Monday, May 28, 2012

Review of "The Wisdom of India" ed. by Lin Yutang

Originally coming off the press as The Wisdom of China and India, publishers have since chosen to split the 1,100 pages of fine print into its natural two halves.  For the Indian half, Lin Yutang, editor of the anthology, chooses to focus on the philosophy of Hinduism and Buddhism.  Thus, readers looking for a practical outlay of the day to day ritual and ceremony of Hindu and Buddhist worship should be aware that the book’s focus is the wisdom, mythology, and mysticism of the two Eastern worldviews instead, save ancient words on yoga and meditation.  As a result, perhaps no better introduction to Indian perennial philosophy exists in one book.

The Wisdom of India contains a profound selection of texts from the Indian canon.  Representing Hinduism are the complete Upanishads, Bhagavad-Gita, and Ramayana, as well as selections from the Rigveda and yoga aphorisms of Patanjali.  Representing Buddhism are the Dhammapada, three sermons by Buddha, Edwin Arnold’s Life of Buddha, the Surangama Sutra, and a selection of Buddhist parables and legends.  Topping off the book is a selection of fables from the Panchatantra and the Enchanted Parrot that have a egalitarian feel similar to 1001 Arabian Nights.  Giving free rein to the texts to speak for themselves, Lin acts solely as editor.  His introductions brief (a handful of pages for each text) and his commentary almost non-existent, he forgoes the technical or academic approach and allows the reader to form their own thoughts.
A milestone at its publishing in 1942, The Wisdom of India has since become one of many books attempting to bring the mindset of the East to the West.  Born and raised in China, Lin offers something that most scholars of European descent cannot, however.  His own culture influenced and in turn influencing Indian’s,  the parallels of Chinese and Indian thought run much closer than any of the West’s big three: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Thus Lin’s introductions and commentary to the selections offer nuggets of insight typically not available to the Western mind.  Secondly, that Lin is very selective, using translations of the texts by Indian writers when available, a more in depth view of perennial Indian philosophy is presented.
In the end, the reader would be hard pressed to find a better compilation of the Indian canon in a single volume.  Analysis light, readers should not expect an academic text loaded with footnotes and commentary, nor a look into the daily practices of each religion.  Unfortunately, for reasons of length in the original edition, Lin was unable to include the Mahabharata, which remains the lone blemish on the book.  However, that what remains is considered the most important and sacred of Indian texts should speak for itself.  At turns wise, satirical, philosophical, sacred, spiritual, and funny, the greatest quantity of not only Indian but universal wisdom can be found in the book--bar locating the individual texts themselves.  Anyone looking for an introduction to Indian philosophy or a place where nearly all the most important texts are gathered under one roof should look no further.  (As a side note, the other half, The Wisdom of China, is equally good.)

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