Microsoft's Encarta: Biased Against Hinduism?

A point-by-point examination of the popular encyclopedia's treatment of Hindu beliefs.

BY: Sankrant Sanu

Reprinted from Sulekha, the online Indian community, with permission of the author.

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 Microsoftr Corporation's Encartar 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 brand." Encarta is widely used as a reference source in American schools. In particular, because of its widespread use among 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 all religions.

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 Encarta.

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 Islam.

    · 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 Hinduism.

    · 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


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.

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