A comprehensive encyclopedia of one of the world's major religions is set to be unveiled next week in South Carolina, USA.
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 coloured 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 specialises 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 USC conference that will celebrate the work's launch.
Swami Chidanand founded the India Heritage Research Foundation, which became the parent organisation behind the encyclopedia effort.
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.
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."