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Klostermaier, Klaus K.: A Survey of Hinduism. SUNY Press, Albany, New York. First edition 1989, Second edition 1994.

The aforementioned book is well known to scholars of South Asian Studies, and is widely used, especially in the United States, as an undergraduate text.

There however are serious questions about the soundness of the author's methods, and thus about the veracity of many of his claims, especially those that relate to Madhva (13th cent. CE). These problems have not hitherto been noticed by the scholarly community.

Both editions of the book contain a large number of factual errors; while some of these errors have been fixed in the second edition, there is no mention therein of the earlier errors, and no list of errata is provided. As many copies of the first edition continue to be used, it is likely as not that readers of said first edition will continue to be misled.

The most striking error in the book is the following (p. 422, second edition):

[Madhva] then went on a missionary tour, engaging Jains, Buddhists, and Advaitins in discussions and defeating them not only by the power of his words but also with the help of a king who, on Madhva's insistence, had thousands of Jains impaled and exiled other infidels.

As a matter of fact, the biography of Madhva, ``considered authentic'' according to Klostermaier himself on the very same page, fails to mention any such king who impaled Jains at Madhva's insistence and exiled other infidels. There is no warrant for presuming any similar actions or attitudes on Madhva's part, king or no king. No other scholar, including B.N.K. Sharma, who wrote the definitive The History of the Dvaita School of Vedanta and Its Literature (Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi; 2d edition 1981, 3d edition 2000), mentions anything to support these claims either1, and Klostermaier makes his accusation without indicating a source. The fabrication is also seen elsewhere--on page 59 and page 254 Madhva is described as ``the hammer of the Jains,'' again without any source being indicated in support.

Where on the one hand Klostermaier has failed to give a source for this audacious claim, that thus must be considered his fabrication, in at least one instance he also fabricates a source--see endnote 19 to chapter 27 (p. 576) where he says, ``See also B.N.K. Sharma, A Comparative Study of Ten Commentaries on the Brahmasutras (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass 1984).'' A work titled `A Comparative Study of Ten Commentaries on the Brahmasutras' (which Klostermaier offers as evidence to show that the ten recognized commentators on the Brahmasutra are those he names) has not been written by the alleged author, who disclaims2 Klostermaier's notion that there are ``ten recognized Vedantacaryas.'' The website of the alleged publisher lists no such monograph even by any other author.

Besides these questionable scholarly practices, Klostermaier also gets his facts wrong on several occasions. Immediately after the portion earlier cited (p. 422), we read:

The image of Krsna that Madhva installed at his Udipi matha is still an important focus of pilgrimage and the rotation of the headship of the matha, taking place every twelve years, is also a major social occasion about which newspapers report. Madhva was the most prolific of all the great Vedantins; he left more than thirty major works as well as a number of minor ones. In addition to the traditional commentaries on the Gita, the Upanisads, and the Brahma Sutra, he wrote commentaries on the Bhagavata Purana, the Rgveda, and portions of the Mahabharata, along with several philosophical monographs and short summaries of his own commentaries, the most famous of which is the Anuvyakhyana, a masterful exposition of the Brahma Sutra in eighty-eight verses.

The following are some of the errors in the above:

Elsewhere, Klostermaier says (p. 352):

The second [sampradaya] is the Brahma-sampradaya, founded by Madhva, also called Ananda Tirtha or Purna Prajña. Beginning as a Dasa-nami, Madhva became Advaita's bitterest (sic) enemy. Madhvites are largely restricted to the South, where they keep custody over the mathas established by the founder. In former times, they must have been quite numerous. Among their peculiar customs is the adoption of a name of Visnu and the branding of the body with a red-hot iron to imprint upon it forever the cakra of Visnu.

It is grossly inaccurate to describe Madhva as having been a Dasanami sannyasi, when in fact the designation of Dasanami was unknown in his time, and when his biography fails to make such a claim. The statement that Madhva (as against his disciples and later followers) established mathas is inaccurate8, as is the implication that followers of his tradition are rare (as opposed to having been ``quite numerous'' in the past).

Neither is naming a child after Visnu a practice peculiar to Madhva's tradition, nor are all Madhva children necessarily named this way. The practice of tapta-mudra-dharana described here by Klostermaier (and also on p. 229 and p. 254) is derived from the Pancaratra literature9, and is also followed by the traditions of Ramanuja and Nimbarka.

The description of Madhva's tradition as the Brahmasampradaya is a neo-classical (post 18th cent.) and doctrinally incorrect one (inasmuch as Madhva does not trace his heritage to Brahma).

A few other glaring factual errors can be noted briefly:

There are other errors that are only found in the first edition of Klostermaier's book, but correction of which is not noted in the second. The most significant of these is on page 76 (first edition), where we read:

The present edition of the Mahabharata itself speaks of three beginnings: manvadi, beginning with Manu, corresponding to the first twelve parvans (``chapters'') of the present work; astikadi, beginning with Astika, comprising parvans 13 to 53; uparicaradi, from parvan 54 onward.

The statements are incongruous with the fact that the whole of the 'Bharata only contains 18 parva-s, as also noted by Klostermaier himself (p. 77, first edition).

The story of the Mahabharata is also summarized wrongly in the first edition--Klostermaier would have us believe (p. 79, first edition) that the Pandavas spent the thirteenth year of their exile (which had to be spent incognito, ``in the very court of Duryodhana, without being recognized, and [appeared] at the beginning of the fourteenth year before the king to reclaim their kingdom. But Duryodhana is no longer willing to give up his empire. Thus, both parties prepare for an all-out war.''

In fact, all recensions of the text are agreed that the Pandavas spent their incognito year in the court of king Virata, and a complete parva of the Epic, called virata-parva, is devoted to this part of their story. Near the end of the year, Bhimasena, one of the Pandavas, killed Virata's powerful brother-in-law Kicaka for attempting to molest Draupadi. Upon hearing news of the mighty Kicaka's death, Duryodhana decided to attack Virata's kingdom and steal his cattle, suspecting that the deed could only be the work of the Pandavas, and also calculating that Virata's kingdom would be weak, being sans Kicaka. The attack was thwarted and Virata's kingdom saved, in large part owing to the heroic martial deeds of the Pandavas upon the occasion. However, Duryodhana insisted that the Pandavas had revealed themselves before the year was up (although his grandsire Bhisma and other counselors advised otherwise), and insisted that they go back to the forest. This set the stage for the great war, in which Virata was an important ally of the Pandavas.

A passage that only appears in the first edition (p. 382) of Klostermaier's book says something strange about Madhva:

On his North Indian tour, he also met with a Muslim ruler. The Muslim intolerance of Hinduism might have been one of the factors that could explain Madhva's un-Hindu intolerance toward other opinions and some of his stranger views.

It is not clarified that according to Madhva's biography12, the Muslim king who met Madhva was so impressed that he offered the latter half his kingdom! Certainly Madhva is not indicated by his biographer to have encountered any ``Muslim intolerance of Hinduism.'' Even granting Klostermaier's imagination in this matter, it is not at all clear why ``Madhva's un-Hindu intolerance of other opinions'' should be focused solely toward Advaita and other Hindu theologies, while completely ignoring Islam; indeed, ``Madhva's un-Hindu intolerance'' is seen in full measure even in his earlier works that date from before his meeting with the Muslim king.


Klostermaier’s book has been widely accepted as an authoritative treatment of its subject. However, it would seem to appear that a greater degree of care is called for in quoting the book’s claims in scholarly works. Impressionable students should likewise be advised to use the book with caution. Eventually, it would perhaps be best if the book were replaced entirely by a more accurate monograph that treats the subject, and it is this author’s hope that the scholarly community will exert itself in such a direction.


The author would like to thank Ramesh Rao for drawing his attention to Klostermaier’s book, and Vicky Maloy for research assistance. Kesava Tadipatri commented upon previous drafts, while B.N.K. Sharma gave important clarifications.


1In a private communication, Sharma dismisses this allegation against Madhva by Klostermaier as “a pure concoction,” and points out that Klostermaier instead should have mentioned the true fact that centuries before Madhva, the Buddhists had such a rough time at the hands of Kumarila Bhatta (8th cent. CE) that they were forced to flee en masse to Cambodia, Thailand, Tibet, and other parts East, causing Buddhism to all but disappear in India. Jainism, while never rising to such strength as Buddhism once did, never suffered such a severe decline either.

2Private communication, 2002. Sharma points out that his The Brahmasutras and Their Principal Commentaries (3 vols., Munshiram Manoharlal, 1986) deals with three “principal” commentators on the Brahmasutras, not ten.

3B.N.K. Sharma, The History of the Dvaita School of Vedanta and Its Literature, 3d ed., Motilal Banarsidass, 2000, 192.

4“Madhva’s Bhagavata-Tatparya (B.T.) is a selective commentary in some 3600 granthas. Out of a total of 18,000 verses of the Purana, he has commented upon some 1600," Sharma, HDSV 129.

5“[Madhva] illustrates his thesis with reference to the first three Adhyayas of the I Astaka (Mandala i, Suktas 1-40) ... The purpose being illustrative, [only] some forty Suktas of the I Mandala are chosen for comment." Sharma, HDSV, 181-2.

6“The historical value of [Madhva’s] Mbh. T.N. lies in its being the earliest datable running commentary on the Epic, in Sanskrit. It is not, of course, a commentary in the strict sense of the term. But, in so far as it traverses the entire course of the history of the Kuru Pandavas, without omitting any of the major incidents, its importance to the “text criticism" of the Epic becomes considerable; all the more so, when we have it from Madhva himself that he had travelled all over the land in search of mss. of the Epic, collected a good number of them of various recensions and then fixed the standard text for himself to follow and comment upon." Sharma, HDSV, 134.

7“The Anuvyakhyana (AV) is both a dissertation on the Sutras and a critical commentary and supplement to the B.S.B. Its extent is 1985 granthas, as against 2000 of the Bhasya." Sharma, HDSV, 122.

8See the discussion of this matter in Sharma, HDSV, 195-200.

9See V. Varadachari, Agamas and South Indian Vaisnavism, Prof. M. Rangacharya Memorial Trust, Madras, 1982, 448, where an extant Pancaratra text called Visnu-Rahasya is cited upon this point; also see page 421 of the same source.

10Sharma, HDSV, 77-9.

11Sharma, HDSV, 144-5.

12gambhiryam dhrtimuruviryamaryabhavam tejo’gryam giramapi dezakalayuktam; raja’sya sphutamupalabhya vismito’smai rajyardham sapadi samarpayambabhuva, verse 10.18: “Upon seeing [Madhva’s] stature, nobility, brilliance, erudition, appropriate to the time and place, expressed so clearly, the astounded king offered him half the kingdom."

Shrisha Rao

Created 2003-04-18, last updated June 28, 2004.