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Religious Studies and Comparative Methodology

The Case for Reciprocal Illumination

Arvind Sharma

Publication Year: 2005

Comparison is at the heart of religious studies as a discipline and foundational to the field’s methodology. In this book, Arvind Sharma introduces the term “reciprocal illumination” to describe the mutual enlightenment that can occur when a comparison is made between one tradition and another, one method and another, or between a tradition and a method. Developing the concept of reciprocal illumination through historical, phenomenological, and psychological methods, Sharma demonstrates how to use comparison, while avoiding the pitfall of treating it as merely raw material for higher order generalizations.

Published by: State University of New York Press

Title Page, Dedication, Copyright

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

Such a witticism smacks of cynicism in the course of daily life, but a fact of academic life contradicts its triviality—the enormously significant role comparison plays in the study of religion. It was central to the emergence of the study of religion as an academic discipline, and has remained a key ingredient of the discipline since its...

Part I

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pp. 1-

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1. Does One Religious Tradition Help Us Understand Another? A Wide Lens Approach

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pp. 3-10

This chapter makes the claim that one religious tradition helps in understanding another, that a knowledge of tradition A helps us understand tradition B better, and that the resulting phenomenon of enhanced understanding may be described as one of “reciprocal illumination.” One is tempted to wonder whether this approach by itself...

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2. Does One Religious Tradition Help Us Understand Another? A Zoom Lens Approach

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pp. 11-21

I would like to pursue this phenomenon of reciprocal illumination, identified in the preceding chapter, further in this chapter and, if possible, move in a new direction. I used the expression “reciprocal illumination” in the previous chapter to refer to occasions when our knowledge of another tradition enables us to gain a better...

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3. Reciprocal Illumination as a Formal Concept

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pp. 23-35

Comparative religion—or, more properly, the comparative study of religion—has antecedents in the ancient world1 but is usually believed to have come into its own in its modern sense around the middle of the nineteenth century.2 The decade from 1859 to 1869 saw the transformation of Max Müller’s celebrated statement “he who knows one...

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4. Reciprocal Illumination in Relation to the Lived Experience of Other Religions

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pp. 37-43

The experience of the enlarged knowledge of a religious tradition enhancing the understanding of that tradition is not new to students of religion. Similarly, the experience of the enlarged knowledge of another tradition enhancing the understanding of our own tradition, though perhaps less frequent, is also not unknown to students of...

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5. Reciprocal Illumination and Comparative Religion

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pp. 45-65

I would like to begin this chapter in a somewhat unusual manner, by trying to indicate what reciprocal illumination may not be, rather than by indicating what it is. The fact that one should endeavor, in defining a concept, to state both what it is and what it is not is not an unknown procedure and may even be a laudable one. It is the propaedeutic for...

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6. Reciprocal Illumination in Relation to the Views of W. C. Smith and Mircea Eliade

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pp. 67-78

It has already been indicated how, in some ways, the semantic aura of the concept of reciprocal illumination shares some of its light with that generated by Professor W. C. Smith’s approach to the study of religion. For instance, Smith recognizes that coming to understand another tradition may lead you to what “was in your own heritage all...

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7. Reciprocal Illumination and the Historical Method

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pp. 79-84

It is obvious that, when we say two or more traditions can shed light on each other, what we really imply is that it is the knowledge of these traditions that accomplishes this task. And more often than not, such knowledge is historical knowledge in the broadest sense of the term. That is to say, all factual knowledge in its broadest sense is...

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8. Reciprocal Illumination and the Phenomenological Method

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pp. 85-89

The phenomenological method has become as significant a factor in the study of religion as the historical,1 and is sometimes described as its thematic counterpart.2 It is a method difficult to define and has sometimes been called an approach rather than a method.3 Thus, it might be helpful to distinguish between the phenomenological...

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9. Parallelisms between Hinduism and Christianity as Further Examples of Reciprocal Illumination

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pp. 91-109

As I have maintained all along, sometimes while we are engaged in the study of another tradition we encounter something in that other tradition that has the effect of enhancing our understanding of our own tradition. I trust this experience, if not common among students of comparative religion, is certainly not unknown to some, or indeed...

Part II

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pp. 111-

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10. Reciprocal Illumination within a Tradition

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pp. 113-115

The neo-Hindu attitude toward religious tolerance and the classical school of Hindu thought known as Advaita Vedānta offer a case of reciprocal illumination between two segments within a tradition. The main point to be considered is the treatment accorded to diversity, or multiplicity, or plurality. The problematic in Advaita Vedānta, which...

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11. Reciprocal Illumination between Traditions

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pp. 117-133

The question has been raised regarding both Buddhism and Confucianism whether they may be regarded as religions.1 This in a large measure because both tend to assume an agnostic attitude toward issues that in other religions are regarded as central—such as the existence of God or of a soul...

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12. Reciprocal Illumination among Traditions

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pp. 135-147

Miracles have been associated with mystics, though they are not their hallmark. In fact, they are discouraged, even in Christianity. Nevertheless, an interesting parallel emerges when the point is raised: how are miracles performed? The key element in the question to be considered here is the following: Is the performer aware of performing...

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13. Reciprocal Illumination among Types of Traditions

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pp. 149-159

Religions can be categorized in various ways, depending on the set of criteria used for this purpose. R. C. Zaehner uses a combination of criteria—geographical, historical, and ideological—to distinguish what he calls the Prophetic tradition from the Wisdom tradition. He writes...

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14. Reciprocal Illumination between Religion and the Secular Tradition

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pp. 161-179

One of the important themes in the encounter between Buddhism and the Western world—as represented by Christianity and science1—has been that Buddhism is in accord with science2 but not with Christianity, which itself has been at loggerheads with science.3 Thus, it has been claimed, for instance, that the “early Buddhist description of the...

Part III

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pp. 181-

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15. Reciprocal Illumination within a Method

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pp. 183-185

The purpose of this short chapter is to propose that some of the expressions used by Professor W. Brede Kristensen in his discussion of the phenomenology of religion reveal their true significance when read in the context of their use by G. van der Leeuw. In other words, reading Kristensen and van der Leeuw can be reciprocally illuminating in the...

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16. The History of Religions: Buddhism and Judaism

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pp. 187-191

The history of religions often makes use of typology to gain a deeper understanding of the religious traditions, whose study comprises its subject matter. One way in which it proceeds is by classifying religions as: living and dead religions; primitive and world religions; prophetic and wisdom religions; Eastern and Western religions...

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17. The Phenomenology of Religion and Buddhism

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pp. 193-196

An important aspect of the phenomenological method, specially as outlined by Kristensen, consists in placing oneself in the shoes of the believer of another tradition, on the grounds that if we are to understand a religion, it must be understood as the believer understands it. Thus, he wrote...

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18. The Psychology of Religion and Buddhism

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pp. 197-211

A strong case could be made in favor of studying Buddhism basically from a psychological perspective because of the nature of the tradition itself. This would involve matching method with subject matter. Such a suggestion has in fact been made by Fritz Staal in relation to the religions of India in general. He suggests...

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19. The Psychology of Religion and Hinduism

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pp. 213-227

The 1960s were the golden age of the drug culture, and since then interest in drugs has waned, although there are now reports of some revival of interest. Even in its heyday, however, although psychedelic experience was closely associated with mysticism and mysticism with Hinduism, no scholarly effort seems to have been made to study...

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20. The Sociology of Religion and Hinduism

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pp. 229-239

As is well known to students of Hinduism and the history of religions, classical Hinduism1 contains the doctrine of the four stages of life called āśramas.2 According to this view, a person, especially if he is a male and belongs to the higher castes,3 is ideally supposed to go through four stages in life. As the full span of life is taken to consist...

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21. Reciprocal Illumination and the Dialogue of World Religions

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pp. 241-245

For Christians there is a perhaps equally strong obstacle to appreciating Islam, inasmuch as, according to Christians, Islam misrepresents (apart from misunderstanding) the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. The misunderstanding seems to arise from the fact that Muslims interpret the doctrine of the Trinity as one of tritheism, which...

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pp. 247-254

An attempt was made to undertake such an examination in the preceding pages. It was prompted by the perception that whenever two items are compared in religious studies, there is an incipient tendency to assimilate one item of comparison into the other. Thus, if Christianity is compared to Hinduism, there is a tendency to understand...


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pp. 255-297

Author Index

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pp. 299-300

Subject Index

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pp. 301-314

E-ISBN-13: 9780791483251
Print-ISBN-13: 9780791464557
Print-ISBN-10: 0791464555

Page Count: 324
Publication Year: 2005