COLUMBIA, S.C. - A comprehensive encyclopedia of one of the world's major religions is set to be unveiled next week in the U.S. The 11-volume work covers Hindu spiritual beliefs, practices and philosophy, and is the culmination of a 25-year academic effort.
The encyclopedia is written in English and includes about 7,000 articles on Hinduism and its practices. The work also deals with Indian history, languages, art, music, dance, architecture, medicine, and women's issues. The entire encyclopedia contains more than 1,000 illustrations and photographs.
Brightly colored images of Hinduism's deities fill entire pages, with foot-noted explanations of the forms and powers God can take in the religion.
"The goal was to have something pretty definitive — not just about Hinduism, but about the whole South Asian tradition," said University of South Carolina professor Hal French, who met with a small group of scholars in 1987 to offer academic support for the project.
"This hadn't really been attempted before," said French, 83, a distinguished professor emeritus of religious studies at the school and an associate editor. "It is a milestone of research that brought together both Eastern and Western scholarship."
French, who specializes in the religions of Asia and served as an associate editor of the encyclopedia, said a primary inspiration for the work is one of India's most revered spiritual leaders, Swami Chidanand Saraswati, who is coming to the University of South Carolina conference that will celebrate the work's launch.
Swami Chidanand founded the India Heritage Research Foundation, which became the parent organization behind the encyclopedia effort. He is president of the Parmarth Niketan Ashram spiritual retreat in Rishikesh, India, and travels to visit with Hindu followers in the United States several times a year.
The encyclopedia's volumes run from 600 to more than 700 pages. Some 3,000 copies are being issued in the first printing and will be of interest to libraries, religious institutions, and those studying Indian culture around the world, French said.
Hinduism is the world's third-largest religion, with 1 billion followers, according to a Pew Research Center study published this year. Christians number 2.2 billion and Muslims 1.6 billion, the study showed.
Hinduism's basic teaching is that the soul never dies, but is reborn each time the body dies. The soul may be reborn in human or animal form. The cycle of death and rebirth continues until a soul reaches spiritual perfection, and is united in total enlightenment and peace with the supreme being.
Many Hindus who settled around the world have found that they need a comprehensive source of information on the religion for their children, said Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, managing editor of the encyclopedia and a secretary of the India Heritage Research Foundation.
Children came home from schools where a teacher may have discussed whether Hinduism is a belief in one god, or many gods, and need the proper background to explain it, Sadhvi Bhagawati said in a telephone interview.
"They wanted a source to go to so they could pass the correct information to their children," she said.
She explained that the encyclopedia project took more than 20 years because "it began in pre-computer days."
"If we started today, it might just have taken a few years," said Sadhvi Bhagawati, who describes herself a disciple of Swami Chidanand.
Sadhvi Bhagawati said some of the experts who contributed to the encyclopedia wrote their articles by hand in the script of their original languages. She said they included authors who wrote in Tamil — spoken in southern India, Sri Lanka and Singapore — or Bengali — spoken in other regions of India and Bangladesh.
The articles had to be typed and translated, and translations into English had to be checked again. "Each article ended up being edited eight to 10 times," Sadhvi Bhagawati said.
Dr. Meera Narasimhan, vice dean of the USC School of Medicine and chairman of the department of neuropsychiatry, said she met Swami Chidanand several years ago, learned about his and USC's involvement in the project, and has been working to support it ever since.
"I regard this as a legacy that will be left behind for generations to come," she said, studying the first set of volumes to arrive at the university on Wednesday. They are to be donated to the university's library system.
The physician is a specialist in mind-body connections, and she spearheaded the organization of Monday's conference. A native of Bangalore, India, Narasimhan began her medical studies there, went to Yale University for her residency and fellowship, and has been at USC since 2004.
"This brings together my Indian heritage, my work as a physician in America and as a Gamecock," Narasimhan said, using the sports nickname for USC supporters.
Monday's conference is attracting scholars, Hindu religious leaders and those of Indian heritage from around the globe, she said. It is free and open to the public.
"This encyclopedia will have a very wide reader base because it covers such a range of subjects," Narasimhan said.
All proceeds from the encyclopedia are going to a charitable organization dedicated to the environmental cleanup of rivers in India, she said.
Susanne M. Schafer can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/susannemarieap
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