Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions

Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of World Religions

Ed. Wendy Doniger
Springfield. MA: Merriam-Webster, 1999. Hardback, xviii + 1181 pages.

One-volume encyclopedias of religion appear to be a new growth industry. This addition to the field is of a quality associated with the distinguished Merriam-Webster imprint. It has a list of 37 scholarly advisors and authors. It is extensively illustrated with black-and-white pictures, two-color maps, and inserts of full-color plates. It consists of two kinds of articles. Approximately 3500 basic articles vary in length from a few lines to a few pages each; 30 major articles on principal religious traditions and themes run from four to thirty pages. Variant names, spellings, and pronunciations are given, including both those favored by scholars and popular Anglicized ones when they exist.

The entries are readable, informative, clear, engaging, and impartial, although inevitably not always thorough. An instance is the article on "Theosophy." It surveys Western theosophical traditions from Pythagoras to the Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling and Eastern ones from the Vedas to Sufism, giving an accurate overview of some of the characteristics those traditions have in common.

The article's description of the early days of the modern Theosophical Society is fair but has a major lacuna at the time of the .Judge split. Its account of the Society in America thereafter deals solely with the Judge branch, overlooking the reestablishment of Adyar lodges throughout the United States and thus failing to give an adequate picture of American Theosophy after 1895.

The article gives, however, an accurate assessment of the influence of Theosophy on religious thought, which has been far greater than is often recognized, although it overlooks Theosophy's effect on literature, art, and music. It begins by saying that the Theosophical philosophy "has been of catalytic significance in religious thought in the 19th and 20th centuries" and concludes:

The influence of the Theosophical Society has been significant, despite its small following. The movement has been a catalytic force in the 20th-century Asian revival of Buddhism and Hinduism and a pioneering agency in the promotion of greater Western acquaintance with Eastern thought. In the United States it has influenced a whole series of religious movements.

This encyclopedia is a good one-volume source for information about general religious topics and compares favorably with its chief competitors: The HarperCollins Dictionary of Religion (1995), The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions (1997), and The Perennial Dictionary of World Religions (originally Abingdon Dictionary of Living Religions, 1981).


January/February 2002