Today, most intellectuals agree that (a) Christianity has Profoundly influenced western culture: (b) members from different cultures experience many aspects of the World differently: (c) the empirical and theoretical study of body culture and religion emerged within the west.
The present study argues that these truisms have implications for the conceptualization of religion and culture. More specifically, the thesis is that non- Western cultures and religious differ from the descriptions prevalent in the West, and it is also explained why this has been the case. The author proposes novel analyses of religion, the Roman ‘religio’, the construction of ‘religions’ in India, and the nature of cultural differences. Religion is important to the West because the constitution and the identity of Western culture are tied to the dynamic of Christianity as a religion.
S.N. Balagangadhara is Professor and Director of the Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap at Ghent University, Belgium. The research Programme he developed during the last two decades aims to create an alternate framework for the study of different human cultures. One of its chief questions is: “What makes a difference into a cultural difference?”
In this book, my object of study is the western culture or, at least, one element influential in its formation: religion. Today, it is a commonplace, in anthropological theorizing in any case, that the anthropologist describes other cultures using concepts native to one's own culture. Truths in truisms often hide problems - and the above is no exception. How does the culture of the describer reflect itself in his or her descriptions of other cultures?
The present essay is a partial answer to this question. By looking at the way members of the western culture have described religions in India, I try to decipher what such portrayals tell us about the western culture, about western religions, and about religion itself. That is, I attempt to specify how much of what the West says about India is rooted in the western culture, and why it is so. Such an attempt - one that seeks to cover all the important dimensions of culture - is, of course, a large and ambitious programme. In the present work, I carry out the programme focusing on one facet of the western culture: religion.
There is a further tightening of focus. I pick out one particular theme as a guiding thread to this work: the claim that religion is a cultural universal. I will argue that this idea and others related to it (we will come across many of them during this book) have more to do with the western culture than with what human cultures are.
The Conventional Wisdom
Within the western culture, and among the intellectual layers of non- western cultures, it is widely believed that religion is a cultural universal. While accepting this is to entertain a truism, the common-sense wisdom of the contemporary West further assures us that, equally indubitably, many people in different parts of the world are irreligious. Atheism, agnosticism and ignorance of religious matters are widespread among the various cultures that constitute the humanity of today. Consequently, the claim about the universality of religion merely implies that native to each culture is some or another religion: Christianity to Europe; Islam to the Middle East; Hinduism, Buddhism, jainism, and Sikhism to India; Shintoism to Japan; Taoism to China; Buddhism - due to both its antiquity and the modifications it has undergone - to South and South-east Asia ... and so on.
Perhaps, we come nearer to describing this common-sense idea if we reformulate it thus: characteristic to cultures, and characterising their differences from one another, is their religion. Therefore, to some extent, differences between cultures can be explicated by speaking about the differences in their religion. Because religion is not merely a part of human cultures but also one of their constitutive moments, it makes sense to describe (though not exhaustively) cultural differences along the lines of religious differences. Religion is a cultural universal in the sense that some religion or another lends identity to a culture.
None of the above prevents one from acknowledging differences between religions. It appears to me that two types of differences are acknowledged in both common-sense talk and the intellectual parlance in the West. First, there is the kind of difference that exists among the Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) themselves. The difference between a Muslim and a Christian (for example, believing that Muhammad is the prophet or that Jesus is the Son of God) is said to be analogous to that between a Christian and a Hindu. The Hindu's belief in the incarnations of Vishnu parallels the beliefs of the Christian. More abstractly, different doctrines and practices distinguish religions from one another.
Partly overlapping with this idea, but also partly differing from it, is the recognition of a second type of difference. This allows one to speak of different kinds of religion. In one religion, say Christianity, holy books and churches play an important role. In another, say the Native American religions, both may be absent. Buddhism does not merely appear different from Islam because it is another religion; it also seems to be another kind of religion to the extent it denies the existence of gods. It is, however, not always clear what makes something not merely a different religion (in comparison with some religion or another), but also a different kind of religion. Nevertheless, I do not think that I am far off the mark in summarising the common-sense wisdom in the following way: not only are different religions present in human cultures, but also different kinds of religion.
The Theoretical Edifice
This common-sense wisdom appears to rest on the results of generations of anthropological fieldwork: after all, have not centuries of ethnography proved that 'Religion' favours no single culture but, like God, treats all the children of Adam alike? Two anthropologists, one rather famous and the other less well known, are sufficient to buttress this observation. Raymond Firth in his Elements of Social Organization (1951: 216) says:
Religion is universal in human societies. This is an empirical generalization, an aggregation of a multitude of specific observations (cited in Smith 1962: 203; n. 2).
Or, as Saliba (1976: 22) puts it bluntly:
Since religion is a universal phenomenon, any study of a society or a culture which aims at taking a holistic approach cannot ignore it.
Such claims are not limited to the anthropological domain alone. Just think of those scholars and their specialised journals devoted to the comparative study of religion. From the meaning of the corn pollens for the Navajo Indians (Raitt 1987) through the problem of evil and the existence of God (e.g. Johnson 1984), through the evidential foundations for miracle (e.g. Odegard 1982) to the role of the teacher in Indian traditions (Mlecko 1982), many themes grace the pages of journals like Religious Studies, The Journal of Religion, Religion, Numen, and so on.
Anthropologists and scholars from the century-old field of religious studies are not the only ones to believe in the universality of religion. Philosophers and social scientists - from yesteryears and contemporaneous - share this belief too. During the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, for example, the origin of religion in human civilizations was a major issue that preoccupied thinkers from several domains - from philosophy to psychoanalysis. Today, many more domains participate in deciphering the mystery that religion confronts us with. Sociobiologists provide speculative hypotheses about the genetic basis of religion (Wilson 1978; Wenegrat 1990); cognitive neuroscientists meditate about the nature of the human brain that creates religion (see Gazzaniga 1985); psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists have generated mountains of literature about the psychology (e.g. Thouless 1961; Byrnes 1984), the sociology (e.g. Wach 1944;Wilson, B. 1982;Wuthnow 1988) and the anthropology (e.g. Van Baal 1971; Morris 1987) of religion.
Let me sum up the consensus - and the concordance between theory and common sense - in a negative way thus: today it is almost sacrilegious to suggest that there might be cultures that do not have religion. However, this consensus has not been won without battle. In one sense, this issue has been alive for nearly two thousand years. In the debate about the existence or non-existence of religion in other cultures, many souls have participated by taking all imaginable positions. Even today, there is no universal consensus but it is not clear where the disagreement lies. In this work, I would like to examine both the nature of the existing consensus and the issues and questions that undergird the dispute. As a consequence, I hope that a new and different light is thrown on a topic that is in need of a great deal of clarification.
The Nature of the Journey
In the literal sense of the word, this essay is a journey in both space and time. Geographically, it flits between the two continents that Asia and Europe are. Temporally, it broadly picks out two thousand years of human history. Given the scope of the travel and its ultimate destination, a road map is perhaps needed to enable travellers to get off and on as they wish to. I will provide one very soon by describing the structure of the essay. Before that, however, a word or two from the guide may prove useful about such things as the entrance-fee, the travel routes, and the baggage one needs to bring along.
As it befits an organised tour, the baggage requirements are minimal. One needs merely to begin with the common-sense idea that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are religions, as are Buddhism and Hinduism. This is a very reasonable demand, because it is what we intuitively take to be the case. Any further baggage, such as some or an- other explicit definition of the concept of religion, is going to be strictly superfluous for the travel; it will not bring any additional comfort along the way. To those among you who would prefer to begin with a clear definition, I would suggest patience. All things have their place and time; definition is no exception either.
Secondly, despite organisation, the planning is not rigid. We will mostly travel the highways, but, when interesting, make forays into the by-lanes and the meadows, and at times even fare along the tributaries. Even though the sights that we will see are important, the journey itself is no less so. The nature of the journey is important enough to suggest a travel requirement - that one is prepared to enjoy the travel as much as visiting the landmarks.
The entrance fee is minimal too. It merely requires a willingness - to think along, to enjoy the journey, and to lend an ear to your guide.
What, then, is our destination? What routes shall we travel? Where are the rest houses, and where the sights? To answer these questions, I need to talk of ...
The Structure of the Book
Consider the following three statements: (a) Christianity has profoundly influenced the western culture; (b) members from different cultures seem to experience many aspects of the world differently; (c) the empirical and theoretical study of culture in general and religion in particular emerged within the West.
In the present study, I try to show that these generally accepted tru- isms have implications for the conceptualisation of religion and culture. More specifically, I argue two interdependent theses: first, the constitution and identity of the western culture are tied to the dynamic of Christianity as a religion; second, because of this, it is possible to provide a different description of non-western cultures and 'religions' than those prevalent in the West. I plan to do this, among other things, by taking Indian culture as an empirical example not only because I myself belong to this culture, but also because India is supposed to rank first in terms of the number of religions it is alleged to have (Wilson 1978: 170).
My strategy will be the following. First, I will argue that the common-sense wisdom about the universality of religion does not just rest on the results of research - it also supports them. That is, the idea that religion is a cultural universal is the foundation for empirical and theoretical enquiries into religion. I will suggest too that this peculiar circum- stance has hardly caught the eye of the students of religion. Second, I try to shed light on this state of affairs: why have generations of brilliant thinkers overlooked what, at first sight, looks like a massive exercise in petitio principia?
I hope to accomplish my task in the twelve chapters that make up the essay. Each chapter is a postulated landmark, signalling a shift in the kind of argument to follow. They are, in a manner of speaking, guest houses built for the travel-weary.
Chapter 1 introduces the theme and the general issues underlying it. By looking into the way contemporary authors describe different religions in several cultures, I attempt to specify questions that require satisfactory answering ere the investigation is closed. Even a random sampling of the literature points to the unease of modern-day writers; our problem is to localise it. An argumentative chain helps us here, because these authors appear to follow an inconsistent line of reasoning. In search of avenues to render them consistent, the subsequent three chapters set out in a historical direction.
In chapter 2, I take up the question of the dynamic of interaction between Christianity and the Roman religio. Through a contrast between the two, I lay the groundwork for tackling a whole set of issues and problems that will occupy us over the course of the essay. Neither here nor in the chapters to come, do I undertake a semantic analysis of 'religio' or 'religion' as concepts. My focus is on the object or the process referred to by these words. My aim is to begin the process of building a theory. Therefore, I look at the growth of Christianity, its relationship to the Roman religio, and the manner of its accommodation to the pagan milieu.
In chapters 3 and 4, we meet a mature Christianity and a confident European culture encountering Indian religions and people. Our sources are the well-known travel reports on the one hand, and the well-documented developments within European culture on the other. Again, my interest lies in deciphering Europe's image of itself and the other, as I see it revealed in the literature of the time. Together, these two chapters provide an outline sketch of Europe's discovery of religions in India. How did they find Hinduism and Buddhism? What did they find in them? Which were the multiple contexts of this interreligious encounter?
Taken together, these three chapters lay bare multiple questions - all of which require resolution. Regarding the theme of universality of religion, I argue that at least one conclusion is inescapable. By the time the German Romantic period draws to a close, we observe that the belief about the existence of religion in all cultures is not a result of empirical research. It is theoretically so certain that no empirical enquiry appears necessary.
To find out whether this is indeed the case, the next three chapters make a selection from the relevant literature. In this part, the tale changes tone: it is more thematic and less narrative in nature. The story shifts to the plane of anthropological theorising. It not only looks into the question of the origin of religion but also considers the theme of relating religion to experience. The naturalistic approach to the study of religion as initiated by Hume is the focus of the chapter 5. Authors like Schleiermacher, Soderblom, and Otto make their appearance in chapter 6.
Chapter 7 bundles the theoretical themes together. In doing so, a space is created for tackling yet another question: is the contemporary European culture itself, where religious dominance is on the wane and secular ideologies (atheism, freethinking) are more dominant, an example of a culture without religion? Answering this question depends on how one appreciates the process of 'secularisation'. Here, I slice this process in a fashion that is relevant for the theme of my essay.
At the end of chapter 7, many of the problems encountered in the earlier parts of the book begin to take a clearer shape. The theme about the universality of religion turns out to be a strand in a much bigger pattern, namely the extent to which religious theses have the status of uncontested and uncontestable certainties. Although this is the global problem, to which the second half of the book attempts to provide a solution, the theme itself never disappears. The general problem is also posed in the following way: why have intellectuals continued to believe in the universality of religion when there is neither theoretical nor empirical evidence in favour of it?
As an answer, one could trot out thousands of monographs that have studied religion elsewhere (see Firth's citation above). Beforedoing so, one needs to be sure that what they have studied in other cultures - surely, they have studied much - is also religion and not, say, an elaborate ceremonial preparation for some kind of dinner feast. Demanding such a guarantee requires a definition of the concept of religion - or so it appears.
Chapters 8 through 10 collectively tackle the problem of definition. They also move beyond it by providing a hypothesis that has empirical and theoretical consequences. My proposal not only helps us go for- ward in our quest to build a theory about religion, but also in tackling the issues that the first seven chapters have brought to light.
In chapter 8, the plot of the earlier chapters is picked up and is conceptually carried well into the last decade of the twentieth century. This period is the theatre where stories from the earlier centuries end up meeting. The meeting point also helps raise and answer the question of how to go about studying religion without providing an explicit definition first. I focus on the definitional problem from two perspectives. The first one shows that the definitional issue, in fact, has several sub-issues. The second perspective locates each of these within the framework of my story. The problem of defining religion is solved in this chapter. At the same time, a platform is also provided for building a rudimentary hypothesis about religion.
Because of my stance that a study of religion should not begin with presuppositions specific to the object under investigation - that is, with some or another explicit definition of religion - we are confronted with the issue of identifying the object of study. Chapters 2 through 4 come to our rescue in chapter 9. What had appeared as an empirical narration of the relation between Christianity and pagan Rome, and that between the West and India, carries a solution to an epistemological problem. Using this solution, I formulate a hypothesis about religion and spell out the conditions of adequacy that any such hypothesis has to meet. Having shown why religion is a particular kind of account, my proposal sheds light on the many dimensions considered vital to religion: faith and its relation to belief; interreligious rivalries as well as ecumenism; the nature of religious experience; worship; atheistic religiosity and the claim that one cannot study religion without being a believer oneself.
The truth in the last claim forces us to go looking for a more neutral description of religion. 'Worldview' is the nearest candidate we have for the job. Chapter 10 scrutinizes the fitness of this candidate. At this stage, we see what is interesting about the theme of universality of religion. Our question becomes: Do all cultures have or need worldviews to navigate themselves in the world? In one sense, answers to this question complete our investigation into the theme. However, the arguments used to provide the answer make the resolution of the global problem ever more urgent.
Chapter 11, although hypothetical and tentative in nature, expands the thesis about religion much further. Such an elaboration also generates testable consequences. The relationship between religion and the formation of the western culture is the problem to investigate; a comparative science of cultures is on the agenda of the future. In many senses, this chapter takes us beyond the confines of the present essay. However, what makes it a part of the essay is that, besides being programmatic, the proposed hypothesis also generates questions and tentative answers as they relate to the theme under discussion.
Chapter 12, the concluding chapter, reflects upon one facet of the methodological issue that comparative enterprises confront. This consideration helps clean the Aegean stables: it hints at what a comparative science of cultures must look like - and what it means to ask for one. By the end of the essay, I hope to have shown why the question about the universality of religion is an important question - and what its importance is.
The above paragraphs are meant as a rough sketch of both the travel route and the end of the journey. It might not be out of place to prepare you further for the coming travel by saying a word or two regarding the style employed in the essay. To this task, I now turn.
Voices and Minds
The entire essay is a sustained meditation on the theme of universality of religion and has the form of one continuous and extended argument. Like most arguments, this essay is addressed to an audience. The convention, or the presupposition, accepted while writing scientific treatises is that one writes impersonally - in the third person as it were - for what Perelman (1977: 14) calls 'the universal audience'. That is, one addresses those who are competent and reasonable. I should like to state at the outset that I am not speaking to the 'universal audience' but to a smaller subset: western intelligentsia and western-trained intellectuals from other cultures. They claim that religion is a cultural universal; they come with arguments and proofs. If my ideas bear up to scrutiny, most of the 'competent and reasonable' people from cultures other than the West cannot make much sense of the pronouncements of this smaller group. Therefore, my disputation will be with a specific kind of audience, irrespective of whether it fancies itself as 'the universal audience' or not.
I have tried to signal this state of affairs throughout the essay by eschewing an impersonal style. I am not addressing 'the reader' but you who belong to this subgroup; the 'we' in the text refers neither to the royal 'we' nor to an abstract group, but to 'you' and 'I'. Some among you might find it both annoying and insulting that I treat 'the reader' with a great deal of familiarity. My only answer is that I am indeed familiar with this group and hence the familiar mode of addressing.
This is not merely a question of style, but also of content. My aim is to show that a provincial experience of a small segment of humanity does not become universal by decree. Nor does a specific group become 'the universal audience' by merely pretending to be one. In terms of a metaphor, contra Perelman, one disembodied mind is not addressing other disembodied minds in this essay. Nor is there any striving for a 'meeting of the minds.' In this essay, a voice speaks while allowing other voices to join in a disputation. What you have on your hands is an argument, in the full sense of the term, between people who speak and vocalise their ideas. As is inevitable in disputations conducted by people, at times the discussions get heated up. In the process, now and then, voices are raised - human, all too human.
Even though this particular work has been in the making for quite a few years now, its significance lies in the project of which it is but a part. That unconcluded project, on which I have been working even longer, is within the broad domain of comparative anthropology. This study in its entirety is part of a broader project that seeks to provide a partial description of the West against the background of an Asian culture. Consequently, though the essay can stand alone, it is neither self- sufficient nor complete. Therefore, it keeps implicitly pointing to empty spaces and unbuilt structures. It is my hope to return to the work-site, with a larger crew if possible, alone otherwise - if not tomorrow, then at least the day after.
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