January 25, 2021

The Academic Discipline of “Religion” − A Colonial Pursuit into the Epistemological Accountability of Historians

We need to bring up the subject of epistemological accountability of historians and anthropologists of religions that seem to have all but emerged as a primary concern in the academic discipline of religions in the present times.
Keywords: Religion | Academics | Culture | Study | Morals | Colonial | Ritualistic | Western | Christianity | Hinduism | Faith | Orient | Civilisation | Rational | Historians | Spiritual  
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The premise of the academic study of religions relied on a colonial pursuit marked by the necessity to regulate resources, both human and economic. As a result of this pursuit rose the colonial manipulations of ‘religion’. The categorisation of “Religion” enabled the European struggle with cultural pluralism that went with the increased contact with alleged uncivilised and unusual societies. The Western theoretical approach sought to form a universal  one-size-fits-all notion of human ritualistic conduct and faith structures. Assumptions in themselves help mould the structure of any discipline, but pertaining to the concept of ‘religion’, presumptions have dictated to a huge extent the very core of its object of study and often at the  cost of social reality.

The notions that developed throughout the history of the study of religions throw more light on the framework of Western culture and morals at the  time than about its purposive object of study. To elucidate, the idea of ‘religion’ is an outcome of historically and culturally-specific expansion  of Western Christianity, and as Balagangadhara has observed, Christianity largely served for Western scholars as the model example of a religion, providing a fundamental benchmark for interpretation of ‘other religions’. Colonial interventions in the study of modern ‘Hinduism’ illustrate this emthodology.

An important question that arises here, is “How do scholars working within the discipline employ their Eurocentric notions about religious and cultural systems in non-Western contexts?”

Michel Foucault and Edward Said have criticised “instrumentalization of power and knowledge” in the academic study of religion in the context of colonialization. Foucault’s work underlines the power relations involved in an epistemology which proclaims all truth claims suspect. As a critic of the modern project of  European civilisation, Foucault questions the inherent and taken-for-granted authoritative systems of power that administer and mould individual identities, or ‘docile bodies’ of knowledge. If academic disciplines are regimes of power, then the study of religions as a discipline is a “technique for assuring the ordering of multiplicities … used as procedures of partitioning and verticality … Disciplines also define hierarchical networks … bring into play the power relations, not above but inside the very texture of the multiplicity” (Foucault 1977:218-20). In Said’s account of the colonial body of knowledge which he  labels Orientalism, he affirms that the central hierarchical rift between the East and West, apparent in much of European interpretation of the ‘Orient’, strengthened the motives and rationalisation of colonial conquest (Said 2004:60-2).

From the viewpoint of Orientalist conceptions, religions in the ‘Orient’ were understood to be eternal and unvarying, far away from the frame of historical, social, and cultural contexts − in contrast to the Eurocentric conception of history, religion, and culture that is fortified by the rigid belief in the progressive advancement of Western society (King 1999:91). What became obvious for anti-Orientalist, post-colonial theorists today is the divergence between the constructed academic imageries of certain Asian and African ‘religions’ and the lived realities of those who inhabit the ‘Orient’. However, far from remaining passive objects, those apparently representing Oriental ‘religions’ built by colonial administrators, missionaries, and scholars, paradoxically, employed and attacked Orientalist thoughts through various anti-imperialist projects. This is demonstrative of the effect ‘Hinduism’ had, as an Orientalist construct on contemporary India and national identity.

Currently, ‘Hinduism’ has been taken evidently to signify a faith practiced by a majority of Indian population. While used by the native Indians themselves before the European conquest, the denomination ‘Hindu’ did not imply a definite religiosity before the nineteenth century’s  Orientalist impact (Chaterjee 1992:147). As a Western illustrative construct, ‘Hinduism’ was born out of the British legal nomenclature to identify and govern the religious “Other” in India who was not a Muslim, Christian, Parsee or  Jew (King 1999:99). Dividing (and as a consequence, constructing) identities along religious lines suited the canonical attitude in modern Britain concerning matters of marriage and divorce, property, and religious worship.

A good number of the early translators and interpreters of Indian texts were European Christian missionaries, who, in their translations and critical publications of Indian scruptures, played a substantial role in constructing a homogenised and reductionist written canon through the Indian sources (Frykenberg 1991:40). Thus, the Indian religious traditions of the oral and ‘popular’ variety were either ignored or demeaned as a degradation of contemporary Hindu religion into superstitious practices that did not match ‘their’ own writings.

European colonial influences left a long-term impression on Indian culture that can be felt to this day. As stated by Richard King, two of the lasting images of Eastern ‘religions’ marked by western thought are on the one hand the mystical spirituality in contrast to the utilitarian secularism of the modern world , and on the other,  a regressive fundamentalism. These speculative contradictions circulated as part of European influence soon were adopted as ideological weapons against colonial power − the claim that ‘Hinduism’ can be sensibly denoted as the religion of ‘Hindu’ people was sustained by many of the founders of modern India, Mohandas Gandhi and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan (King 1999:98).

The term ‘Hinduism’, however, is useful to permit a superficial understanding of various Indian traditions at an introductory level. While there is little agreement on the most fitting use of ‘Hinduism’ as a signifier, there is little divergence on the rejection of essentialism and the acknowledgement of the heterogeneity of Indian religious phenomena as underlined by postcolonial critics of the study of religion. Bringing forth these issues can help curb the cultural and political elitism that propagates an idealised ‘Hinduism’ and possibly hear the voices of many who are lumped together under this blanket identity.

So, where do we go from here? We need to bring up the subject of epistemological accountability of historians and anthropologists of religions that seem to have all but emerged as a primary concern in the academic discipline of religions in the present times. Self-regard, epistemic honour, and institutional power disparities on a universal level that underpin problematic notions about ‘religion’ have gone predominantly uncontested in universities and in political discourse. Assisting students and societies become aware of history and sensitised to the diversity of representations of spiritual traditions can break down dominant views about the distinct, essentialist nature of human cultures that have been formulated by colonial political engineers. There is a lot on the discursive level that scholars of religious studies can do, but this should be the duty of inheritance that requires an inter-discursive discussion across many levels to reveal a shared rethinking about ‘religion’ and its position in social reality.

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Manisha Sarade

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