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A Compendium of Information

Amiya P. Sen

By Roshen Dalal
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2006, pp. 524, Rs. 350.00


Roshen Dalal’s Dictionary is an affordable, well-produced and handy reference-work that is bound to go down well with scholars and general readers alike though judging by the author’s prefatory remarks, it primarily seeks to address the latter. In so far as works of this kind go, this one steers clear of both pedantry which can occasionally confound scholars and a hurried superficiality that fails to take the reader to the level of critical reflection.   With over 2500 entries included, this work can well lay claim to be a useful compendium of information. It covers all the major religious traditions in India as also the relatively less numerous communities of Jews, Bahais or Zoroastrians. Also included here, albeit only briefly, is information on tribal beliefs and practices. Importantly enough, the work under review dares to go beyond commonplace terms and categories. Thus, besides covering categories like ‘deities’, ‘myths’, ‘legends’, ‘festivals’, ‘saints’ etc. that are conventionally included in works of this class, Dalal also ventures to add ‘sacred geography’, ‘animals’, ‘birds’,’snakes’, ‘aquatic creatures’, ‘places’ and ‘religious monuments’. This offers the interested reader a palpably wider range of references and information. With reference to Islam and Christianity, there are useful and informative entries on religious figures, events, institutions and concepts located outside India which are then connected with the experiences of Muslims and Christians within the Indian subcontinent. The entry under ‘Nestorian’ (Christians) on p. 342 is a case in point. By and large, this Dictionary reveals a strong grounding in history and cultural anthropology, which, as I later discovered, is explained by the author’s educational and professional career.   However, in the course of reading through this work it did occur to me that there were within it, certain failings or limitations that a more judicious selection, precision with words and careful editing might have easily avoided. My first problem was with the question of inclusion and exclusion itself. Personally I found the inclusion of ‘Begum Samru’, ‘Dalit’, ‘Dravidian movements’, ‘William Jones’—to name only a few, quite indefensible. These took away from the specificity of the work and glossed over the distinction that one may justly make between the social-cultural and the religious domains. If Sir Syed Ahmed Khan could be included (apparently on the basis of his commentaries on the Koran), why not Bankim Chandra Chattopadhya or Bal Gangadhar Tilak each of whom commented on the Gita? Again, the ...

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