New Faculty Profile: Dr. Jonathan Edelmann

The University of Florida Religion Department is excited to welcome our newest faculty member, Dr. Jonathan Edelmann. Dr. Edelmann will be joining our faculty focusing on Religions of Asia. He comes to us most recently from Mississippi State University.

He will serve as Assistant Professor of Hinduism, Department of Religion, at the University of Florida. Beyond his post with #UFreligion, he is an editor for the International Journal of Hindu Studies and author of Hindu Theology and Biology with Oxford University Press, which won a John Templeton Foundation Award. Edelmann was a fellow with the American Academy of Religion for two years, held a Post-doctoral fellowship with Harris Manchester College, Oxford University, and was a Shackouls Honors College Faculty Fellow and Assistant Professor of Religion at Mississippi State University.

His research is on the Bhāgavata Purāṇa, an important source of culture, fine arts, philosophy, theology, and narrative in South Asia. He conducts research on the Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava interpretation of the Bhāgavata Purāṇa and related texts such as the Bhagavad Gītā and Upaniṣads. Edelmann is also interested in the manner in which Hindu thought might respond constructively to contemporary issues in the philosophy, with a special focus on issues of rationality and epistemology, philosophies of science, ecology, and conceptions of nature. He teaches in two areas: Religions of Asia and Religion and Nature, often emphasizing the philosophical underpinnings of religious traditions, especially with regard to conceptions of self, religious practice, and ultimate reality. He has published in a wide variety of leading academic journals in Religious Studies, Consciousness Studies, and Indology, for example the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, the Journal of Consciousness Studies, Zygon: Journal of Science and Religion, and the Journal of the American Oriental Society.

Dr. Vasudha Narayanan of #UFreligion had this to say about Dr. Edelmann joining the faculty:

We are very excited to have Professor Edelmann join us in our department.  He is a well-known scholar who has published in all the major journals in our field.  He not only adds to the existing strengths in the department by building bridges between many of our existing tracks but brings in new areas of interest.  Trained in classical languages and texts at Oxford, he is also a scholar of religion and science, and will be able to add to our repertoire of undergraduate and graduate courses.

#UFreligion was able to interview Dr. Edelmann asking questions about his personal and professional life. Here is that conversation:

Why did you go into religious studies in the first place? 

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I started out as a (Western) philosophy major as an undergraduate at the University of California-Santa Barbara because I wanted to better understand Western history, but over the course of study I found myself drawn to the Religious Studies department at UCSB. By the time I was applying for graduate school I’d taken a lot of religious studies class and decided that I wanted to build on my work in philosophy through the study of religion. I found that religious studies was a discipline in which one could undertake philosophical thinking, but also look at the larger cultural, ritual, theological, and social contexts in which philosophies were constructed and engaged. Furthermore, and most importantly, it was in religious studies that I found I could pursue my interests in Hindu and Buddhist philosophies since philosophy departments in the West tend (albeit not exclusively) to focus on Greek, European, and American contributions, but often times without looking at how these contexts were in part shaped by non-Wester thought. Religious studies, however, has the noble and cosmopolitan goal of embracing all cultural contributions.

Who was the single most influential person in your preparation for this career? Why? 

My parents have been the most influential. My father always supported my academic interests, however obscure. My mother has an innate philosophical interest and never tires of exploring new ideas. Those values were passed on to me. I’ve had so many wonderful gurus, professors, mentors, and advisors inside and outside the many wonderful places I’ve been in the USA, UK, Europe, and India, but my family is what has made it possible for me to learn from them.

Where did you graduate from? What’s one fond memory you have of your graduate student career? 

I earned a Ph.D. from Oxford University in 2008. I have so many fond memories of Oxford, a medieval and modern city, and an amazing university with near unlimited intellectual, cultural, religious, social and historical resources. I relished the quiet moments in Oxford’s many beautiful libraries, surround by books, fellow students, dons, and the rich history and culture that filled the spaces and sustained the university for almost 1000 years. I miss the conversations with other graduate students about our work, however obscure or unusual, in my College (Harris Manchester), at the Oxford Center for Hindu Studies, at lunches, in cafés, pubs, and common rooms. I miss gleaning decades of learning from faculty in tutorials, at garden parties in subfusc, or while briskly walking to a lecture.

What are your present/future research plans?

I have a number of projects underway. I am interested in 18th Gauḍīya Vaiṣṇava ethical reflections, particularly that of Viśvanātha Cakravartin and Kṛṣṇadeva Bhaṭṭācārya, and their interpretations of the early Gauḍīya’s, especially Rūpa and Jīva Gosvāmin. I am interested in how they rethought traditional relationships between bhakti and dharma.
I am also interested in making the Bhagavad Gītā’s commentarial tradition accessible to students and faculty. The Bhagavad Gītā is general taught in Religious Studies and Core Text courses, but there is little information about how the learned Indian tradition assimilated the text. If we don’t examine the commentaries we run the risk of interpreting the Bhagavad Gītā through our own hermeneutical perspective rather than that of the Hindu traditions themselves.
For some time I have been teaching Hindu and Buddhist conceptions of self and consciousness, and I wish to explore that further. I have also written on Western reductive theories of mind and Hindu conceptions of self. I hope to bring Hinduism, Buddhism, and Western scientific theories in closer conversation.
What drew you to UF’s program? 
UF has steadily built up a fantastic and highly regarded Ph.D. program in religious studies, making itself one of the stronger schools for Asian Studies. It also has the laudable record of interdisciplinary work, looking at the relation of philosophy and culture, religion and the environment, and Eastern religion in American contexts. Given the my own research in Hinduism, some of which has been interdisciplinary, I have known of Vasudha Narayanan’s, Bron Taylor’s, Whitney Sanford’s, Mario Pockeski’s and Gene R. Thursby’s work for many years. I was also impressed with some of the UF’s recently minted Ph.D.’s in religion.
 What are you most excited about in coming to UF/Gainesville? 

I am most looking forward to having a community of scholars with whom I share common intellectual interests and goals. I was impressed that all students take “The Good Life” as incoming freshmen, that the libraries are so well maintained, and that there are essential academic resources like museums and research centers that focus on specific areas of study. I am glad that the arts and humanities thrive inside the university and in the town of Gainesville as well.

My wife, Mariola Edelmann, and I also love subtropical weather, the natural beauty of Florida, and the town of Gainesville, which seems like a wonderful place to raise our children, Kavi and Māyā, who are most important to us.

What challenges have you faced, and what do you consider to be the most significant challenges facing the academic study of religion?

I think all scholars working in the humanities face the challenge of a national consciousness that is practically minded, one that is concerned with training young men and woman to fit specific professional profiles, especially in finance, the sciences, industry, and administration. The danger, however, is that we fail to reflect on the nature and purpose of those professions, that in our attention to the immediate economic needs we forget the larger human story and history, and we neglect to consider what is good and meaningful in life. Religion is certainly one of, but not the only, conduits through which questions of goodness, meaning, and purpose are addressed. I hope that we don’t neglect this kind of study.

What are the promises and opportunities in the field? 

The are unlimited opportunities for further study. In own area of study, Hinduism, is so new to Western consciousness, but has so much to offer.

What have you enjoyed most about your experience as a researcher and professor in the field of religious studies?

I consider myself an aspiring historian and philosophical thinker, someone who seeks to understands the textual and cultural aspects of particular intellectual traditions. As a historian I have the great fortune to live among the authors I so cherish through my reading, writing, and teaching. I also have the privilege to think about these traditions philosophically, seeing them as opening new spaces in Western thought and in my own conceptions of reality.

What is one book you would recommend to anyone interested in religious studies? 

I think the Bhagavad Gita still stands as one of the most interesting and comprehensive reflections on the nature of human religious experience. It explores a great number of ethical, metaphysical, social, and psychological issues. It has been read for centuries. It raises questions about life that we still reflect on today.

What is something most people probably would not know about you? 

I spent a transformative spring and summer backpacking in Wyoming after high school and still go back there when I am able.

What do you think of alligators? Any preference for alligator encounters? Why or why not? 🙂 
It reminds me that we still live among the ancients!