World Religions: Eastern Traditions
- ISBN: 9780190875435
- Published By: Oxford University Press
- Published: September 2018
In 1979, the late professor Willard Oxtoby started editing a two-volume introductory textbook on the world’s religions. The two volumes cover the Eastern traditions and the Western traditions, respectively. Oxtoby’s goal was to give a concise and contemporary account on the traditions by classroom users for classroom users.
The 2019 book World Religions: Eastern Traditions is the fifth edition of one of the books in the series. “Eastern” in this case means East, South, and Southeast Asia. It is solely focused on the Asian mainland, thereby excluding Indonesian and other islands. Additionally, Mongolia is excluded. Thus, the coverage in the book is more narrow than one might assume from the title. Another important note is that the book deals with religious traditions that arose in the East, not the traditions that can currently to be found there. For example, the book does not deal with increasing numbers of Christianity, or the spread of Islam throughout Southeast and other parts of Asia.
In addition to Oxtoby, the book is edited by Roy Amore and Amir Hussain, well-known professors in religion and politics and in theological studies. The additional five contributors specialize in specific religious traditions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Chinese studies.
The book starts with an introductory chapter on how to research “Eastern religions.” The chapter sets the scene for researching religion in the East by starting in Harappa, one of the earliest known civilizations in the Indus Valley, on which much of the present-day Eastern religions are based. It goes on to describe general religious patterns which can be applied to the study of all religious traditions. The introduction thus navigates between a description of Eastern religious traditions and religious traditions in general. The constant back-and-forth between the general and the more specific might create confusion, especially for scholars who are more senior in the study of religion and the particulars of Eastern traditions.
The introductory chapter also describes what is meant by “religious tradition.” According to the editors, all religions can be characterized as acknowledging the existence of “powerful gods, sacred place, a life of some kind after death, and the presence in the physical world of spirits that interact with humans in various ways” (7). In addition to this essentialist perspective, the editors present religion from a functional standpoint: religion grows out of human experience; it is something we all need in order to find answers to questions, to hold on to, or to find meaning to life. Lastly, to answer the question of how religious traditions should be studied, the definition of the American Academy of Religion is used. This definition emphasizes an analysis of diverse devotional expressions, and describes religions as internally diverse, evolving and changing, enmeshed in human agency and expression, and historically embedded.
After the introduction follow six chapters on different Eastern traditions, divided by tradition and location. The six traditions are Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, Chinese and Korean religions, and Japanese religions. Each chapter starts with a box entitled “Traditions at a glance,” in which some simple characteristics are given, such as numbers, distribution, founders and leaders, deities, authoritative texts, and noteworthy teachings. Each chapter also includes a timeline with the main historical events and a map. Many readings are given throughout the chapters, making it seem as if the traditions are text focused. All chapters end with short summaries and discussion questions, and extensive lists of recommendations for further readings (books, articles, and websites).The interplay between text, text boxes, maps, and some pictures—all in bright color schemes—makes the chapters easy to navigate.
The religious traditions are mostly described by their characteristics. Focus is on such things as symbols, main deities, the position of women, worship practices, and important sites and rituals. Details are given in the many boxes, which cover documents, interviews, and description of sites. The boxes are documented in the content section to the book, giving a clear overview. Nevertheless, when first opening up the book, the details seem overwhelming, and it takes some time working with the book to understand how to use it properly. The interviews with influential leaders and explanations on the role of women in the traditions are new editions to the book, keeping up with the times.
Apart from the general overviews, each chapter takes its own course. While this might at first seem unstructured, it does allow for the particulars of the respective traditions to come to the fore clearly. As in the rest of the book, the editors in this way emphasize the diversity between the traditions as it can be found in reality.
In my view, the most interesting parts of the book are the last paragraphs of each chapter (entitled “current developments”) and the last chapter (“current issues”). Contemporary themes that are highlighted are related to globalization and diaspora, the environment and sustainability, technology and bioethics, religious intolerance and fundamentalism, religious diversity, politics and nationalism, gender and sexuality, reform movements, and economics. A further concluding chapter is added to delve into this more in-depth. Here again, while the main focus is on Eastern traditions, the global nature of religions and religious studies comes to the foreground. This is illustrated by the picture preceding the chapter on current issues, where we see the “East” (as illustrated by the Dalai Lama) in dialogue with the “West” (former president Barack Obama).
The book is clearly intended for a young academic audience—for example, first-year students of religious studies. Terms and concepts that are not straightforward (e.g., shaman, chan, pagoda, samsara, and gurdwara) are put in bold, and explained at the end of the chapter in the glossary. The intended audience is also seen reflected in the sometimes too easy manner in which disputable concepts such as the “East,” the “West, and “religion” are dealt with. The editors clearly expect discussions on what such concepts mean to be held outside of this book.
Making a book dedicated to one region is always hard, and difficult choices have to be made in regards to which areas to cover. This is especially hard in our globalized world, in which the construction of geographical boundaries entices more questions than it give answers. While these difficulties are shortly acknowledged in the introduction to the book, there is no discussion on what this means for our understanding of “Eastern” and “Western” and the respective traditions. Questions like these are interesting and important to have for a more senior audience. Perhaps this book could be used to open up such discussion.
Mariske Westendorp is an Anthropologist and Religious Studies Scholar at the Groningen University, Netherlands.Mariske WestendorpDate Of Review:August 4, 2020