Introducing Hinduism to those not familiar with the religion risks oversimplification. Martin J Dougherty cleverly navigates the pitfalls by sticking to the subjects of origins and central figures of mythology in his fairly comprehensive (for an introduction) Hindu Myths: From Ancient Cosmology to Gods and Demons.
Dougherty cautions the readers well regarding the complexity of the subject they are set to read:
Hindu religious texts do not, on the whole, present facts about the creation and nature of the universe. Instead they speculate and pose questions. It seems that the reader is being encouraged to ponder the mysteries of the universe rather than being presented with the answers, and many texts acknowledge that it is simply not possible for mortals to properly understand something as vast as the cosmos.
Indeed, Hinduism is about framework, not content. Readers are alerted that they will not find the “what” of the cosmology as per the Hindu worldview. But they will find various approaches to cosmology. All are true and none are true at the same time.
Similarly, the book does not claim to provide a straightforward introduction to divinity as manifested in different forms of gods. The religion, also frequently described as a way of life, is a complex and even seemingly self-contradictory system with beliefs in one, three, and 10s of millions of gods and no gods at the same time. The author summarizes:
Some Hindus do not recognize gods at all; others acknowledge a vast number and may worship some, all, or none of them. Monotheistic practices became more common in the era of British rule, further confusing the issue. The question is not whether Hinduism is a pantheistic, monotheistic or polytheistic religion – or something else entirely – but which approach a given Hindu follows… Hinduism has been described as a way of life more than a belief system, but it might be more accurate to say it is a set of principles that can be followed whilst living one of many different ways of life. Any, or all, can lead to the ultimate goal of moksha, oneness with the universal Brahman, and all are therefore equally valid.
Someone well-informed about Hinduism might want to change the phrase “a set of principles” to “diverse and even contradictory sets of principles” in the discussion above. Both cosmology and supernatural forces are good anchors for readers to follow up with further reading should the subject interest them. Dougherty’s choice of focus is fairly representative of what the readers are likely to encounter in a deeper exploration of Hinduism.
While the author talks about the cosmos, deities, and well-known sages and the Puranas, his chapters on the epics are the most coherent ones. These pre-existing narratives, also surely the first things that those not brought up with the subject tend to know a bit about, help the author discuss the gods and the demons in the form of a plot in spite of being quite convoluted themselves. For the Mahabharata, Dougherty uses The Iliad as a point of comparison:
It is far simpler to take a known ‘world’ and add a few special elements than it is to create a universe from whole cloth and have to explain everything to the reader or viewer. If an event that happens in a city is important, it is better not to have to explain where the city is and who lives there, as this can distract from the narrative. In this way, the ancient city of Troy or the mythical nation of Atlantis are often co-opted as the source of an artefact or the site of an incident. Since these are already part of popular culture, the author does not need to explain much. The same goes for the Kuru kingdom in the Mahabharata. Events that might seem implausible here today become believable if they happened in the great old days. The story becomes even more plausible if it relates events known or believed to have happened, involving people who really existed.
This mention of The Iliad in the chapter on the Mahabharata is very intriguing considering that The Iliad is generally spoken of in the same breath as the Ramayana, not the Mahabharata. Both The Iliad and the Ramayana are texts about wars fought by husbands trying to get their wives back. Nevertheless, Dougherty does use the contextualization to make a point about the world, as imagined in the epics.
The book is richly illustrated.
For the Ramayana, Dougherty uses a different treatment. One cannot be sure if Dougherty has referred to a particular translation of the Ramayana while discussing it but it is infused with a liveliness not apparent in the other chapters. For instance:
Sita was held captive at Lanka, but Ravana hoped to win her over. He extolled his great riches and worthiness as a husband. Sita was unimpressed, comparing him to a noisy duck and her own household to gracious swans.
That addition of the simile makes the epic and the characters—gods and demons themselves—very accessible to the general reader. Here is one more example:
Hanuman observed as Ravana approached Sita and yet again told her how rich and powerful he was, and how much he desired Sita. He begged her to accept him as her husband, but Sita remained resolute. She reminded Ravana that Rama would come to kill him, and Ravana responded that if she did not agree to marry him within two months she would be cooked and served to him for breakfast.
Compared to these passages, the other bits in the book can seem like laundry lists.
The book is richly illustrated with paintings from several archives, among them “Sita Shies Away from Hanuman, Believing He is Ravana in Disguise”, a 1594 painting from the translation of the Ramayana commissioned by Mughal Emperor Akbar as a gift to his mother. These illustrations present an interesting history of Hindu gods and demons as depicted through the centuries. But the author apparently does not see them as a treasure in themselves, for although they have been captioned to explain the scene being discussed, the sources of the images of paintings and sculpture have not been provided in as much detail as they could have been.
The question of beginnings and the beginner—the universe and the unmoved mover, as Aristotle, or the story of Genesis as the Abrahamic religions would have it—is a fascinating one. Dougherty has sensibly chosen to use it to define the boundaries of his book. While a lot of material directly related to the cosmology is left out—the world as being supported on the back of a turtle according to various sources—with some being dealt with as names of texts that deal with cosmology without explaining what specifically is said in those texts, the book is worth one’s time for its vision of bringing the two angles together and for its human-like approach to the gods and demons in the section on Ramayana.