Spirits of a lost world

Studies in Modern Jewish and Hindu Thought
December 12, 1997

Dean Inge's warning that "whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next" might have been directed at some of the thinkers and themes with which this book engages. A list of its chapter headings and key topics reveals the vintage of its subjects: civilisation, the redemptive role of labour, the Orient, realisation, evolution, critique of nationalism - immediately we realise we have plunged into an epoch of thought that began around the turn of the century and was drawing to a close by the 1950s. Strangely, the book makes no mention of this fact, and one could easily be misled by its title into thinking that it was about rather more recent Jewish and Hindu thought. While postwar developments do receive passing mention, the focus of the book falls elsewhere. The "modern" thinkers with whom it is concerned include Rabindranath Tagore, Sri Aurobindo, Gandhi, Swami Vivekananda, Martin Buber, A.D. Gordon, Timofei Bondariev, Abraham Isaac Kook, Max Nordau and Leo Tolstoy.

It is not only the subject matter of the book that is dated; its comparative approach also recalls a past era. The discipline of comparative religion drew criticism for a number of reasons, not least because it tended to reduce religion to a set of ideas. Since Margaret Chatterjee is a philosopher, and since she makes no claim to deal with anything other than Hindu and Jewish thought, she may be able to escape this particular attack. Fashionable or not, her comparison of Jewish and Hindu religious thinkers can be defended on the grounds that it does indeed throw fresh light on its subject. It was illuminating, for example, to be told about Buber's interpretation of the concept of realisation in his early work and to have one's attentions drawn to parallels in the work of Vivekananda and Aurobindo; it was illuminating to see how the critique of nationalism differs when made by a Jewish thinker aware of a rising tide of Zionism and by an Indian under British rule; and it was illuminating to see how ideas about the redemptive role of labour are differently worked out by Tolstoy, Gordon, Bondariev and Gandhi.

On balance, however, the chief interest of this book lies not so much in its comparative reflections as in its ability to recall a lost world. The interwar period seems to be something of a dark age so far as religious history is concerned. While there are huge numbers of books on 19th-century religion, there are far fewer on religion in the first part of the 20th century. And it is just those thinkers with whom Chatterjee deals - the thinkers who seemed so modern in their own day - who are now most neglected. Almost inadvertently, this book reveals important features of this lost world. It reminds us, for example, of the importance of liberal religiosity in the first part of this century and of how confident its representatives were - confident in the progress of civilisation and the indispensable role of religion in such progress. Likewise, the book reminds us that the religious world was "globalised" even at the start of the present century - Chatterjee's comparative exercise is illuminating because the thinkers she surveys were often trading in the same conceptual currency.

Chatterjee offers some comment on the period with which she deals, and supplies a little biographical detail about the thinkers she considers. Her main interest, however, is in ideas, and she clearly believes the ideas she explores in this book have an intrinsic value independent of their historical or cultural interest. This, Chatterjee assumes, but does not demonstrate. Given the gulf that now separates us from such thinkers, given how unfashionable they have become, and given the postmodern tribunals before which all must now appear, this omission is regrettable. We need more from our author to convince us why we should listen to such men, and to help us understand their relevance to contemporary concerns and preoccupations. In a brief conclusion whose suggestive remarks left me wanting more, Chatterjee shows that this could have been done. Though I had read the book with great profit, I was therefore left somewhat frustrated having gained only a partial understanding of the Jewish and Hindu thinkers encountered, having been offered only a sidelong glance at the world they inhabited, and having learnt too little about the views of an immensely knowledgeable and cosmopolitan author.

Linda Woodhead is lecturer in Christian studies, University of Lancaster.

Studies in Modern Jewish and Hindu Thought

Author - Margaret Chatterjee
ISBN - 0 333 63970 7
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £40.00
Pages - 181

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