Are Hinduism studies prejudiced?
A look at Microsoft Encarta
by Sankrant Sanu
Published on Tuesday, September 24, 2002
Author's note: The scholarship
of certain sections of the academic community studying Hinduism has been
controversial in the Indian community. In this article we try to examine whether
there is truth to this controversy, and whether such academics influence the
mainstream portrayal of “Hinduism” in standard sources. We use Microsoft®
Corporation's Encarta® Encyclopedia as the reference in this study.
In this article we discuss the differences, in both approach and result, of
Encarta's articles on Hinduism in comparison with the articles on some of the
other major world religions in Encarta. Encarta Encyclopedia is published by
Microsoft Corporation, which claims that it is the “Best-selling encyclopedia
Encarta is widely used as a reference source in American schools. In
particular, because of its widespread use amongst children, we would expect
Encarta's coverage of religions to be even-handed, sensitive and unprejudiced.
In a world of religious conflict, it becomes particularly important that
children are given balanced viewpoints of mainstream beliefs and practices of
In particular, we contrast Encarta's treatment of Hinduism, with the two other
major religions -- Islam and Christianity. On occasion, we also refer to the
treatment of other religions like Judaism and Buddhism. The purpose of this
article is not to make value judgments or a comparative study of the religions
themselves. In studying such a vast and complex phenomena as the major
religions, one can always find conflicting or questionable issues, just as one
can find highly elevating truths. What aspects of the religion get highlighted
is a matter of editorial choice. Our interest is not in comparing the religions
per se, but in understanding the differences in editorial choice -- both in the
selection of content as well as style, in the scholarly treatment of these
religions in Encarta.
Unless otherwise noted, all references below are to the main content article on
each of the religions in Encarta. We have used Encarta Encyclopedia 2002 (US
edition) for our reference, though a casual look at Encarta 2003 suggests that
the articles on the major religions have remained the same as Encarta 2002. All
actual quotes are in quotation marks preceded by the name of the article in
The Contents Page
Our study begins with the main contents page for each of the religions. In
some cases, the contents page contains, in quotes, a single highlighted
statement about the religion. In the 2002 version of Encarta, these quotes are
present for Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism, and not for Christianity and
· Judaism: “The God of creation entered into a special relationship with the
Jewish people at Sinai.”
· Buddhism: “Karma consists of a person's acts and their ethical consequence.”
· Hinduism: “Rama and Krishna are said to be avatars of Vishnu though they
were originally human heroes.”
Note, that the one statement that was chosen about Hinduism is that which
repudiates Hindu belief, while the statements for the other two religions
reflect a balanced positive or neutral stance. Notice also the use of “said to
be” in Hinduism while the statement on Judaism is presented in the editorial
voice as a presentation of fact. To understand this representation, let us
draw up a hypothetical quote on Christianity to parallel the quote on
· Christianity*: Jesus Christ is said to be the “Son of God” though he was
just a human.
Irrespective of belief in the truth or falsity of this statement, or the
parallel one in the case of Hinduism, when such a statement is the highlight
of the commentary on a religion, it reflects a certain attitude about how the
subject is approached. Let us see if this attitude continues to persist in the
article on Hinduism in comparison to other religions.
In the article on Hinduism, we find the “Fundamental Principles” divided into
four sections -- Texts, Philosophy, “Gods” and “Worship and Ritual.” We find
the sequencing of ideas within this section fairly haphazard -- generally
moving to specifics without laying out the general -- giving the impression of
a somewhat incoherent system.
“The canon of Hinduism is basically defined by what people do rather than
what they think. Consequently, far more uniformity of behavior than of belief
is found among Hindus, although very few practices or beliefs are shared by
all. A few usages are observed by almost all Hindus: reverence for Brahmans
and cows; abstention from meat (especially beef); and marriage within the
caste (jati), in the hope of producing male heirs.”
In doing so, the author takes the richness and diversity of Hindu thought and
tries to approach it from the point of view of an orthodox church defining a
single “canon.” Failing to find the “canon” or articulate the underlying
worldview of a system that allows many paths to flourish within it, the author
gives up to quickly start listing mainly social practices. Let us see how the
same issue is treated in Christianity.
“Any phenomenon as complex and as vital as Christianity is easier to describe
historically than to define logically, but such a description does yield some
insights into its continuing elements and essential characteristics.”
In the description of Christianity, Encarta approaches it from a point of
view of humility -- the problem being of the expository limitations of the
author. No such humility is visible in the description of Hinduism, where the
author quickly reduces any notion of complexity to an anthropological
viewpoint. Further on, we explore various examples of how the anthropological
viewpoint dominates the article on Hinduism.
Dealing with “contradiction”
Let us see how the articles deal with supposed contradictions.
“Although Hindus believe and do many apparently contradictory things --
contradictory not merely from one Hindu to the next, but also within the daily
religious life of a single Hindu -- each individual perceives an orderly
pattern that gives form and meaning to his or her own life.”
The article on Hinduism is very clear that there are contradictions, and
highlights this aspect. The articles on Christianity and Islam are either
unable to find any contradictions, or don't find them the most significant
aspect of the religion to cover. In the few instances when they do, they use
substantially different language to talk about these.
In Christianity, any contradictions of behavior are attributed to the
limitations of individuals rather than limitations of the faith or of
“Christians” as a generalized entity.
“To a degree that those on the inside often fail to recognize, however,
such a system of beliefs and values can also be described in a way that makes
sense as well to an interested observer who does not, or even cannot, share
The article on Islam does not mention any “contradiction” at all, but a
“Recurring debates among Islamic scholars over the nature of God have
continued to refine the Islamic concepts of God's otherness and Islamic
Even when the article on Islam admits differences in contemporary practice, it
puts the difficulty of these on the analytical or expository abilities of the
author (“difficult to identify”), rather than the religion.
"Yet the radically different political, economic, and cultural conditions
under which contemporary Muslims live make it difficult to identify what
constitutes standard Islamic practice in the modern world.”
The key to understanding both the diversity as well as the unity of
Hinduism is neither in the search for a “canon” (a strongly Christian
worldview), nor in the anthropology of particular practices. It is in
recognizing that the philosophical foundations of Hinduism have celebrated
diversity of path and individuality (which itself is a distinctive feature),
while at the same time encouraging theological debates to further
In the articles on Christianity and Islam the problem, if any, is usually
depicted as that of the author's inability to describe rather than any
contradictions. The author of Hinduism, apparently, faces very little
difficulty -- she carries on with an anthropological description of practices
“from above” -- sure that any contradiction that is found is surely in the
religion itself, and not in any lack of understanding or expository ability.
Peaceful “Jihad” and violent “Ahimsa”
A further study about the difference in approach and attitude in the
articles on religion can be found in the description of subtle concepts. We
take two -- jihad and ahimsa, in particular, both of which may be somewhat
familiar to the lay reader.
“Many polemical descriptions of Islam have focused critically on the Islamic
concept of jihad. Jihad, considered the sixth pillar of Islam by some
Muslims, has been understood to mean holy war in these descriptions.
However, the word in Arabic means "to struggle" or "to exhaust one's
effort," in order to please God. Within the faith of Islam, this effort can
be individual or collective, and it can apply to leading a virtuous life;
helping other Muslims through charity, education, or other means; preaching
Islam; and fighting to defend Muslims. Western media of the 20th century
continue to focus on the militant interpretations of the concept of jihad,
whereas most Muslims do not.”
“The most important tenet of sanatana dharma for all Hindus is ahimsa, the
absence of a desire to injure, which is used to justify vegetarianism
(although it does not preclude physical violence toward animals or humans,
or blood sacrifices in temples).” [Em. added]
In both cases, the authors treat subtle subjects in the respective
religions. In the article on Islam, the author presents a sympathetic view
of Jihad, and attempts to favorably influence Western perceptions. In the
article on Hinduism the author adds decidedly unfavorable editorial asides
seeking to “correct” possibly favorable perceptions by introducing
“contradictions.” The tone of the article again is of a higher entity
looking down on lowly customs and illogical “native” interpretations (as in
(“ahimsa”…“is used to justify”). This is an illustration of the very
different viewpoint (dare we say “agenda”) from which the article on
Hinduism is written. While the articles on Islam and Christianity attempt to
uplift the reader to a refined understanding of those religions, the article
on Hinduism attempts to denigrate instead.
To understand what we mean by this let us see how Encarta would present
Christianity and Islam, if it were to use the same logic and attitude as
used in the article on Hinduism.
The most important tenet of Christianity is love (although it does not
preclude burning heretics and witches at the stake, the Crusades, Christian
colonization and the Jewish Holocaust).
Muslims claim that Islam is a religion of peace (although it does not
preclude suicide bombing or other terrorist acts).
To be really clear, we are not suggesting that such descriptions of
Christianity or Islam should have been in Encarta -- they would be decidedly
negative portrayals. Unfortunately, this tone of portrayal prevails in the
article on Hinduism.
This is, surprisingly, not the only example of the technique of
negative editorial aside in the article on Hinduism. We see also:
“Svadharma comprises the beliefs that each person is born to perform a
specific job, marry a specific person, eat certain food, and beget children to
do likewise and that it is better to fulfill one's own dharma than that of
anyone else (even if one's own is low or reprehensible, such as that of the
Harijan caste, the Untouchables, whose mere presence was once considered
polluting to other castes). …
A positive portrayal of “Svadharma” (literally “Self-Dharma”) would introduce
it as a high statement to an individual to discover and understand their
purpose and calling in the cosmos and actualize it, rather than letting it be
defined by some “other”, like an orthodox religious hierarchy. Yet in the
hands of the Encarta author it becomes an excuse for an aside on the
historical practice of untouchability that is derided in contemporary
mainstream Hinduism. In neither of the other two articles of the major
religions, Christianity or Islam, do we find the use of the technique of the
denigrating editorial aside. Indeed, the purpose of the other two articles
appears to be to elevate rather than to denigrate -- and quite rightly so for
a mainstream source dealing with religion.
Philosophy or Anthropology?
Anthropology, Cosmology and Mythology.
The article on Hinduism appears quite disjointed in its understanding of
Philosophy, Anthropology, Cosmology and Mythology. “Fundamental Principles”
leads with Anthropology. As we see below, the section on “Philosophy” is
mostly “Mythology” depicting “Cosmology” -- the very limited coverage of the
well-developed schools of Hindu philosophy is relegated to a list in the
section “Rise of Devotional Movements,” in the topic on History. Without
setting out the philosophical principles underlying beliefs and practices in
Hinduism, the coverage of “Gods” and “Rituals” appears particularly bizarre.
Let us see how the section on “Philosophy” starts.
“Incorporated in this rich literature is a complex cosmology. Hindus
believe that the universe is a great, enclosed sphere, a cosmic egg, within
which are numerous concentric heavens, hells, oceans, and continents, with
India at the center.”
“They believe that time is both degenerative -- going from the golden age,
or Krita Yuga, through two intermediate periods of decreasing goodness, to the
present age, or Kali Yuga -- and cyclic: At the end of each Kali Yuga, the
universe is destroyed by fire and flood, and a new golden age begins.”
Firstly, this is not philosophy, but as the author points out, cosmology.
Secondly, as a description of Hindu cosmology, it is fairly inadequate and
reductive. It fails to point that there are multiple creation myths in Hindu
texts. Also, as far as Hindu cosmology goes, people like notable astronomer
and author, Prof. Carl Sagan, have pointed that the calculations of the age of
the universe based on this cosmology works out to be fairly close to our
current scientific estimates -- and “(Hinduism) is the only ancient religious
tradition on the Earth which talks about the right time-scale.”[i] Mentioning
any of this, would, of course be quite contrary to the tone of the article.
Rather than presenting the creation myth as a story and presenting the hidden
elements of scientific truth, the article gives a reductive description,
preceded by the phrase “Hindus believe.”
To understand this better, let us compare it with the article in Encarta about
the Biblical creation myth.
Hinduism: Adam and Eve:
“Adam and Eve, in the Bible, the first man and woman, progenitors of the human
race. The biblical account of the creation of human beings occurs twice: in
Genesis 1:26-27 and in Genesis 2:18-24. Marked differences in vocabulary,
thought, and style between these accounts have led to the scholarly consensus
that these creation stories reflect two distinct sources (see Bible: The
Development of the Old Testament). In the first account, the Hebrew common
noun Adam is used as a generic term for all human beings, regardless of
gender; Eve is not mentioned at all. In the second account, Adam is created
from the dust of the earth, whereas Eve is created from Adam's rib and given
to him by God to be his wife.”
The first notable difference is that of the expository technique. The latter
article presents different creation accounts in the reading of Biblical texts.
Note how this shifts subtly if it were preceded by “Christians believe …”.
That there are differences in the two stories in the same book could then be
extrapolated, as is done in the article on Hinduism to state, “Christians
believe many contradictory things.” Instead the article about Adam and Eve
treats it as a scholarly study of text (where different “accounts” are found),
rather than conclusive statements about “Christian belief.” Let us see how one
would present a section on Christian “Philosophy” with the same approach as in
the case of Hinduism.
Christians believe that all humans descend from one man and woman, called Adam
and Eve and calculated the age of the world to be about 10,000 years. They
believe also that the female Eve was created from male Adam's rib by God to be
his wife (which is used to justify Christian attitudes towards women such as a
historical denial of voting rights). Christians believe many contradictory
things -- for example, that an all-loving, forgiving God puts human beings in
everlasting Hell, if they sin without repenting in this life. [Em. added]
This would be a similarly reductive account presenting “Christians” as
irrational, and failing to grasp the multiple levels of subtleties involved in
understanding a religion. As we see in the description of Hinduism, this is
precisely the approach of the Encarta article.
An account similar to the one in Encarta of Adam and Eve would be a neutral
objective treatment of similar material in Hindu mythology, rather than a
treatment that “boxes-in” the rich and diverse Hindu cosmology into “Hindu
belief.” Adding the relationships to modern scientific understanding would
make it a “sympathetic” treatment for current audiences. Instead, the Encarta
article on Hinduism consistently chooses a subtle (and sometimes, not so
subtle) negative portrayal.
Despite a very rich philosophical tradition, the anthropological view
dominates the article on Hinduism. Both the articles on Christianity and
Islam, lead instead with the philosophical ideas. Apparently the broadness of
Hindu philosophical ideas “Vasudeva Kutumbha” (the world is a family), and the
ideas of religious pluralism (“many paths lead to God”) that continue to guide
most Hindus, find no place in the Encarta article.
Nowhere is the anthropological view more apparent than in the treatment of
“gods”. Firstly, an inadequate attempt is made to put the idea of “gods” (not
“Gods”) in proper perspective for a Western reader. The word “deva” in
Sanskrit, is less akin to the “God” of Christianity, but more so to “angel” (a
power higher than man but lesser than “God”). Secondly, the concepts that
“God” is “unknowable” and that different deities are thus representations of
different aspects (“roop”) of “God,” is glossed over. The Encarta article also
completely misses the concept of the Hindu trinity -- that any Hindu child
could recite -- a key idea in the presentation of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva as
creator, preserver and destroyer, and their female counterparts as three
aspects of the One God. That the male and the female energies co-exist in
Indian thought and the idea of God as both male and female (at the same time
being beyond gender) is also missed. Having skipped all the structure, the
topic of “Gods” is presented as a confusing “curio-shop” of unrelated deities
and sects, complete with sensational descriptions of blood and gore.
Shiva embodies the apparently contradictory aspects of a god of ascetics and a
god of the phallus. He is the deity of renouncers, particularly of the many
Shaiva sects that imitate him: Kapalikas, who carry skulls to reenact the myth
in which Shiva beheaded his father, the incestuous Brahma, and was condemned
to carry the skull until he found release in Benares; Pashupatas, worshipers
of Shiva Pashupati, “Lord of Beasts”; and Aghoris, “to whom nothing is
horrible,” yogis who eat ordure or flesh in order to demonstrate their
complete indifference to pleasure or pain. Shiva is also the deity whose
phallus (linga) is the central shrine of all Shaiva temples and the personal
shrine of all Shaiva householders; his priapism is said to have resulted in
his castration and the subsequent worship of his severed member.
While “phallus” is one interpretation of “linga” there are others as well.
Apparently the author, whose interests appear to have a limited focus,
continues to find contradictions from that single point of view -- missing
both other common interpretations as well as the underlying symbolisms. A
disproportionate interest in the dimension of esoteric “sects”, “phallus”,
“skulls”, “flesh” and “ordure” dominates the article and we find that
practices and aspects far more prevalent and relevant to contemporary times --
like Yoga or Chakras, meditation or mantras, breath and Pranayama that are
practically absent in the article.
The article continues with these descriptions, clearly showing the author's
interest in particular ways of looking at Hinduism.
As Durga, the Unapproachable, she kills the buffalo demon Mahisha in a great
battle; as Kali, the Black, she dances in a mad frenzy on the corpses of those
she has slain and eaten, adorned with the still-dripping skulls and severed
hands of her victims. The Goddess is also worshiped by the Shaktas, devotees
of Shakti, the female power. This sect arose in the medieval period along with
the Tantrists, whose esoteric ceremonies involved a black mass in which such
forbidden substances as meat, fish, and wine were eaten and forbidden sexual
acts were performed ritually.
In the well-embellished description of Kali, the intensity of the language
speaks for itself of the Encarta's author interest in this particular area.
Clearly blood and gore, erotica and exotica are of much greater interest to
this particular writer than Hindu philosophy, or any of the symbolism of these
ancient descriptions. Again, the article shows more interest in the portrayal
of esoteric sects and ceremonies than exploring mainstream and commonplace
Hindu rituals -- like saying “namaste”, the sacred syllable “Om”, lighting
diyas or wearing bindis (the “dot on the forehead”) -- practices that are
vastly more familiar to a Westerner and a Hindu child alike, none of which
find a place in the Encarta article.
The article instead describes various “Gods” and “Goddesses”, particularly
emphasizing the sensational, as we saw in the description of Kali above,
without presenting these within the unifying coherent theme that most Hindus
view these manifestations -- of different forms of One Supreme Reality, which
cannot be boxed into a single set of attributes or descriptions.
As the section on “Indian Philosophy” on Encarta states:
“Most of the poems of the Veda are religious and tend to be about the
activities of various gods. Yet some Vedic hymns and poems address philosophic
themes … such as the henotheism that is key to much Hindu theology. Henotheism
is the idea that one God takes many different forms, and that although
individuals may worship several different gods and goddesses, they really
revere but one Supreme Being.” [Em. added]
Has the Encarta article on Hinduism lost all keys? While there is a passing
mention of this concept in the Encarta, it is, characteristically, watered
down from the clearer statement above.
In this way Hindus have been able to reconcile their Vedantic monism (see
Vedanta) with their Vedic polytheism: All the individual Hindu gods (who are
said to be saguna,”with attributes”) are subsumed under the godhead (nirguna,”without
attributes”), from which they all emanate. [Em. added]
A common Hindu saying is: “As you are, so God's image appears to you” --
since God is beyond images or attributes, we superimpose our own. Does
Encarta's choice of subjects and descriptions in the article -- scatological
and incoherent, reflect the author's own state?
Finally, let us see how the article describes Rama and Krishna, considered
as incarnations of God (as Vishnu).
“Most popular by far are Rama (hero of the Ramayana) and Krishna (hero of the
Mahabharata and the Bhagavata-Purana), both of whom are said to be avatars of
Vishnu, although they were originally human heroes.” [Em. added]
The article appears to speak with the certainty of divine knowledge! Let us
see how a similar issue, the divinity of Jesus is treated in the article on
“The ultimate mystery of the universe, called by many different names in
various religions, was called “Father” in the sayings of Jesus, and Christians
therefore call Jesus himself “Son of God.” At the very least, there was in his
language and life an intimacy with God and an immediacy of access to God, as
well as the promise that, through all that Christ was and did, his followers
might share in the life of the Father in heaven and might themselves become
children of God. “
We note both the subtlety of thought and the sensitivity of expression in
description, versus the heavy-handed certainty by which the article on
Hinduism speaks, of happenings and events further back in time than the
historical Jesus. Is this certainty born out of knowledge of fact, or simply a
disregard for the corresponding religious sentiment?
More “blood” and animal “sacrifice”
The presentation of “Gods” is not the only place in the article that Encarta
is interested in gory descriptions -- of “blood”, “skulls”, “ordure” and the
like. Starting from the concept of ahimsa (which refers to “blood sacrifices”)
to the celebration of the Indian festival of Holi, this point of view
permeates the article. In fact, the Encarta article on Hinduism has more
references to “blood” and “animal sacrifices” than it does to Yoga. Yoga,
arguably the most popular contribution of Hinduism to the West is mentioned in
two places -- both insignificant, as we see later on. Other than the quote
above, let us see where else Encarta mentions themes related to “blood” or
“animal sacrifice” in the article on Hinduism.
“Holi, the spring carnival, when members of all castes mingle and let down
their hair, sprinkling one another with cascades of red powder and liquid,
symbolic of the blood that was probably used in past centuries.
Let us start with factual accuracies -- Holi, as any Hindu knows, is
celebrated with all the colors of spring -- green, yellow, red, pink, not just
“red” as the article states. It celebrates the coming of spring with a riot of
color. Factual details aside, for Encarta the suggestion of “cascades of red
powder and liquid” works well to further the theme of blood and gore prevalent
in the article. This goes on in the description of “Worship and Rituals.”
“In many temples, particularly those sacred to goddesses (such as the Kalighat
temple to Kali, in Kolkata), goats are sacrificed on special occasions. The
sacrifice is often carried out by a special low-caste priest outside the
bounds of the temple itself.
Similarly, the vast majority of Hindus living today have probably never seen
an animal sacrifice in their life -- and “many temples” is certainly a gross
inaccuracy. Why is this rare practice chosen when we don't find mention of
commonplace practices like “satsang” (literally, company of truth, or good),
meetings where people congregate to communally chant or read from scripture,
that are orders of magnitude more prevalent? The comment on “low-caste” that
rounds out the quote above is obligatory to keep the “otherness” of Hinduism
on centre stage -- a technique we find employed elsewhere in the article.
It is also very worthwhile to compare this overall approach to highlighting
“blood and gore” with the treatment of “animal sacrifice” in the Encarta
article on Islam, a religion on which such sacrifices are obligatory that
every Muslim is required to perform on Hajj (rather than a rare occurrence).
“The final ritual is the slaughter of an animal (sheep, goat, cow, or camel).
This is a symbolic reenactment of God's command to Ibrahim to sacrifice his
son Ismail, which Ibrahim and Ismail duly accepted and were about to execute
when God allowed Ibrahim to slaughter a ram in place of his son. (In the
Hebrew and Christian Bibles, Abraham is called to sacrifice his son Isaac
rather than Ishmael.) Most of the meat of the slaughtered animals is to be
distributed to poor Muslims.”
Notice how the stress is on symbolism and how the last line is used to soften
the theme. We shall spare the reader a rewrite of the Islamic depiction with
details of the animal's severed head and pouring blood and omitting any hint
of symbolism. Would an anthropologist probing the Bible many millennia from
now condemn Christians as cannibals when reading of Christ's disciples being
asked to partake of Christ's “blood and flesh”? If approached from the point
of view of the Encarta article on Hinduism, devoid of either sensitivity or an
understanding of symbolism, this would probably be the case. Surprisingly, the
author chooses this approach to Hinduism, which is a living contemporary
tradition rather than simply an anthropological study of relics and past
These are choices in both omission and commission that are worth noting. While
including exotic details and ritual the author continually misses large and
commonplace topics -- like the forms of Indian dance and music as a component
of the religion, the celebration of “Ram Lila” -- public enactments of Ram's
life common throughout the north, and major Hindu celebrations like
Janamashtami (Krishna's birth), Raksha Bandhan or Onam.
Where is the real “Philosophy”
Now that we have read the description in Encarta of Aghoris, ““to whom
nothing is horrible,” yogis who eat ordure or flesh in order to demonstrate
their complete indifference to pleasure or pain,” we look around for the yogis
we have seen or known. Unfortunately, with the concern of the Encarta article
on Hinduism in looking for scatology, it completely misses the highly refined
theology and practices like Raja Yoga or Hatha Yoga or Patanjali or yogic
meditation. In fact, the word “Yoga” has exactly two occurrences in the
article (other than the one description of “Aghoris” as yogis above):
“Many elements of Hinduism that were not present in Vedic civilization (such
as worship of the phallus and of goddesses, bathing in temple tanks, and the
postures of yoga) may have been derived from the Indus civilization, however.
See Indus Valley Civilization.”
“The philosophies of Shankara and Ramanuja were developed in the context of
the six great classical philosophies (darshanas) of India: the Karma Mimamsa
(“action investigation”); the Vedanta (“end of the Vedas”), in which tradition
the work of Shankara and Ramanuja should be placed; the Sankhya system, which
describes the opposition between an inert male spiritual principle (purusha)
and an active female principle of matter or nature (prakriti), subdivided into
the three qualities (gunas) of goodness (sattva), passion (rajas), and
darkness (tamas); the Yoga system; and the highly metaphysical systems of
Vaisheshika (a kind of atomic realism) and Nyaya (logic, but of an extremely
The first reference serves to separate Yoga from Hinduism. In the second
reference, it is buried in a list of themes, each of which is probably more
significant to describe than long-winded descriptions of Kali. Note that this
section which lists classical philosophies is the only significant description
of these philosophies in the entire article on Hinduism -- that too not in the
explicit section for Philosophy, but embedded in the “Rise of Devotional
Movements” section of “History”
To be fair to Encarta, there does exist a separate article on Yoga that the
article on Hinduism does not directly reference. That article states:
As a system of practice, Yoga has from the beginning been one of the most
influential features of Hinduism.
Surely, as one of the most influential features of Hinduism, Yoga merits more
than a single word (with no link or reference) mention in the article on
In the obsession with external aspects of myth and ritual, blood and gore, the
article gives very little space to either the highly developed systems of
Hindu theology and philosophy or its most commonplace practices in comparison
to the other articles on religion, neither does it link directly to a separate
article on Indian philosophy. In the next section we will see a surprising
example of what it does choose to include as a link.
Contemporary growth of the religion
There are other differences in detail that consistently add an unsympathetic
flavor to the reading on Hinduism. We will end with some examples relating to
the contemporary spread of these religions.
“The Muslim community comprises about 1 billion followers on all five
continents, and Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world.”
“Today about 1 billion Muslims are spread over 40 predominantly Muslim
countries and 5 continents, and their numbers are growing at a rate unmatched
by that of any other religion in the world.”
Both in the introduction and conclusion, the article on Islam repeats
positively how Islam is growing, almost from the point of view of an
Let use see how Encarta covers the spread of Hinduism.
“In more recent times, numerous self-proclaimed Indian religious teachers have
migrated to Europe and the United States, where they have inspired large
followings. Some, such as the Hare Krishna sect founded by Bhaktivedanta,
claim to base themselves on classical Hindu practices.”
As is consistent with the tone of the article, notice the deprecating use of
“self-proclaimed” and “claim to”, words rarely used in similar ways in the
other articles. The author also fails to mention the fast growing “Yoga”
movement (which Time magazine reported as having over 15 million practitioners
in the US) and the large influence of Hindu thought on the “New Age” movement.
The article completely misses movements like “Transcendental Meditation” of
Maharishi Mahesh Yoga and the Self-realization fellowship of Parmahansa
Yogananda, or the influence on Americans of the beat generation or the 60's
culture (Swami Satchitananda was called the “Woodstock guru”) -- people like
George Harrison, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Mia Farrow, Madonna. To do that
would bring Hinduism in, leave it less “other.” But, unfortunately, the quote
above follows the general theme of the article -- to obscure or denigrate
anything positive, and find and highlight that, which is likely to be
misunderstood, failing to provide it in the proper context.
The article on Hinduism ends with a bang -- something that can aptly demonstrate
the deep-seated prejudice and even, perhaps, a political agenda. After failing
to have links for “yoga” or “Indian philosophy” in the Encarta article, at the
very end Encarta discovers the power of links.
For information on religious violence in India, See India.
This is the appropriate ending for the article on Hinduism? We first surmised
that this might be due to some current events (even then it would not be an
appropriate ending for an academic article on Hinduism, other than motivated
by considerable prejudice). But we find the same ending, for the same article,
as far back as Encarta 1999! As a crosscheck, let us look at the other
articles on religion.
“For additional information, see articles on individual Christian
denominations and biographies of those persons whose names are not followed by
[No link suggested at the end]
Given the thread of negativity that permeates the Encarta article on Hinduism,
it comes as no surprise when, in the end, it suggests the topic of “religious
violence” as additional reading. If the articles of Christianity and Islam
were written with the same intent, this is what the last links could look
For additional information about burning witches at the stake, see Witch Hunt.
For terrorist violence, see International Terrorism.
Again, we do not suggest these endings be used, nor does Encarta do so. They
are provided for the purpose of illustrating the underlying attitude in
choosing such endings -- an attitude that pervades the article on Hinduism.
Analysis of cause
We have established a significant difference in the treatment of Hinduism
versus other religions, notable Christianity and Islam. In this section, we
look at probable cause for the difference in treatment.
Selection of Authors
Encarta provides the following names and biographical information for the
authors of the three Encarta articles in question:
· Christianity. Prof. Jaroslav Pelikan, B.D., Ph.D. Sterling Professor
Emeritus of History, Yale University. Author of The Christian Tradition: A
History of the Development of Doctrine, Historical Theology, and other books.
· Islam. Associate Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies, Yale University.
Dallal, Ahmad S., B.E., M.A., Ph.D. Author of An Islamic Response to Greek
Astronomy: Kitab Ta'dil Hay'at al-Aflak of Sadr al-Shari'a.
· Hinduism. Doniger, Wendy, M.A., Ph.D., D.Phil. Mircea Eliade Professor of
History of Religions and Indian Studies, University of Chicago. Author of The
Origins of Evil in Hindu Mythology, Siva: the Erotic Ascetic, and Dreams,
Illusion, and Other Realities.
Emic or Etic?
The first observation we make is that scholars who profess those faiths have
written the articles on Christianity and Islam; this is not the case with
Hinduism. While the topic of emic (insider) and etic (outsider) study is often
debated within academia, we would expect Encarta to choose uniformly either
the emic or etic view of the major religions. In the Encarta article on
Christianity, Prof. Jarsolav Pelikan strongly defends the emic viewpoint:
“Like any system of belief and values -- be it Platonism, Marxism,
Freudianism, or democracy -- Christianity is in many ways comprehensible only
“from the inside,” to those who share the beliefs and strive to live by the
values; and a description that would ignore these “inside” aspects of it would
not be historically faithful. To a degree that those on the inside often fail
to recognize, however, such a system of beliefs and values can also be
described in a way that makes sense as well to an interested observer who does
not, or even cannot, share their outlook.”
The same logic, apparently, does not apply to Eastern religions. In general,
though not always, we would expect the “emic” view to be more sympathetic than
the “etic” view, particularly when the “emic” author is a practicing member of
Areas of interest of the authors
While the orientation of study of Professors Pelikan and Dallal is towards the
philosophical, scientific and theological aspects of the religions they write
about, Prof. Doniger's orientation is more anthropological -- studying rituals
and myths rather than philosophy and theology. Even within that field, Prof.
Doniger's dominant area of interest, going by the books she has authored, is
in the exotic and erotic aspects of these rituals and myths. Thus the study of
Professors Pelikan and Dallal is a living practicing view of the religion,
including theological, metaphysical and scientific issues that would
positively engage contemporary audiences, Prof. Doniger's appears to be an
archeological dig, turning over quaint specimens that strike her fancy for
examination. While this is certainly a valid field for study, it is clear that
it leads to very different viewpoints and results in the articles.
Acceptability of the authors in the
The third aspect of authorship is the broad acceptability of the author in the
religious community they purport to represent. In general, it is more likely
for emic authors to be acceptable, though not universally so. A research on
the web shows that while Profs. Pelikan and Dallal are not regarded as
controversial, Prof. Doniger has come in for considerable criticism for her
lopsided portrayal, and unsubtle understanding of Hinduism[ii]. While Hindus,
in general, are known for their tolerance of criticism (which is probably why
the Encarta article has survived, without protest, for several years), we
wonder why Encarta, as a mainstream encyclopedia, would deliberately choose to
continue with authors that are highly controversial within the communities
they write about. Note that, particularly in Hinduism, this could be very true
for supposedly “emic”, but in reality, non-practicing, authors as well.
Deliberate prejudice or error?
While there is some evidence of prejudice on the part of Encarta's author on
Hinduism, it is not clear whether prejudice also exists in Encarta as well.
Certainly, as the ultimate editorial authority, Encarta cannot evade
responsibility for the situation, at the very least in the selection of
authors and editorial oversight over prejudiced treatment in a sensitive topic
like religion. However, Encarta may well have, knowingly or unknowingly
participated in an environment of bias.
A western graduate student of Hinduism in a US university, suggests a broader
prejudice: “… in American academia it is politically incorrect to treat
Hinduism in a positive light and it is taboo to deal negatively with
Certainly, the comparison of the articles on Encarta would validate this
thesis. However, more study of this topic is clearly required.
We have not studied the effects of such negative portrayal of Hinduism on
Hindu children growing up in America. We can speculate that derogatory
mainstream portrayals of Hinduism, quite different from what they have seen or
experienced first hand, would at the very least be confusing, and ultimately
damaging to the self-esteem of such children. In the author's personal
experience, many Hindus are reluctant to identify themselves as such publicly,
even when they are practicing Hindus -- we conjecture that this may result
from unconsciously accepting the negative portrayals of their religion. We
find that this subject has not been studied much -- however, the one study[iv]
that we found supports this possibility. There are also accounts that scholars
studying Hinduism that also “come out” to be practicing that faith face
allegations of “bias” -- apparently this is not seen to be the case when
Christians or Muslims study their own faiths in the academic community (which
is the general rule).
Such articles in “Encarta” also get used by various religious fundamentalists
and hate groups to label Hinduism a “cult” -- the Encarta article serves as a
good “objective” reference to make their point. The interested reader can do a
web search on “Hinduism cult Encarta” to find examples.
Inaccurate, negative mainstream portrayals of a religion can ultimately only
prove harmful to the community. Clearly much more work is needed to study the
exact effects and consequences of such portrayals.
Conclusion and Recommendations
In this article, we compare the treatment of different religions in
Encarta. We find that there are significant differences in the treatment of
Hinduism vs. the treatment of Islam or Christianity in both the selection of
content and the attitude displayed in the writing -- resulting in a distinctly
negative portrayal of Hinduism vs. the other religions. We conjecture that the
reason for this difference is related largely to the difference choices in the
selection of authors -- whether they are emic or etic and their area of
interest or specialization in the religion they study. We also find that Prof.
Doniger, the author of the Encarta article on Hinduism is controversial within
the Hindu community.
The authors of the article on “Islam” and “Christianity” have a mature and
balanced viewpoint and they represent their religions in a way that the vast
majority of adherents will find appropriate and positive. We commend Encarta
for their choice of authors in portraying these religions in a sympathetic
way. Unfortunately, the same balance and sympathy is not visible in the
article on Hinduism. While Prof. Doniger is certainly free to pursue her
specific areas of interest and scholarship in Hinduism, we do not believe that
her article represents the mainstream of Hindu thought in both the selection
of content and its interpretation, which would be appropriate for a widely
read source such as Encarta.
Given that Prof. Doniger's specific interests and attitudes strongly influence
the article, it would be insufficient to simply remove a few of the most
glaring examples of negativism, while leaving the rest of the article
unchanged. We recommend instead that an article written by someone “emic” to
the community, who can represent Hinduism in a positive, mainstream viewpoint,
promptly replace the article on Hinduism in Encarta.
We also recommend that further research be done to study the instances,
causes, effects and resolutions for the prejudice in the study of Hinduism in
Microsoft® and Encarta® are registered trademarks of Microsoft® Corporation.
Unless otherwise stated, all quotes are from Microsoft® Encarta® Reference
Library 2002. © 1993-2001 Microsoft Corporation.
* These are hypothetical quotations for the purpose of illustration, not actual
quotations from Encarta. These quotations are also not the views of the author
who neither supports these quotations nor suggests that they be used to depict
that religion in question.
[i] Prof. Carl Sagan, distinguished Cornell University astronomer, covered this
in the television series “Cosmos” dealing with Astronomy and Scientific
exploration. http://www.rediff.com/news/jan/29sagan.htm presents an interview
from which this quote is taken.
[ii] See, for instance, Rajiv Malhotra's, “RISA Lila - 1: Wendy's Child
Syndrome” and associated comments.
[iii] Yvette Claire Rosser, “Puzzling Dimensions and Theoretical Knots in my
Graduate School Research.”
[iv] Yvette Claire Rosser, “Stereotypes in Schooling: Negative Pressures in the
American Educational System.”