The Brill Dictionary of Religion ed. by Stuckrad

Kocku von Stuckrad, ed. The Brill Dictionary of Religion. Transl. by Robert R. Barr. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2006. Hardcover, vol. 1 (A-D), 556 pp.; vol. 2 (E-L), 602 pp.; vol. 3 (M-R), 538 pp.; vol. 4 (S-Z).

This four-volume dictionary is the thoroughly revised version of the Metzler Lexikon Religion: Gegenwart, Alltag, Medien, which was published in German in 1999–2002. Its editor, Kocku von Stuckrad—an assistant professor of Religious Studies at the University of Amsterdam—has succeeded in making this work not only palatable but also relevant and serviceable to the English-speaking world.

With over 500 entries authored by various experts, this compilation is an impressive accomplishment, which fills the gap between more comprehensive works and so-called concise dictionaries that are either more specialized or often the equivalent of glossaries. What makes The Brill Dictionary of Religion particularly useful to lay readers but also scholars in the field of religious studies is that it does not have a narrow antiquarian focus but approaches the subject of religion from a contemporary and practical angle.

Thus, we find entries on advertising, bioethics, capital punishment, disenchantment/reenchantment, environmentalism, euthanasia/assisted suicide, everyday life, film, gender stereotypes, genetic engineering, human rights, media, modernity, money, new age, publicity, postmodernity, science fiction, sports, television, terrorism, tourism, and UFO.

Religion, contrary to Marx, is ostensibly here to stay, and so is the discipline of Religious Studies. Good dictionaries, such as the present publication, are clearly needed and can expect to have a long life-span.

Although Stuckrad has made substantial changes to the original German version, this improved compilation is still very much an encyclopedic dictionary that reflects a German perspective on religion and Religious Studies. I hasten to add, however, that for the English reader this represents a significant gain rather than a drawback. Rather than being distracting, the difference between the German perspective and the perspective or perspectives fostered in the English-speaking world is a salutary complement.

Having been released only recently, The Brill Dictionary of Religion has the added overwhelming advantage over other similar dictionaries, which have been on the market for a while, that it is simply the most up to date.

Multivolume dictionaries of this kind, which are the collaborative product of many contributors, are an enormously challenging undertaking at the best of times. In the present case, the editor additionally had to content with a foreign language, and the translator, Robert Barr, has produced a very readable English version.

From my comments thus far, it will have become obvious that this magnificent set of volumes deserves praise both for content and presentation, as well as relevance. But, as with any effort of this magnitude and complexity, errors and shortcomings are unavoidable, and I would be doing the editor, contributors, and publisher a disservice if I were not to also address some of the details that have caught my attention and at least some of which should be taken into account when reprinting this work.

Stuckrad’s preface is an orientational exercise, while the introduction by Christoph Auffarth and Hubert Mohr offers a competent review of historical and contemporary issues in Religious Studies, which exposes major trends. Alas, this opening essay does not take note of the recent fascinating field of neurotheology, which is the fertile interface between neurology and religion/spirituality, as pursued, for instance, by Michael Persinger, Andrew Newberg, and Eugene D’Aquili.

Similarly, the attempt at a grand synthesis by Ken Wilber, based on his spectrum-of-consciousness model, seems to me to deserve inclusion in any overview of trends, as his orientation has become rather influential at least in the United States. Wilber is briefly referred to, strangely enough, in the entry “UFO” and, more appropriately, in the entry “Psyche.” His book A Sociable God,which proposes an integral sociological methodology to the study of religion, surely deserves to be mentioned, if not briefly discussed.

In general, I have found The Brill Dictionary of Religion somewhat weak on its coverage of the psychological disciplines. There is an entry on psychoanalysis but none on psychology, psychotherapy, or transpersonal psychology. The last-mentioned discipline, which profoundly intersects with religious/spiritual concerns, unquestionably should have had its own entry.

This is especially so when one sees almost embarrassingly extensive entries for “Esalen Institute” and “Ascona/Monte Verità.” While both (now highly commercialized) organizations have been important cultural catalysts, their importance for the religious scene has, I think, been overrated by the editor. Briefer entries would have done the job, and perhaps the Naropa Institute should have had a short entry as well, since, being one of the creations of the redoubtable Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, it has been instrumental in the dissemination of Tibetan Buddhist spirituality, culture, and art among North Americans.

Speaking of Buddhism, I have to note that the entry on this religio-spiritual tradition does not include a discussion or even significant reference of the Tibetan form of (Vajrayāna) Buddhism, which is treated separately in the entry “Tantra II: Buddhism.” At least one would have expected a prominent link from “Buddhism” to “Tantra II.”

As far as the “Tantra” entry in general is concerned, this pan-Indian tradition is correctly characterized as a new revelation, but the “new age” (nava-yuga) better known as the dark age—or kali-yuga—for which this new revelation was intended is not even mentioned. Considering the dictionary’s contemporary slant, this obvious tie-in with twentieth-century New Ageism, which has availed itself of Indian Tantra, could easily have been explored a little.

An important subject that is conspicuous by its absence is devotionalism, including the widespread Bhakti movement of medieval and modern India, though, I presume, the overly long entry on the Hare Krishna Movement was supposed to cover this side of Hinduism. If so, it fails to do justice to what amounts to a rather complex and colorful phenomenon spanning hundreds of years.

One of the useful features of The Brill Dictionary of Religion are the reasonably extensive bibliographic references furnished at the end of each entry. While the editor’s effort to update these reference sections to include more relevant English publications is commendable, some entries do not quite live up to one’s expectations on this score. Thus the English bibliographic references on the entry “Tantra” are significantly inadequate, and so are the references provided with the entry “Yoga.” I was delighted to find one of my own books listed, but the single most comprehensive work on Yoga’s history and literature—The Yoga Tradition, also penned by me—should really have been listed instead or in addition. Also, James Houghton Woods’ rendering of the Yoga-Sūtraand the Yoga-Bhāshya commentary is widely considered the best standard academic translation, which should have been listed. Vivian Worthington’s potted history of Yoga could easily be dropped altogether.

Staying with the “Yoga” entry for a moment, it is misleading to translate the Sanskrit term sūtra with “maxim”; the most common English equivalent, which is also not entirely satisfactory, is “aphorism.” To translate hatha-yoga with “power thrusts” is, to say the least, confusing. Hatha means “power, force” or “forceful”—hence hatha-yoga is best rendered as “Forceful Yoga,” which is in keeping with its nature.

A distorting typographic error is “entasy” for “enstasy,” which is Mircea Eliade’s unpopular term for samādhi, usually translated as “ecstasy” but here mistranslated as “immersion.”

The coverage of this particular entry is among the weakest, and its focus on the dissemination of Yoga in Germany to the exclusion of Yoga’s history in, say, England or North America is something of a handicap for English readers. To mention modern Yoga—which is largely conflated with Hatha-Yoga—without simultaneously mentioning B. K. S. Iyengar suggests a certain lack of acquaintance with the worldwide Yoga movement. He, more than any other teacher, has been responsible for the current posture-practice craze, though his own teaching is rather more traditional and authentic. Also, I don’t understand the absence of any mention of Paramahansa Yogananda, who was among the early proponents of Yoga (in particular Kriya-Yoga) and whose teachings have apparently attracted over a million people during the course of the twentieth century. Finally, not only has Yoga become secularized in the West, it also has been subjected to gross commercialization.

In the entry “Buddha,” the name Śuddhodhana is misspelled as “Śuddhkodana.” In general, the spelling of Sanskrit words has been quite inconsistent. Some entries use diacritics, others use a simplified transliteration (showing only macrons), and others have no diacritics at all. Sometimes all three methods are found in the same entry. This could be confusing for some readers.

In the entry “Tantra I: Hindu,” the concept of kuńőalinī is incorrectly represented by the phrase “energy currents,” which is generally used for the various types of life force (prāńa), the kuńőalinībeing not so much a psychosomatic energy as a spiritual power, that is, the power of consciousness (cit-śakti). In “Tantra II: Buddhist,” the word upāya is translated as “dexterous means”; the usual translation is “skillful means.”

In the entry “Sadhu,” the Sanskrit word trata is a misspelling of vrata (“vow”).

In the entry “Guru,” the Sanskrit term varna is misleadingly translated as “caste”; it should be “social estate.” The word “equivalated” found in this entry (p. 825) does not appear to exist.

The entry “Hinduism” repeats the now widely questioned notion of an Indo-Aryan migration into India. Also, it is wrong to conceptualize Buddhism and Jainism as ascetical reform movements in reaction to Brahmanism. On p. 867, the word “yogis” should be changed to the singular, and the term mālā should be given its appropriate macrons, as otherwise the word denotes “dirt” instead of “garland.” The term ūrdhra-puńőra is a misspelling for ūrdhva-puńőra.

The entry “Asceticism” is a bit meager and really should mention the major Indian concept of tapas (“glow, heat”), which was applied to religio-spiritual practice before the word yoga achieved prominence as an umbrealla concept for spiritual disciplines.

The religio-spiritual phenomenon of holy madness, or crazy wisdom, on which I have written a substantial work, does not seem to be mentioned anywhere. At the very least, I would have expected the Fools for Christ’s Sake to make an appearance.

The cross-references found in entries are one of the most helpful features of The Brill Dictionary of Religion. In some entries, alas, some important cross-references are unfortunately missing. For instance, it would have been helpful to have a referral from “Mysticism” to “Yoga” and “Tantra,” from “Religion” to “Spirituality” and “Private Religion,” and from “Master/Pupil” to “Disciple.”

All these shortcomings are easily fixed and do not significantly detract from the merit of this work. As I stated at the beginning of my review, I judge The Brill Dictionary of Religion to be a significant and magnificent addition to any library, personal or public.

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in any form requires prior permission from Traditional Yoga Studies.

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