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  • Religion for a Secular Age: Max Müller, Swami Vivekananda and Vedānta by Thomas J. Green
  • Daniel Soars (bio)
Religion for a Secular Age: Max Müller, Swami Vivekananda and Vedānta. By Thomas J. Green. Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2016. Pp. x + 188. isbn 978-1-4724-6292-3.

While this is not the first study of reception histories of Indian and European ideas across East-West boundaries, Thomas J. Green's distinctive contribution is to show–via a microscopic focus on two thinkers whose intellectual trajectories cannot be fully understood within the history of any single nation–how the macroscopic processes of modernity and secularisation in the long nineteenth-century must be seen as transnational phenomena. The argument is centred on the German scholar of comparative religion, Friedrich Max Müller (1823-1900) and the Bengali advocate for Hindu socio-religious reform, Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902). Green masterfully brings to light the surprising convergences between these two figures in their attempts to defend religion in the face of existential challenges from science and materialism. More specifically, he shows how both thinkers drew on the classical Indian philosophical tradition of Advaita Vedānta in order to buttress strikingly similar conceptions of "secular religion" (i.e. religion divorced from creeds, scriptures, and institutions) in response to parallel nineteenth-century challenges in London and Calcutta. Meticulous engagement with a wide variety of primary sources is deftly woven into a broader comparative argument, resulting in a tightly-argued, and conceptually ambitious study which will be of interest to a range of audiences.

In exploring the contexts in which Müller and Vivekananda first encountered Vedānta, Green underlines the importance of the German idealist conduits through which Indian philosophy was being mediated in the nineteenth-century–whether via Kantian and German Romantic paradigms, in the case of Müller, or via the neo-Hegelian reformulations of Advaita in figures like B.N. Seal and other westernised Bengali contemporaries in the Brahmo Samaj, in the case of Vivekananda. For both men, Vedānta seemed to offer the sort of "idealist" response to materialism (associated mainly with Darwinian evolutionary science and positivistic philosophy for Müller, and with a more general cultural emphasis on individualism and a loss of spiritual values in the West for Vivekananda) that could be found in the German traditions, but, in Vedānta's emphasis on the experiential possibility of direct awareness of the ultimate Reality, the Indian philosophical tradition seemed nearer to the truth than either Kant or Hegel. Indeed, what seems to account for the striking parallels in their attraction to Vedānta is an intuition shared at a profound level by Müller and Vivekananda that "religion"–whether Christianity or Hinduism–is about lived experience rather than doctrinal beliefs or ritual practices.

This emphasis on "experience" as the essence of a universal Religion entailed two consequences: on the one hand, it made the foundations of Religion impervious to positivistic criticisms of faith and metaphysics, and, on the other hand, it provided a criterion for identifying what was of lasting and universal significance in the different historical religions. The openness to experiential verification meant that Religion was on epistemic par with Science, and also allowed for a systematic "Science of Religion" which could be just as evidence-based in its comparative methodology as any of Darwin's (1809-82) contemporaneous studies of fossils and finches. Moreover, just as the natural world seemed to be revealing its secrets of survival and adaptation, so Müller and Vivekananda believed they were able to discern lines of growth and decay in the evolution of different religious traditions.

The symbiotic relationship between their understanding of Religion and their attraction to Vedānta meant that Müller and Vivekananda sought to interpret all other world religions (not least, Hinduism and Christianity) according to the experiential and metaphysical criterion of non-duality (advaita). Based on the affirmation of the substantial Self (ātman) which could not be identified with any aspect of the psycho-physical person (or known in the same manner as an empirical object of knowledge), and on the denial of metaphysical ultimacy to the empirical realm, Advaita Vedānta...


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