THE BLOG
22/11/2013 06:55 GMT | Updated 25/01/2014 16:01 GMT

Why the West Needs to Know More About Hinduism

Last month I had the pleasure of taking part in a panel discussion at the South Asian Literature Festival - which was held in the beautiful surroundings of the University of Westminster on London's Regent Street. The discussion, which was chaired by the author Sarwat Chadda, was on the theme of Revisiting Mythology. One of the questions we discussed was why Hindu mythology was not better known in the 'West'.

Sarwat said that he had been motivated to write books that centred on mythology (he is the author of the hugely popular 'Ash Mistry' series) because although he was fascinated by the Hindu myths when growing up, the only material he could find on them tended to be rather dry and instructional - at odds with the vivid nature of the stories. Sarwat's books are now helping to bring Hindu mythology to a wider audience. But why aren't these myths better known already?

I suspect that our education system and traditions bear some responsibility. In some quarters, there may be a reluctance to teach something unfamiliar (unfamiliar to the teachers as much as the children). There is perhaps a feeling that Hinduism is 'unusual', because it is pantheistic, has more than one god. That's understandable (if unreasonable), since the culture in Britain for centuries has reflected a monotheistic religion, Christianity, and a powerful church - powerful both socially and spiritually.

In my case, it was precisely this difference of Hinduism that appealed to me. My encounters with Hinduism on my travels in the Himalayas, and my later interest in the religion, reminded me that many societies have thought of 'gods' as sharing our world with us rather than living in a world 'above' us.

To encounter a different way of viewing the world is very refreshing. But the differences between world religions can also obscure their shared heritage. As the author Ashwin Sanghi wrote in his contribution to JJ Books' series of guest posts on illustration, the similarity between the names 'Brahma' and 'Abraham' point at this shared heritage - as do similarities between the myths themselves. Sarwat reported great success with introducing Hindu mythology to schoolchildren - which I can easily imagine.

Even according to the most conservative estimates, there are now over 800,000 Hindus who live in the UK - and around 1.5 million in the US. And stories related to Hinduism increasingly crop up in the news. Consider the recent controversy over teaching yoga in Californian schools, or the one over delays to laws ending caste discrimination in the UK. If we are going to have discussions like this within our societies, then we need to know more about what we are discussing.

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. Contemporary retellings or reinterpretations of Hindu myths are certainly becoming more popular. (Alongside Sarwat's books, the graphic novel Adi Parva by Amruta Patil is another good example.) Another positive development was the recent publication of the international edition of the 11-volume Encyclopedia of Hinduism - the product of 25 years of research by almost 1,000 scholars from India, the US and Europe. It suggests that there is a growing appetite for serious engagement with the religion.

Another member of the discussion panel was the novelist Sangeeta Bahadur, who believed that one reason Hindu myths are not as well known as they could be is that Hindus have been too touchy to let Hollywood play around with them on the big screen. It's true that since Hinduism is a living tradition, creative artists need to be sensitive to practising Hindus when they address their mythology. But equally, the fact that Hinduism is a living, breathing tradition also lends its myths a great deal of power.

Historically, there is a strong link between Britain and India. Unfortunately, in my view there are still sometimes lingering elements of 'imperial conceit' - that late nineteenth century mentality whereby the British considered themselves and their culture superior to others. Happily that tendency is now fading, and being replaced by a desire to understand the cultures of others on their own terms.

It's certainly high time that we in the West got to know Hinduism better. If your experience is anything like mine, you will find the learning process not so much an obligation, as a pleasure.