Secrets of Hinduism Revealed:
Selected Works of Sir John Woodroffe and a Sanskrit Glossary
"Brothers and sisters of America!" With that stirring greeting to the Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893, Swami Vivekananda introduced Hinduism to the West. But it was only a start. Meanwhile, back in India, scholars were trying to grasp wisdom as ancient as any on earth and Sir John Woodroffe was busy parsing Sanskrit texts and translating them for the rest of us.
Woodroffe, who spent eighteen years on the British High Court in Bengal, including a stint as Chief Justice, adopted the pseudonym Arthur Avalon and tenaciously pursued the study of Hinduism. His thorough absorption in Indian culture along with its ancient philosophies and religion was unusual for a European, especially one so prominent in the British government. Friendship with numerous highly educated Indians afforded Woodroffe the opportunity to delve deeply into the sources of religious and philosophical traditions that customarily eluded the grasp of westerners and ordinary Indians. Woodroffe also found special niches in which to concentrate his attention. Soon, he was a noted author and lecturer whose legacy remains important.
There are numerous approaches to truth, each with many perspectives and interpreters. Advaita (non-dualistic) Vedanta is one approach; Shakta Shastra is one of its perspectives and Tantra is one of the most misunderstood aspects. Vedanta, little known to many westerners, nonetheless ranks among the most significant formulations of Indian thought; Shakti and Tantra were among its most mysterious and misunderstood features. Woodroffe set about changing misperceptions and became one of the foremost advocates for revised interpretation. For most, this is an obscure corner of philosophy and religion, but for interested students, it is important and deserves clarification.
A quick glance at fundamental meanings is in order: Monism is the philosophical principle that all existence is of a singular essence. Although Vedanta transcends philosophy through the agency of experience, it may be approached as monism overlaid with religion. Shakta Shastra refers to formal worship in the Hindu tradition and regards power as its vehicle for understanding and attainment. Sir John Woodroffe was uniquely positioned to interpret the scope of Shakta Shastra for English speakers, many of whom are Indian.
Words unfamiliar to westerners are clearly an issue for those who want to learn more about philosophies and religions rooted in India. Sanskrit, an ancient language used by Indian philosophers, presents a formidable obstacle. Woodroffe, both because of his formal education and the depth of his independent studies, bridges the gap of understanding with the West. He communicates in part with references to European philosophy and Christian religious beliefs that are familiar to westerners.
The significance of difficulty involving words is not limited to language and culture alone. As anyone who has undertaken to read Woodroffe's books will attest, the complexity of philosophy and the traditions of an unfamiliar religion, along with numerous variations, combine with an overwhelming number of Sanskrit terms to make reading a serious challenge. That, essentially, is why I began to construct a glossary while reading Woodroffe's works. In addition, I found it helpful to keep handy a little additional information beyond what would be expected in a glossary, a decision that led to a brief appendix. Finally, the lack of sufficiently descriptive chapter headings prompted me to compile lists of subjects covered in each chapter, helpful for locating passages later and isolating specific points for further study.
Ideas embedded in Vedanta make Woodroffe's books compelling. The spark that Vedanta provides to monism not only enlivens philosophy, but poses a challenge for those among us who reject religion outright. Readers who succumbed to all sorts of lurid rumors about Hinduism, especially certain of its most exotic religious practices, will find an authoritative source to reevaluate misconceptions. Students of culture and history will be interested in the tangle of ritual and tradition that pervades Indian life.
Woodroffe himself, his education, his position in the British Raj and the depth of his understanding of Hindu India reflect the importance of his work. Delving into it is a pleasure as well as a challenge.
Because this venue does not lend itself to lengthy documents, the entire essay, glossary, appendix, list of chapter contents and other notes are posted elsewhere. Please click here for a contemporary format ideal for mobile devices, and here for a traditionally formatted document. Downloads can be made from either site.
Enjoy and learn.
in the public domain by Michael Driver (no rights reserved)
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