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  • Hindu Theology and Biology: The Bhāgavata Purāṇa and Contemporary Theory by Jonathan B. Edelmann
  • Chakravarthi Ram-Prasad (bio)
Hindu Theology and Biology: The Bhāgavata Purāṇa and Contemporary Theory. By Jonathan B. Edelmann. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. Pp. 251. isbn 78-0-19-964154-3.

Hindu Theology and Biology: The Bhāgavata Purāṇa and Contemporary Theory is a conceptually ambitious book, because it seeks to articulate a program and a position so novel that there is scarcely any extant literature to draw on. The reader with a background in the study of Hinduism and Indian philosophy is likely to be puzzled by the juxtaposition of topics indicated by the title of the book. But what Jonathan Edelmann is setting out to do is to create an area of work in the study of Hindu thought that is almost entirely missing in comparison to the work that has been done on Christianity (and to a lesser extent on other religious traditions): how should a person or community committed to a particular sacred narrative and transcendental reality engage with the methods, epistemic processes, findings, and truth claims of contemporary science?

Part of the puzzlement is over the choice of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa as the locus of the Hindu worldview in this dialogue. It would be understandable if one were to think that the systematic philosophical writings of Vedāntins of various schools—a Vedānta Deṣika or a Madhusūdana Sarasvati—were more appropriate because of their self-evident objective of developing a single coherent position on devotion, epistemology, metaphysics, and action. But Edelmann suggests (although he does not explicitly argue for his choice of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa) that this text offers a "world-view" that can be compared to "contemporary Darwinism," being a comprehensive existential position. For him, this text "is a devotional crystallization" of "Vedic, Upaniṣadic, Vedāntic, Tantric, and Indian philosophical thought, such as Sāṃkhya and yoga" (p. 1), a sort of maximal textual realization of how to think and exist in a God-given world. Although the Bhāgavata Purāṇa is in fact important to all the many Vaiṣṇava traditions, Edelmann's remarks throughout the book point to an approach to it through the Gauḍiya stream of Vaiṣṇavism. When he talks of a Bhāgavata Theory [End Page 648] of Knowledge, it turns out that in fact the text by itself does not explicitly offer one; rather, within its capacious bounds it adverts didactically to philosophical ideas that Edelmann can then trace back, in a way broadly influenced by Gauḍiya Vaiṣṇava teachers, to more explicit arguments in Nyāya, Vedānta, and other systems. This is entirely consistent with the Gauḍiya intepretation of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa as a compendious statement of doctrine, but it would have helped for this methodology to be made explicit in order to not be vulnerable to an unsympathetic critic, who might quibble at the presumption of a historical and philosophical relationship between the Bhāgavata Purāṇa and, say, the Nyāya Sūtras.

The other part of the puzzle will have to do with "biology," by which, it turns out, Edelmann mostly means evolutionary biology. But, in fact, for much of the book, even evolutionary biology stands in for a discussion of the larger implications of modern and contemporary science itself, for it is that which is juxtaposed with the Bhāgavata Purāṇa's treatment of "nature" or "world." With this in mind, my remarks will mostly concern the scientific episteme as a whole.

Edelmann starts with an introduction to the framework of the book, on the relationship between religion and science, the nature of a worldview, and the two worldviews that he wants to bring into dialogue, the biological/scientific and the Bhāgavata. The first chapter provides an overview of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa and an outline of the contemporary evolutionary reading of Darwinian theory. Chapter 2 sets up the tensions between the ontology of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa and contemporary physicalism, and, taking a cue from some Christian responses to physicalism, suggests...


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