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Indra's Net (book)

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Language  English
Media type  Print
Originally published  2014
Page count  376
OCLC  871215576
4.4/5 Goodreads

Subject  Hinduism, Philosophy
Pages  376 (2014), 400 (2016)
Author  Rajiv Malhotra
Country  India
Indra's Net (book) t0gstaticcomimagesqtbnANd9GcTFjzDQkpFVizVIpZ
Publisher  HarperCollins Publishers India
Publication date  2014 (1st), 2016 (revised)
Similar  Rajiv Malhotra books, Hinduism books

Indra's Net: Defending Hinduism's Philosophical Unity is a 2014 book by Rajiv Malhotra, an Indian-American author, philanthropist and public speaker, published by HarperCollins. The book is an appeal against the thesis of neo-Hinduism and a defense of Vivekananda's view of Yoga and Vedanta. The book argues for a unity, coherence, and continuity of the Yogic and Vedantic traditions of Hinduism and Hindu philosophy. It makes proposals for defending Hinduism from what the author considers to be unjust attacks from scholars, misguided public intellectuals, and hostile religious polemicists. A revised edition was published in 2016. Indra's Net has been reviewed in journals, newspapers, video sharing sites, web fora, and other websites.


Background & release

Malhotra had written several previous books defending various aspects of Hinduism. He states that Indra's Net was catalyzed by a 2012 panel at the meetings of the American Academy of Religion to discuss his book Being Different (2011). Two panelists based their objections against the book on the "single premise" that no unified Hindu tradition existed. These panelists "regarded any notion of Hindu unity as a dangerous fabrication and saw me as guilty of propagating it." Malhotra had known of several distinct cases of bias

where the great Hindu visionaries of the modern era were being charged with proto-fascism which struck me as bizarre. But I had not connected the dots or realized how insidious and widespread such a theory had become. Once I started to unravel the myth-making of neo-Hinduism and the ideological motivations behind it, I saw the dire need to contest its widespread acceptance among academic scholars and so-called experts on Hinduism. I decided that the battle must be taken to the academic fortress where the nexus is headquartered and from where it spreads its narratives.

The book's central metaphor is "Indra's Net". As a scriptural image "Indra's Net" was first mentioned in the Atharva Veda (c. 1000 BCE). In Buddhist philosophy, Indra's Net served as a metaphor in the Avatamsaka Sutra and was further developed by Huayen Buddhism to portray the interconnectedness of everything in the universe. Malhotra employs the metaphor of Indra's Net to express

the profound cosmology and outlook that permeates Hinduism. Indra's Net symbolizes the universe as a web of connections and interdependences.... The net is said to be infinite, and to spread in all directions with no beginning or end. At each node of the net is a jewel, so arranged that every jewel reflects all the other jewels.... a microcosm of the whole net.... [and] individual jewels always remain in flux.

The book uses Indra's Net as a metaphor for the understanding of the universe as a web of connections and interdependences, an understanding which Malhotra wants to revive as the foundation for Vedic cosmology, a perspective that he asserts has "always been implicit" in the outlook of the ordinary Hindu.

Indra's Net was released in India on 29 January 2014 at the Vivekananda International Foundation, where a talk was given by Arun Shourie. Shourie stated that in the book, Malhotra "has given us a pair of spectacles, a new pair of spectacles through which to understand... our own religions and our own tradition".


The book seeks to expose and refute the so-called neo-Hinduism thesis, intending to refute "the influential narrative that Hinduism was fabricated during British rule and became a dangerous new religion", and the thesis that "Swami Vivekananda plagiarized Western secular and Christian ideas and then recast them in Sanskrit terminology to claim Indian origins for them." As Malhotra explains:

Branding of contemporary Hinduism as a faux Neo-Hinduism is a gross mischaracterization of both traditional and contemporary Hinduism. (In this book) I will use "contemporary Hinduism" in a positive sense and distinct from the dismissive "Neo-Hinduism", and show that contemporary Hinduism is a continuation of a dynamic tradition.

Indra's Net contains 12 numbered chapters divided into two major parts, as well as introductory and concluding sections, notes, and an index. The first major part is called Purva Paksha, "Examination of My Opponents' Positions". The second major part is called Uttara Paksha, "My Response."

Part I: Purva Paksha - "Examination of My Opponents' Positions"

In this part of the book, Rajiv Malhotra gives an overview of his understanding of the development of the so-called "neo-Hinduism thesis."

Chapter One- Eight myths to be Challenged

Chapter One presents the following eight myths that, according to Malhotra, neo-Hinduism thesis supports:

  • Myth 1: India’s optimum state is Balkanization:
  • Malhotra says that by using this myth "theories of coherence of India and its civilization are dismissed" and this discourse has been used to "stir up internal divisiveness and conflict."
  • Myth 2: Colonial Indology’s biases were turned into Hinduism
  • This myth propagates that while interpreting traditional Hindu texts "Indian leaders took their cues exclusively from the west".
  • Myth 3: Hinduism was manufactured and did not grow organically
  • Malhotra mentions that proponents of neo-Hinduism thesis charge that Hindu leaders particularly "Vivekananda, Gandhi and Aurobindo invented a new religion called Hinduism", using "western ingredients in order to promote a "political agenda". Malhotra asserts that this "characterisation reveals a serious misunderstanding of Indian Culture."
  • Myth 4: Yogic experience is not a valid path to enlightenment and tries to copy Western science
  • This myth calls into question the "direct experience of higher states of consciousness attained in meditation". Malhotra says that proponents of neo-Hinduism charge that only Sruti can lead to path of enlightenment. Core pointed mentioned in refuting this myth is that Hinduism has "room both for textual authority and direct experience".
  • Myth 5: Western social ethics was incorporated as seva and karma yoga
  • Malhotra mentions that concepts of Seva and Karma Yoga have been part of ancient tradition. There have been ascetics, (even prior to arrival of Britishers) who "have devoted their lives serving the public rather than withdrawing from society".
  • Myth 6: Hinduism had no prior self-definition, unity or coherence
  • Indra's Net explores this myth in great detail. Malhotra mentions that the West views Hinduism from its own traditions having a "central authority" or "closed canon". Hinduism unlike Abrahamic religions has a unique "open architecture" that celebrates "decentralization". Malhotra mentions that this book establishes that "Indian coherence is not built on "Western notions of coherence and unity".
  • Myth 7: Hinduism is founded on oppression and sustained by it
  • Malhotra mentions that the Neo-Hinduism thesis demonizes Hinduism and Sanskrit as "oppressive and fossilized, thus discarding centuries of cultural and philosophical developments". In Indra's net, Hinduism has been explained as an "Open Architecture" that helps in "absorbing multiple communities, metaphysical points of view, and new scientific developments".
  • Myth 8: Hinduism presumes the sameness of all religions
  • Last chapter in Indra's Net (present book) refutes this idea.
  • Chapter Two - The Mythmakers- A Brief History

    Chapter Two, gives a background about "myth-makers" and their inter-linkages. This chapter present a history of the neo-Hinduism thesis as it was developed and expressed by scholars and gained wider cultural attention. Malhotra highlights the importance of German scholar Paul Hacker who, according to Malhotra, was the first to develop the thesis of Neo-Hinduism in 1950s. According to Malhotra, Hacker "popularized the use of term Neo-Hinduism to refer to the modernization of Hinduism brought about by many Indian thinkers, the most prominent being Swami Vivekananda."

    The book mentions that the roots of thesis of Neo-Hinduism were in the depiction of Hinduism by Christian missionaries as "India's past being chaotic, incoherent and without clear and ethical philosophical ideas". In this regard the books cites T.E Slater of London Missionary Society who mentions: "We cannot properly speak of the religion of India any more than we can speak of India as a country". He further states that "Hinduism is rather a congeries of divergent systems of thought, each of which at one time or another called itself Hinduism, but forms no part of a consistent whole". The book mentions that certain Western scholars subsequently "began to amplify" the notion that "contemporary Hinduism was an attempt to fabricate an identity that had never before existed"

    In subsequent chapters, most attention is given to writings by the German scholar Paul Hacker (ch. 3), Leopold Fischer, later known as Agehananda Bharati (ch. 4), Ursula King (ch. 5), and the Trinidad-born Anantanand Rambachan (ch. 6), who are characterized, along with Hacker's associate William Halbfass, as the "pioneers" who established the thesis or myth of Neo-Hinduism. Various details are supplied on these scholars' biographies, ideas, and sometimes methodologies.

    Malhotra states that the work of these "founders" then led to "echoes" among Western humanistic scholars such as Heinrich von Stietencron, Christophe Jaffrelot, Sheldon Pollock, Richard King, and others. These led to further echoes among Indian academics such as Romila Thapar and Meera Nanda, and among Indian public intellectuals such as Pankaj Mishra and Jyotirmaya Sharma. From these circles, the "myth of neo-Hinduism" has been widely disseminated through media, popular culture, and government policy-making, and is "increasingly assumed by cosmopolitan Indians who imagine they are... well-informed". Part 1 also notes that these views have been resisted by some academic "defenders" of contemporary Hinduism, including Arvind Sharma, Brian Smith, and Krishna Prakash Gupta.

    Chapter Three - Paul Hacker's Construction of 'neo-Hinduism'

    This chapter is about Paul Hacker, who, as per Indra's Net was the pioneer of "neo-Hinduism" thesis. Chapter three begins by mentioning that during initial part of his career Hacker had developed "intense interest in Shankara and Advaita Vedanta". He spent a year as a professor at Mithila Postgraduate Research Institute in Darbhanga, India and then was awarded Indology Chair (Germany’s oldest chair for Indian studies) at the University of Bonn .

    The chapter indicates that during an initial phase of his life, he used ideas of Hinduism in his personal explorations as a Christian. This is corroborated by Hacker's heir and admirer, Wilhelm Halbfass. Halbfass also mentions that Hacker's conversion from Lutherean Protestantism to Catholicism in 1962 was partly motivated by the need to critique Hinduism from a firmer Christian footing.

    The chapter indicates that the extent of "positive engagement" with contemporary Hinduism was limited to what Hacker viewed as "pure" traditional Vedanta. It is mentioned that there was a "tipping point" beyond which Hacker began to altogether dismiss modern Vedanta as exemplified by Vivekananda and Radhakrishnan.

    The chapter further indicates following important points:

    1. Hacker "developed the thesis of invention of Hinduism in ten articles published between 1954 and 1978".
    2. In these articles, "acting on Hacker's wishes the editor of his collected works excluded Hackers's polemical Christian writing." This "misled readers into thinking that his writings on Hinduism were objective evaluations".
    3. The book mentions that no one suggested the term neo-Christianity for "the revisions that were undertaken in Christianity during the same period when Vivekananda was active" and yet it seemingly is acceptable to use neo-Hinduism for any changes during the same period. The book also mentions the argument between Indian philosopher J. N. Mohanty and Wilhelm Halbfass on this issue.
    4. The chapter highlights four major areas in which Hacker claims that "neo-Hinduism", deviates seriously from traditional Hinduism. These are:
      1. Importance of Direct Experience over traditional text-based doctrines: Hacker mentions Vivekananda, Debendranath Tagore, Radhakrishnan etc., under influence of Western thought, "reversed the priority established by the Sage Kumarila and other orthodox commentators". Hacker alleges that "Radhakrishnan inverts the priority between Shruti and experience from the order found in Mimansa philosophy (i.e. For Radhakrishnan experience ranks higher than Shruti).
      2. "Tat Tvam Asi" Ethic: Hacker mentions that the rationale of "Tat Tvam Asi" as deliberately misconstrued by Vivekananda. According to Hacker "Tat Tvam Asi" originally referred to merging of individual self with the "ultimate self" - the Brahman. Hacker disputes Vivekananda's interpretation that this is the ethic of altruism. The article also cites Hacker's opposition to Schopenhauer's interpretation of this ethic. Hacker mentioned that this system of ethics as originally envisioned "did not support any social purpose", instead it caused Indian to be "apathetic and socially uninterested".
      3. Nationalist Agenda: Hacker mentions that Gandhi's principle of Ahimsa was borrowed from Christianity's teaching of loving ones's neighbour as oneself. Hacker mentioned that- "(Gandhi) made Ahimsa a norm for political action which it has never been in the Hindu Past". The book also says that Hacker particularly attacked the interpretation of Dharma by Vivekananda, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, and Radhakrishanan in his essay "The Concept of Dharma in neo-Hinduism". Hacker argues that Sri Aurobindo (and later under his influence, Radhakrishnan) redefined Dharma as social activism or Svadharma (one's own Dharma), which was more in line of Western concepts.
      4. Inclusiveness and sameness: Hacker describes the neo-Hindu inclusiveness as a tendency to appropriate everything good from disparate Indian traditions and label it Hindu. Halbfass agrees with this claim and mentions that "Inclusivism is a new device created to bring fictional unity to Hinduism which had been absent."

    Chapter Four - Agehananda Bharati on Neo Hinduism as a "Pizza Effect"

    This Chapter is about Agehananda Bharati and his thesis on "Neo-Hinduism", who was influenced by the writings of Paul Hacker. Bharati was professor of Anthropology at Syracuse University for over 30 years, an academic Sanskritist, a writer on religious subjects, and a Hindu monk in the Dasanami Sannyasi order. According to Malhotra, his shift towards what Malhotra calls a negative outlook on the so-called "Hindu Renaissance," called "contemporary Hinduism" by Malhotra, started from his paper The Hindu Renaissance and its Apologetic Patterns published in The Journal of Asian Studies in 1970. According to Bharati, as summarized and paraphrased by Malhotra, Neo-Hinduism is a "political and artificial fabrication" that is "completely disconnected from the past". According to Malhotra, two major points made by Bharati are that: (1) "Neo-Hinduism" is not “Scholarly” as per western standards and (2) "Neo-Hinduism" does not follow the scholarly traditions of Hinduism itself.

    Bharati introduced the well-known term Pizza effect. Pizza which originated in Italy, was brought to US by Italian migrants. Then varieties of taste, toppings, embellishments were developed in US. This modified pizza was brought back to Italy. Similarly Agehananda Bharati said that Indians copied western ideas and values, gave them Indian names and then re-marketed them to the west. Bharati mentions that even Vivekananda's and Gandhi’s insistence on physical work (linked to Karma Yoga) is a western import (Western work ethics). The success of these familiar ideas in an exotical guise led in turn to an appreciation of the enculturated ideas in India, due to the fame that their proponents acquired in the west.

    An instance of this pizza-effect, as noted by Bharati (and incorporated by Neo Hinduism thesis), is that "Bhagvad Gita was given the exalted stature by Britishers and Western Indologists and Indians simply followed it". Bharati mentions that Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Mahatma Gandhi "took inspiration from Gita only after it was glorified by Westerners". Rajiv Malhotra mentions that "Bharati conveniently ignores that fact that long before arrival of Europeans, Shankara, Ramanuja, Vallabha had written commentaries on Gita".

    Part II: Uttara Paksha - "My Response"

    The second part is called Uttara Paksha, "My Response." It first centers on Andrew J. Nicholson's Unifying Hinduism, which argues that already in medieval times Brahmanical thinkers sought to reconcile the various astika-traditions, and the studies by Anantanand Rambachan, who argues that Vivekananda misunderstood Shankara's use of the term anubhava. The subsequent chapters present Malhotra's view on Hinduism as an "open architecture," and the means to defend this open architecture against western hegemony.

    It opens with chapter eight, which argues, following Nicholson, that prior to colonialism there had been "a vibrant flow of Indian ideas" and much unification of Hinduism by thinkers such as Vijnanabhiksu. It presents the concepts of "astika (those who affirm) and nastika (those who do not affirm)" — terms sometimes loosely translated as orthodoxy and non-orthodoxy — arguing that

    The very existence of these old philosophical categories is clear evidence that people we later started calling Hindus did indeed have an awareness of collective unity and coherence regardless of whether or not they had a name for their identify.

    However, the colonial period promulgated several distorted understandings of Indian thought, including views of philosophical schools as "frozen, homogenized and isolated... at war against one another in a manner typical in Western history". According to the book, these distortions were shaped by the needs of Europeans to construct arguments in purely intra-European debates on topics such as pantheism and Europeans' own imagined Sanskrit-speaking Aryan ancestry.

    Chapter nine document traditional Hinduism's concern for service to society. In chapter ten Malhotra takes issue with Rambachan's scholarly work, arguing that Yoga is part of Shankara's work. According to Malhotra, "contemporary Advaita Vedanta [...] is based on the experiences of Ramakrishna and crystallized by Swami Vivekananda." Malhotra further argues that Vivekananda's view on anubhava was consistent with later developments in the Advaita Vedanta tradition, and that this "refutes Rambachan's claim that Vivekananda was mimicking European ideas on direct experience."

    In chapter eleven a "big picture" vision of Hinduism is presented, based on integral unity, or "unity-in-diversity", represented by Indra's Net. The computer-derived image of "open architecture" is offered as a metaphor for the Hindu approach to the divine, with a lineage (sampradaya) or individual teacher (guru) functioning analogously to a "'systems integrator' - who selects the components for the client" if the client foregoes a do-it-yourself approach. The open-architecture metaphor is "applicable to numerous different schools which share common principles, symbols, and techniques, all... designed to help people gain access to higher states of consciousness.... [and] all have certain common standards and architectural principles". Swami Vivekananda and other promulgators of contemporary Hinduism were thus merely offering "an ongoing adaptation" within "a long-standing, continually evolving tradition".

    Chapter twelve, the concluding chapter, warns that the openness and flexibility of the Indian approach is also making it vulnerable to "digestion by predators", such as Western scholars or entrepreneurs who repackage Hindu ideas in Western secular terms, with original Indian sources forgotten. Westerners become "falsely established as original thinkers", while the uncredited Indian source is represented as oppressive or irrational.

    The book's concluding chapter proposes ways to prevent "predators" from exploiting the open architecture of Hinduism by more clearly establishing its core principles, such as karma and reincarnation. Malhotra proposes that the notion of astika could be helpful for defense if it were clarified. He suggests that several criteria could be used to "disqualify" any philosophical or religious view from being considered as astika: history centrism, a synthetic cosmology, fear of chaos, and a disembodied view of knowing. Malhotra explains that his proposal "is merely a starting point for further discussion and evolution of the categories.... this is how the open architecture has functioned in the past and must function now."


    Reviews have appeared in The Hindu, Mental Health, Religion & Culture, The Economic Times, The Free Press Journal, YouTube, at web fora Medha Journal and Lokvani, and other websites. One of the criticized scholars, Anantanand Rambachan, has also written a response extensively contesting the representation of his scholarship. The Hindu wrote that the book "articulates the multidimensional, holographic understanding of reality" and "offers a detailed, systematic rejoinder" to views slandering contemporary Hinduism as illegitimate and inherently oppressive.

    In Mental Health, Religion & Culture, Doug Oman wrote that "Indra’s Net is a stimulating, valuable, and partly contentious book that, despite some errors in details, supplies needed correctives for one cluster of serious imbalances in how contemporary Hinduism has been presented. Over time, concerns it highlights could and should inform health professional training materials for religious diversity". He also suggested that "Proposing the distinctive core of Hinduism as a dynamic 'open architecture' is perhaps the book’s most stimulating and important scientific contribution," a model that "suggests many new lines for empirical inquiry" and that "might be adapted to study 'spiritual but not religious' Westerners".

    In The Economic Times, Vithal Nadkarni noted the Atharva Vedic origins of the image of Indra's net. To the reviewer, Malhotra's contention that Hinduism has always spanned traditional, modern and post-modern categories "evokes the image of Shiva's Trinity, also known as that of Master of Time past, present and future, enshrined at... Elephanta".

    In The Free Press Journal, M. V. Kamath wrote that "Malhotra has done his job in explaining Hinduism [remarkably] well".

    On YouTube, Subramanian Swamy, former president of the Janata Party (1990–2013), stated with regard to Indra's Net that "this kind of writing is something that ultimately should become textbook reading for graduate students in India". He added that "this imperialism in scholarship [as criticized in the book] is something that Rajiv Malhotra is fighting alone; we need much more support being given to him".

    At the Medha Journal, Pradip Gangopadhyay wrote that Malhotra had "written a stout defense of the coherence and unity of Hinduism", although he expressed differences with some parts of Malhotra's analysis. Gangopadhyay felt that Malhotra's "defense of [Swami Vivekananda] is genuine and sincere but not always effective", and was "amazed" why Malhotra "did not see Shankara as a unifier of Hinduism".

    On his blog, Varadaraja V. Raman wrote that "Malhotra has done it again: Written a substantial book on a topic that should interest all those who care for the Hindu world.... Malhotra does for Hinduism what G. K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy and C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity did for their religion: presenting robust, positive, and enlightened visions of the religion." He added that "What is not pointed out in the book, but deserves mention, is that in spite of more than a century of adverse propaganda, a great many educated people in the West have, by and large, positive images of India and Hinduism."

    At the website Lokvani, Bijoy Misra expressed appreciation of the book's concern to refute misrepresentations of Hinduism, explaining that he becomes "concerned because the new [erroneous western-driven] literature does become the reading material for my own children and grandchildren, who would have little access to good traditional resources," and that the book "has particular significance for people like me who wish to practice their Hindu faith in the open society of the United States." Bijoy Misra also published a review in the journal World Affairs: The Journal of International Issues.

    Anantanand Rambachan

    Anantanand Rambachan, whose work was repeatedly criticized in Indra's Net, especially in Chapter 6 ("Rambachan's Argument to Fragment Hinduism"), published a response in the Indian popular cultural magazine Swarajya. Rambachan stated that "too many of his [Malhotra's] descriptions of my scholarship belong appropriately to the realm of fiction and are disconnected from reality." Rambachan organized his lengthy response "around thirteen of his [Malhotra's] 'myths' about my work. I can easily double this number," also stating that

    I share the author’s value for Hindu unity, but [...] The author [Malhotra] wrongly equates serious theological engagement within a tradition with its fragmentation [...] and it is misleading to hold me responsible for what he perceives as Hindu disunity [...] A unity that is grounded in mature and respectful acknowledgment of diversity and difference, open to mutual learning, and rejoicing in all that we share, is a credible one that Hindus can fearlessly and confidently pursue.

    Allegations of plagiarism

    In July 2015, Richard Fox Young of Princeton Theological Seminary and Andrew J.Nicholson who authored Unifying Hinduism, alleged Malhotra plagiarized Unifying Hinduism in Indra's Net. Nicholson further said that Malhotra not only had plagiarised his book, but also " twists the words and arguments of respectable scholars to suit his own ends." Permanent Black, publisher of Nicholson's Unifying Hinduism, stated that they would welcome HarperCollins "willingness to rectify future editions" of Indra's Net.

    In response to Nicholson, Malhotra stated "I used your work with explicit references 30 times in Indra’s Net, hence there was no ill-intention," and cited a list of these references. He announced that he will be eliminating all references to Nicholson and further explained:

    I am going to actually remove many of the references to your work simply because you have borrowed from Indian sources and called them your own original ideas [...] Right now, it is western Indologists like you who get to define ‘critical editions’ of our texts and become the primary source and adhikari. This must end and I have been fighting this for 25 years [...] we ought to examine where you got your materials from, and to what extent you failed to acknowledge Indian sources, both written and oral, with the same weight with which you expect me to do so.

    In the revised second edition, Malhotra eliminated the thirty references to Nicholson's book:

    When writing the first edition of Indra's Net, I included Andrew Nicholson's book (Nicholson, 2010) for my literature review and for citation purposes, because of its alluring title, Unifying Hinduism. I was intrigued that a Westerner would break ranks with those who held that Hinduism had lacked unity prior to British colonialism. Nicholson's promise of understanding unity seemed appealing to me, because I (incorrectly) assumed he meant integral unity. Hence, I referenced many of his ideas and arguments, naming him as a source about thirty times.... [But Nicholson's] idea of Hinduism's unity is that it was the result of a relatively recent historical process; hence the unity is not inherent in the cosmology.... I call this view a synthetic unity, a unity achieved by gluing things together that in fact were separate. My contention has always been that the unity of sanatana dharma (now commonly known as Hinduism) has always been built into the tradition from its Vedic origins.

    Revised edition

    A revised edition of Indra's Net was published by HarperCollins India in 2016:

  • Malhotra, Rajiv (2016). Indra's Net: Defending Hinduism's Philosophical Unity (revised ed.). Noida, India: HarperCollins Publishers India. ISBN 978-9351771791.  ISBN 9351771792 (400 pages) (revised chapter 8, with references, is available online)
  • The revised edition omits most references to the work of Andrew Nicholson, and further explains Malhotra's ideas concerning the unity of Hinduism as inherent in the tradition from the times of its Vedic origins.


    Indra's Net (book) Wikipedia