Cultural Exchange and Religious Change: Buddhism, Vedanta and Immortality in Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Britain (1)

By Falby, Alison | Canadian Journal of History, August 2004 | Go to article overview

Cultural Exchange and Religious Change: Buddhism, Vedanta and Immortality in Late Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Britain (1)


Falby, Alison, Canadian Journal of History


"Secularization" and "modernization" have traditionally been considered co-terminous. That is, theorists have traditionally defined secularization as an inevitable religious decline due to modernization, caused by industrialization, urbanization, class conflict, and other social forces. (2) In the past three decades, however, historians have challenged the traditional social historical picture of secularization, noting its derivation from research based almost exclusively on organized Christianity (3) and its focus on the role of external factors, such as church-going, rather than internal factors, such as spiritual impulses.

These historians have suggested that, contrary to previous assertions, religion thrived in industrial society and Victorian intellectuals, for example, did not experience an attenuation of belief. (4) Rather, nineteenth-century thinkers sought out new sources of legitimacy for their beliefs. In his pioneering 1974 study Between Science and Religion, Frank Miller Turner showed that the desire to seek out new sources of legitimacy for belief should not be equated with belief's decline. (5) In a 1982 study of religious vitality in Lambeth, Jeffrey Cox suggested that "We should use greater caution in linking [religious] 'decline' with broad general theories of 'secularization'." (6) Historians such as John Wolffe increasingly maintain that the modern period simply offered new "ways of being religious." (7) In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, new "ways of being religious" included philosophical Idealism, natural theology or scientific naturalism, modernist theology, vitalism, existentialism, and Eastern religious philosophy.

Eastern religious philosophy or philosophies, such as Buddhism and the Hindu sect Vedanta, remain among of the best-known alternative spiritualities today. Another well-known occult derivation of these philosophies is Theosophy, an ostensible synthesis of Eastern religion and Western science. The popularity of Theosophy, Buddhism, and Vedanta increased throughout Europe and North America in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, (8) and as their popularity increased, so too did important new conceptions of religious belief. In particular, Eastern religious philosophy influenced many in Europe and North America to understand immortality in new ways. (9)

This article focuses on eschatology, or the "doctrine of last things," as a significant context of religious change. Christian eschatology has traditionally conceived of immortality as personal, maintaining that individual souls survive after bodily death. Many people still hold to this notion today, but many others, unorthodox seekers and otherwise, define immortality differently: perhaps 20 per cent of Western populations believe in reincarnation, while others conceive of immortality in terms of consciousness, energy, artificial intelligence, race, or genes. (10) The genesis of these unorthodox--to orthodox Christians, anyway--definitions in Britain can be traced especially to the influence of Buddhism and Vedanta in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

The subjects of this article, unorthodox religionists concerned with eschatological questions, are discussed in roughly chronological order, preceded by an introductory section on secularization and eschatology. The second section briefly describes Vedanta's early history in Europe, and the third section shows how the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) reacted to Liberal eschatologies by trying to establish immortality on a scientific basis. The fourth section discusses the more contrary Theosophical Society (TS), whose leaders, Helena Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott, propounded alternatively individual and collective eschatologies that they too attempted to establish on a scientific basis. The final section focuses on Indian Vedantists and their British followers between the wars, who propounded the most collective conception of immortality of all the groups discussed here. …

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