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 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.
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. Islam:
    "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. Christianity*:
    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: Hinduism:
    "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? 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. Hinduism:
    "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."
Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus