The beatings weren’t new. What was new was only the frequency with which they took place” (Roy 47). This quotation leads us to believe that Pappachi was always an abusive man but the more that he felt insecure about himself or threatened he would take it out on his wife. Yet again, the wording of that quote made it out to seem as though abuse was a normal situation within this family, as if it was a societal norm.

Overall this book talks about a lot of issues within Indian society, so much so that I was unable to touch on all of them. The few that I did touch on seemed to be the most evident to me and also seemed that they are still issues in today’s society. The loss the twins endured is something that everyone will have to go through once in their life, but the corruption within their family and the police system made this loss significantly worse. The blame was placed wrongly in several circumstances and the twins were then forced to carry immense weight on their shoulders for the rest of their lives. The second issue that is alive and well in Indian society today is the caste system. Although it has come a long way from where it once began it is still a major issue. People are mistreated and discriminated against due to only the caste they were born into. No matter how smart, or presentable a person may be they will still be looked down upon if they were to be a part a lower caste or an untouchable. This novel shows how negatively someone can be treated and how it can eventually be taken as far as death such as in Velutha’s situation. The caste system is not only harming people but is allowing for services such as the police force to act unjustly. Today there is a lot of violence towards the untouchables. In the year 2000, 25,445 crimes were committed against people of the untouchable caste (Mayelle, 2003). The article states shocking things including “every hour two Dalits are assaulted; every day three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and two Dalit homes are torched” (Mayelle 2003). These statistics are shocking. There is still discrimination against the untouchables today and it is extremely violent. This article also goes into depth about how the police force is not doing their job to protect this lower level class and this can also be seen in the novel many times. The police force and that caste system is allowing for corruption and is said to be “ok” because they are of a lower caste and therefore are worth less than those above them in the system. Accusations are made and quickly accepted due to the fact that someone is an untouchable. This system has changed over the years but still leads people to be discriminated against in a very negative and sometimes harmful way.

The last subject deals with abuse, which is an issue not only in Indian culture but throughout the world. This novel approaches it in a way that makes it seem normal, or even like it is the right thing to do. Although abuse is a very well know topic it is still something that should not be portrayed as a normal thing. The only time in the book where it seemed to be a traumatic event was when Estha was subject to sexual abuse. Aside from that incident abuse came across as simple as sitting down for dinner, as if it was routine, making it evident that it is a norm in the Indian society and is something that every family deals with.

In the end the novel takes the readers on a very twisted and corrupted journey of two innocent children who are faced with very challenging obstacles, that in the end, have negative effects on both of the children. From great loss, sexual abuse, physical abuse, and having to deal with the corruption in their family these two young children are left scarred for the rest of their lives. This book not only shows just how this one family is damaged but also mirrors what any family in an Indian society may go through in similar circumstances. It touches on real issues that real families, children, and individuals deal with on a daily basis. This book has a great amount of detail as to what people in these societies deal with day after day and the hardships that they must face. Overall this book is a true eye opener to the issues that are still intertwined in Indian culture today and shows that something needs to change.

References and Further Recommended Reading

Roy, Arundhati (1997) The God of Small things. Toronto: Penguin Random House.

Rodrigues, Hillary (2016) Hinduism-The E-Book: An Online Introduction. Journal of Buddhist  Ethics Online Books, Ltd.

Kacker, Dr. Loveleen., Varadan, Srinivas., and Kumar, Pravesh (2007). “Study on Child Abuse India 2007” Ministry of Child Development Government of India, Accessed October 30, 2018. Retrieved from:

Mayell, Hillary. (2003). India’s “Untouchables” Face Violence, Discrimination. Retrieved from


Further Topics to Research

  • Caste systems
  • Marxism
  • Untouchables
  • Politics within India
  • Corruption

Noteworthy Websites Related to the Topic

This article was written by: Kassie Miller (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.

Hinduism in Occidental Literature

The subject of representations of Hinduism within Occidental literature is both vast in scope and transient in nature. Older texts such as those composed by British Imperial agents and Catholic missionaries are marred by Darwinian notions of their own more “highly evolved” society, but contemporary texts too, find themselves obscured by a mix of cultural appropriation and postcolonial discourse. Despite the wide breadth of such a topic, even when only considering “contemporary” works, patterns of representation do emerge. As one might expect, representations of Hinduism at the popular level tend to tread a narrow path. Generally, India is valued for just a few articles: its mysticism, its (imagined or real) religious fervour, ascetic men, and the trope of Hinduism’s caste system (Narayan 477). In fact, the figure of the sadhu adequately stands in for the way that India has been characterized as a whole for much of its history (Narayan 480-81). The figure is defined by his gender and religion, and the philosophical trappings that accompany it; however, besides his religion, the sadhu also represents the “dirtiness” and spiritual and moral backwardness of India and Hinduism (Narayan 480-81). Consider that all these negative connotations are contained within the ascetic practice of smearing one’s skin with ash: the Occidental epistemology perceives the ash as both dirty, and representative of the inflated images of sensationalist, over-zealous asceticism circulating in popular representation (Narayan 480). Such tropes are more overt in colonial discourse, but inform modern imaginations, and have come to largely dominate the spectrum of representation given to Hinduism in popular culture. Despite the bleakness of such prospects, deeper examination reveals a vastly more attractive vein of literature that struggles to meaningfully engage with Hinduism’s long history of religious and ontological philosophy. These texts are part of a continued literary tradition in the West that scorns reason and Western materialism in favour of ubiquitous spirituality, connectedness, and semi-ascetic tendencies. It is for this reason that the following authors and excerpts are chosen.

As previously suggested, modern representations of Hinduism hinge on their genesis in colonial England. Beginning around 1612, when the East Indian Company gained a foothold in India, British travelers to the region began to compose literature about it (“colonialism, Western”). Among the most influential of the early works is John Campbell Oman’s wildly popular 1905 book, Mystics, Ascetics and Saints of India (Narayan 482-83). Like the other foundational texts mentioned above, Oman’s novel was read by many of the authors discussed below, and had a tangible effect on their own works. Oman was notable for his portrayal of India as defined by the renouncer, and for the commentaries his successor William M. Zumbro would make upon his text (Narayan 482-83). Zumbro valued India for its intense spiritualism, which for Zumbro, commendably preempts the material (Narayan 482-83). Other writers such as Sir William Jones, Sidney Owenson, and Georg W.F. Hegel hold equally lofty positions of influence. Jones is noted for his work with Sanskritic translations and philosophical works that paved the way for many other Indologists, like Owenson’s The Missionary: An Indian Tale (Uddin 35). Hegel is responsible for the spread of India as defined by its “Imagination,” which is picked up by the Romantics in a big way, even though Hegel meant this to be pejorative [Here, Imagination is meaningfully capitalized to follow both Hegel’s theory of the Imagination and the Romantic sense of the word.] (Soherwordi 211). All of the above works and authors deserve more attention in relation to Hinduism; however, their place within this article is in relation to later works, discussed below.

The first modern movement to engage with Hinduism is German Romanticism, which was at its height from the beginning to the middle of the 19th century (Narayan 489). Leaders of the movement like Johann Gottfried Herder and Friedrich Creuzer employed scholarship on India for, what they perceived to be, its emphasis on symbolic, mythical, and non-rational themes (Inden 413). To the Romantics, Hinduism expressed and supported their anti-Enlightenment discourse by reversing the hierarchy of reason implicit within their own societies that placed reason above all else. India came to be a place idealized by the Romantics for its oversaturation of Imagination, but also because the Romantics adored the concept of Brahman: put simply, divinity permeating all things (Soherwordi 211). The Romantics challenged traditional conceptions of religiosity within the Christian systems of their own countries, stressing especially that divinity is both within and is the self, but also the natural world. As Romanticism spread to England, the same ideas came along with it, spurring the creation of works such as Percy Shelley’s drama, Prometheus Unbound. Shelley is among many Romantics in England known to have read and written about Hindu texts, a fact that reveals itself through his work. Prometheus Unbound is set figuratively in India, and although the actual setting and frame is Europe, this is a conscious attempt by Shelley to confuse Hindu and Greek mythology (Uddin 47 & 44). Tied in to Shelley’s mixing of these cultures is the conflation of mythological figures associated with them. Critics observe that the passive Prometheus is akin to the god-concept Iswara in both his speech and action, while his lover Asia, (the name itself meaningful,) is like the active Shakti (Uddin 40). Prometheus is also equated with Rama in the play, drawing on both as embodiments of divine principles their authors wished to forward (Uddin 48). Another Hindu concept that comes forth in the text is an understanding of the Yogic tradition, especially raja-yoga in its historical sense of an ultimate stage, leading to “the full expression of the Will and the complete regeneration of the individual in the realm of the spirit of wisdom” (Uddin 39). Yet others have noticed elements of the sage Vasishta’s thought in Prometheus’s selfless suffering, and in the way he represents a principle of perfection that is barred from ultimate achievement (Uddin 40). Lastly, Shelley’s use of veil imagery mirrors Hindu notions of the contrast between inner reality and outer illusion (Uddin 39). Shelley’s approach to Hinduism is revealed in its ontology, but not all authors from the period are so sympathetic. For example, Robert Southey “displayed his fierce animus against Hinduism by opening his poem with the widow-burning ritual of sati, providing powerful propaganda for the Evangelicals who were lobbying Parliament to secure missionary activity in British India” (Murray 833). While this article has focused on Shelley as emblematic of the entire English branch of Romanticism, many other writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord George Byron, and William Blake are noteworthy for their use of Hinduism as well.

Following the Romantics, the American Transcendentalists of the mid-19th century picked up on many of the same components of Hinduism that their predecessors had, including individualism, nature, and intuition. The former concepts fit the ideology of the Transcendentalists perfectly, encouraging a great deal of involvement with Hinduism. Ralph Waldo Emerson, an iconic and preeminently influential scholar of the movement was no exception, writing in his “Indian Superstition” that, “Young muses caroled in thy sunny clime…. / Fair science pondered on thy mountain brow, / And sages mused-where Havoc welters now” (cited in Goodman 627). This statement reveals Emerson’s perception of India as both a place of philosophical and religious knowledge, and decline (Goodman 627). This follows the scholarship of those aforementioned writers such as Jones who characterized India in terms of the sadhu. Emerson was so involved with Hinduism that his most extensive essay on the subject, entitled “The Over-Soul,” is a direct translation of the Hindu term paramatman, meaning supreme soul/spirit and synonymous with Brahman (Goodman 631). This work informs his overtly Hindu poem, “Brahma.” The poem begins with mention of the “red slayer,” an obvious allusion to Siva, and a direct derivation of Rudra, a name considered synonymous with Siva (Chandrasekharan 507). This reference to Siva is important for his association to the creator god Brahma because the next section concerns itself with the endlessness of Brahman, reincarnation, and the cyclical nature of time. The principle is clear in the lines: “. . . if the slain think he is slain, / They know not well the subtle ways / I keep, and pass, and turn again” (Emerson 3-5). Here, Emerson’s treatment of Hindu thinking is imperfect. First, considering the subject of his poem, the title should read “Brahman,” (Chandrasekharan 506-07). Also, it is strange that Siva should be associated with the regeneration and continuation of the universe when that role is much more aptly filled by Visnu. This is explained either by Emerson’s own ignorance of his mistake due to the sources he would have had access to, imperfect and scarce as they were, or his assuming the unity of Visnu, Siva, and Brahma. The second and third stanzas discuss the illusions that distort the truth of Brahman in all things, termed maya by Hinduism (Chandrasekharan 507-08). Emerson expresses this in the lines: “Shadow and sunlight are the same; / . . . And one to me are shame and fame” (Emerson 6,8). Finally, the poem’s concluding line, “Find me, and turn thy back on heaven,” refers to the ultimate goal of being one with Brahman, not going to heaven (Emerson 16). In the Hindu conception of cosmology, heaven is not the end goal of religion, which is why Emerson slyly spells heaven with a lower-case “h.” As with the Romantics, many important Transcendentalist figures such as Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman have been neglected in favour of close readings.

The final movement in this sequence is the Beat Movement, or Beat Generation, which arose in the 1950s. The connection between this movement and others, as well as its devotee’s engagement with Hinduism, is demonstrated in a peculiar incident that happened to the poster-child of the Beat Generation: Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg describes in great detail a “hallucination” he had one afternoon while reading William Blake’s poetry. In the vision, Ginsberg heard and saw Blake appear to him as if he were divine (Pevateaux 40-42). Blake revealed to him the interconnectedness of all things, and Ginsberg reported feeling a sensation of awakening to the illusory cloak of reality he had been living under (Pevateaux 40-42). The things he experienced that afternoon would change his life and inform his poetry for the rest of his career. Ginsberg attributed to Blake the status of rsi, or divine seer, claiming that the knowledge Blake possessed and then transmitted to him can be traced “back to the same roots, same cities, same geography, same mushrooms, that give rise to the Aryan, Zoroastrian, Manichaen pre-Hindu yogas” (Pevateaux 38). Although Ginsberg was not taking mushrooms that day, he would go on to mimic various Hindu practitioners in experimenting with hallucinogenic entheogens in pursuit of experiences just like this one. Ginsberg traveled extensively through India, and upon return, the influence on his poetry was noticeable. In his collection Planet News: 1961-1967, Ginsberg reduces the words “whom bomb? We bomb you,” to “Hu ̄m Bom” (Hungerford 278-79). By altering the phrase, Ginsberg consciously places the importance of sound above meaning, thus employing Hindu ideas of mantra (Hungerford 278-79). Disciples of certain schools of mantra, which Ginsberg learned from, believe vibrations can change the consciousness and by-pass the mind (Hungerford 278-79). Ginsberg’s goal in this is to transform the overtly aggressive words into sounds of peace, while also drawing on the idea that to bomb anyone is to bomb the self by alternating into: “whom bomb? You bomb you” (Hungerford 278-79). Ginsberg’s most famous poem, Howl, also contains many traces of Hindu thought, despite having been written before his pilgrimage to India. For example, one line states that the people of his generation are “burning for the ancient heavenly connection” (Ginsberg 182). The parallels to Hinduism lie in “heavenly connection,” suggesting theories of Brahman, but also in “burning,” which imagistically invokes the sacrificial fires so important to Hindu rituals (Ginsberg 182). He also speaks of “Absolute Reality,” reflecting his awakening experience, which is quite similar to what one might term moksa (Ginsberg 186). Another example is the puzzling line: “joined the elemental verbs and set the noun and dash of consciousness together” (Ginsberg 188). The phrase hints at Ginsberg’s knowledge of the Hindu conception of language, perhaps blending the Nyaya and Vaishesika schools and scholarship in line with the writings of Panini and Bhartrhari. These are just a few of the many references to Hinduism that occur in Ginsberg’s poetry.

Modern representations of Hinduism is a subject that finds refuge in emerging and avant-garde movements such as those above. Despite the reputation of such movements as progressive, Hinduism continues to be valued overwhelmingly in terms of its philosophical contributions, especially the concept of Brahman and moksa. At the more popular level, the range of representations is perhaps worse yet. Many depictions maintain the narrow definition of Hinduism through the figure of the sadhu or caste system, condemning Hinduism to an unceasing history of duality: spiritual enlightenment on one side, and moral/cultural degeneration on the other.


Chandrasekharan, K. R. (1960) “Emerson’s Brahma: An Indian Interpretation.” The New England Quarterly Vol. 33, No. 4: 506-512.

“colonialism, Western.” (2015) In Encyclopædia Britannica.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo (1856) “Brahma.” Poetry Foundation N.A.

Ginsberg, Allen (1956) “Howl.” In The New American Poetry: 1945-1960. Ed. Donald M. Allen.  New York: Grove Press.

Goodman, Russell B. (1990) “East-West Philosophy in Nineteenth-Century America: Emerson and Hinduism.” Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 51 No. 4: 625-645.

Hungerford, Amy (2005) “Postmodern Supernaturalism: Ginsberg and the Search for a Supernatural Language.” The Yale Journal of Criticism Vol. 18 No. 2: 269-298.

Inden, Ronald (1986) “Orientalist Constructions of India.” Modern Asian Studies Vol. 20, No. 3: 401-446.

Murray, C. (2004) Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760-1850. New York: Fitzroy Dearborn.

Narayan, Kirin (1993) “Refractions of the Field at Home: American Representations of Hindu  Holy Men in the 19th and 20th Centuries.” Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 8, No. 4: 476-   509.

Pevateaux, C. J. (2008) “Widened Awareness: Allen Ginsberg’s Poetic Transmission of a Blakean Inflected Esoteric Dream-Insight.” Aries Vol. 8, No. 1: 37-61.

Soherwordi, S. S. (2011) “’Hindusim’ – A Western Construction or an Influence?.” South Asian        Studies Vol. 26 No.1: 203-214.

Uddin Khan, Jalal (2008) “Shelley’s Orientalia: Indian Elements in his Poetry.” Atlantis Vol. 30,       No. 1: 35-51.

Further Reading

Barlow, Paul (2011). “The Aryan Blake: Hinduism, Art and Revelation in William Blake’s Pitt  and Nelson Paintings.” Visual Culture in Britain Vol. 12 No. 3: 277.

Dharwadker, Aparna Bhargava (1972) “Modernism, ‘Tradition,’ and History in the Postcolony:  Vijay Tendulkar’s Ghashiram kotwal.” Theatre Journal Vol. 65, No. 4: 466-487.

Guha, Naresh (1968) W.B. Yeats: An Indian Approach. Calcutta: Jadavpur University.

King, Bruce Alvin (1987) Modern Indian Poetry in English: Revised Edition. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Singh, Charu Sheel (1981) The Chariot of Fire: A Study of William Blake in the Light of Hindu  Thought. Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg.

Weir, David (2003) Brahma in the West: William Blake and the Oriental Renaissance. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Winternitz, M., Vuppala Srinivasa Sarma, Subhadra Jha, and Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute (2008) History of Indian Literature. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

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Hindu Literary Movements: the Progressive Writers Movement, the (New) Little Magazine Movement, and the Tagore and Chayavad movements.

Hindu Authors: Sake Dean Mahomet, Dhan Gopal Mukerji, Salman Rushdie, Nayantara Sehgal, Rohinton Mistry, Raja Rao, R. K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, and many, many more.

Indian Diaspora Literature & its Authors

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Article written by: Donny Kimber (April 2015) who is solely responsible for its content.