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The Philosophy of Religion and Advaita Vedanta: A Comparative Study in Religion and Reason.

This volume aims to bridge the gap between two important intellectual discourses, and to argue for their affinity. First, there is Advaita, the non-dualist school of the Indian Vedanta, a long tradition of exegesis and systematic theology and philosophy which harkens hack to the ancient upanisads. Sharma acknowledges Samkara (8th century C.E.) as the major exponent of Advaita, but in order to make Advaita available as a contemporary system of thought, he draws heavily on twentieth-century thinkers, such as M. Hiriyanna, S. Radhakrishnan, K. C. Bhattacharya, K. Satchidananda Murty, and T. M. P. Mahadevan. This in itself is a valuable feature of the book. Second, there is the philosophy of religion, which "studies the concepts and belief systems of religion as well as the prior phenomena of religious experience and the activities of worship and contemplation on which these belief systems rest and out of which they have arisen."(1) It is not essentially philosophizing by religious people, but rather a second-order philosophizing about religion and related phenomena which can be done by believers and non-believers alike. Sharma presents the philosophy of religion according to John Hick's textbook, Philosophy of Religion,(2) the chapters of which for the most part provide the themes and sequence in Sharma's book: conceptions of God; belief and disbelief in God; the problem of evil; revelation, faith, and issues of epistemology; religious language; the problem of verification; existence, reality, and factuality; human destiny; conflicting truth claims. Under each topic, Sharma touches on the philosophy of religion position (or positions) as presented by Hick, and then responds to them from an Advaita perspective, drawing mostly on the modem Indian thinkers mentioned above.

Each chapter raises numerous relevant points for consideration. For example, chapter 1, "The Advaitic Conception of God," comments, from an Advaita perspective, on these points: God as "unique being," "infinite and self-existent," "creator," "personal," "loving," and "holy." Chapter 2, "Grounds for Belief and Disbelief in God," reviews very briefly the ontological argument, the argument from causality, Aquinas' proofs, and the moral argument for God. Chapter 3, "The Conflicting Truth Claims of Different Religions," touches in sequence on the views of W. A. Christian, W. C. Smith, and Hick (who himself addresses Vedanta), concluding to a family resemblance between Hick's thinking and Advaita thinking. In general, Sharma discovers both similarities and differences among Hindu and Christian religious thinkers, and between the conceptual categorizations and choices made in Hick's philosophy of religion and those made in Advaita Vedanta. Though the treatment isn't symmetrical - Hick's assessment of everyone compared with everyone's assessment of Advaita - Sharma's approach makes us consider seriously the initial observation that "the family resemblances reflected in these pages will lead to the recognition that the two [the philosophy of religion and Advaita] are now neighbors and may be, just may be, also brothers" (p. viii).

Given his goal of introducing the issues, however, Sharma has had to refrain from addressing further questions which would measure the significance of the perceived affinity. He does not introduce readers to the primary sources in either tradition, nor to problems of historical context, and so does not question how a philosophy of religion is to be related back to the tradition(s) it studies. He does not ask whether philosophy of religion as a discipline, particularly as defined by John Hick in his book, is actually the most interesting dialogue partner for Advaita, which seems unwilling to subject faith to the particular kind of rational scrutiny that makes the philosophy of religion possible. For example, chapters 11 and 12 discuss eternal life, resurrection, resuscitation, rebirth and moksa, and open a rich line of thinking, but the philosophy of religion is probably not adequate to this task without much help from scriptural exegesis and theology. Finally, Sharma does not offer a constructive reconsideration of how Advaita changes the way we think about religions philosophically. In a longer book, one would have wanted Sharma to reverse his procedure in order to explore how questions raised in the philosophy of religions - surely a Western intellectual discipline, as now structured - would appear if reconsidered according to traditional Vedanta categories, e.g., according to a manual such as the Vedanta Paribhasa.

While Sharma gives us numerous Advaita observations on questions raised by philosophers of religion, we are left unsure whether everyone is really talking about the same thing. They can be made to speak to one another, but whether they are members of the same family or not remains open - perhaps they are just strangers having an interesting chat during a chance encounter. But this tentativeness need not be a problem, since the field of an inclusive philosophy of religion grown beyond its Western roots is still so very young. We must be grateful to Sharma for providing us with a sound introduction to a complex set of issues, and providing a basis for serious thinking and dialogue on a wide range of issues. Since he has used secondary Indian sources written in English, this book enables a wide range of philosophers to begin to engage Advaita;(3) it should motivate them too, and should also encourage them to delve into the vast wealth of Karl Potter's monumental series, The Encyclopedia of Indian Philosophies.


1 John Hick, Philosophy of Religion, 3rd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1983), 1.

2 Ibid.

3 Sharma has also published A Hindu Perspective on the Philosophy of Religion (New York: St. Martins, 1991)
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Author:Clooney, Francis X.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1997
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