Posts

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Disenchanting India

This week, Ella Bock tells us why she thinks you should re-listen to our interview with Johannes Quack on Indian Rationalism, and a Relational Approach to Non-religion: “A great listen for better understanding the boundary between religion and non-religion, especially outside of a western context!”

Indian Rationalism, and a Relational Approach to Nonreligion

It is an unfortunate fact that in popular ‘Western’ imagination, the land of India is frequently orientalised, and naively conceptualized as ‘the quintessential land of religion, spirituality, and miracles.’ Although we would certainly not want to completely invert this stereotype by substituting one unnuanced and inaccurate construct for another, what happens when we take a closer look at a constituency who challenge this narrative, those who identify as ‘rationalists’ and engage in the criticism of ‘religion’ in India? One scholar who has done just that is Johannes Quack in his book Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India, published by Oxford in 2012. In this podcast, we discuss Johannes’ ‘relational’ approach to ‘nonreligion,’ before moving to concrete examples from his work in India.

What is a ‘relational approach’ to nonreligion? What does it achieve? What are some of the key characteristics of organized rationalism in India? What does all of this have to do with ‘religion’, ‘non-religion’, ‘atheism’ etc? What does this in-depth ethnographic work in this very particular context contribute to wider academic debates within the study of nonreligion, and religion more broadly?

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, magic wands, faux leather belts and more!

Of Demon Kings and Protestant Yakṣas

Let me begin by saying that this is not a critique, but an effort to contribute to a conversation about issues that have affected me personally as a scholar. In particular, I want to suggest a few approaches that might be straws for the fire in the evolving discourse regarding “Protestant Buddhism” and the general influence of colonialism on Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

My most personal experience in regard to the issues raised by the Religious Studies Project interview with Stephen Berkwitz came while doing research on warfare with Pāli scholars. Again and again, as I directed their attention to jātakas in which the Buddha was a warrior, they would tell me that no such jātaka could exist. Their impression of Buddhist pacifism was so strong that, even though their knowledge of Pāli literature was vastly superior to my own, it had created a blind spot for aspects of their own tradition. It is my impression, [one that might be fruitfully disputed], that that blind spot is a result of the war-weary West’s idealization of Buddhists as the perfect pacifist other. This idealization offered colonized peoples a new and highly attractive moral superiority, which they brilliantly wielded as an act of cultural self-defense. But the power of this naïve Euro-American projection also deprived Sri Lankan’s of the valuable cultural resources that it eclipsed. That blind spot does not obscure the “dark side of Buddhism,” as one recent scholar called the ethics of violence that seem to emerge when we look at Buddhist narrative literature, but rather obscures a richly nuanced and flexible ethic that might have provided rich resources for Sri Lanka’s civil war and postwar reconciliation. There could not be more at stake for the nation that gave the world the suicide-bomber. A similar kind of effect can be seen among young Tibetan refugees, many of whom reject Buddhism, generally blaming its pacifism, a pacifism that never existed, for the loss of their country. The disappointment of Western pacifists here is not unlike the reaction of early Orientalists who, disappointed by the ritualism and deity-worship they found in living Buddhist cultures, described a degenerate Buddhism.[1]

One of the uncomfortable aspects of these kinds of critiques, including my own, is that once again Western scholars seem to claim the high ground and reveal Sri Lankans as passive victims of false consciousness. However, we should remember that cultural heroes like Dharmapala and Walpola Rahula [whose What the Buddha Taught is still found in undergraduate syllabi and dharma-center curricula] knew our languages, culture, values, scriptures and scholarship, including everything ever written about Buddhism in the West, far better than we knew theirs. They exerted great influence on the presentation of their tradition and, along with Neo-Vedānta, powerfully influenced American and European thought. This was not a passive or even merely reactive endeavor. In my experience, Sri Lanka is extraordinary among post-colonial nations for the cosmopolitanism, power and sophistication of its intellectuals. Dharmapala was perfectly poised to open up a can of whoop-ass on naïve Americans at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Buddha taught evolution! Any image of colonials passively subjected to Western influence should be balanced by the embarrassing naiveté and false consciousness this whole discourse reveals among the colonizers and the powerful role seized by Sri Lankans in the representation of their own world.[2]

The whole issue of “Protestant Buddhism” needs to be considered from multiple dimensions that can get mixed up. Any reformulation of Buddhism tuned to Western sensibilities would by implication be tuned to Protestant and scientific biases. Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught is a brilliant adaptation to these biases. The reformulation of Buddhism that was tuned to Western needs, biases, and weaknesses, was also tuned to the needs of Westernized Sri Lankan intellectuals and helped draw them back to Buddhism. So, one dimension of the construction of “Protestant Buddhism” is the Protestantized, pacifist, and scientific image of Buddhism integral to dialogue with the West, including the indigenous Westernized intellectuals who were situated in between worlds. This construction was enhanced by the fact that Sri Lankan intellectuals, who were attracted to this image for many of the same reasons, presented themselves as representative of the tradition as such. These figures may have had more influence on the Western perception of Buddhism than they did on their own country’s.

Buddhists at a stūpa in Kandy worshipping the Hindu deity Kartikeya (photo by Stephen Jenkins)

Sometimes it seems that we mix up our own romantic Protestantized image of Buddhism with what we are pointing toward in Sri Lankan culture. There are useful and intelligent reasons to use the descriptor “Protestant” in describing modern changes in Theravāda Buddhism, but any observer expecting to find Rahula’s Buddhism in Sri Lanka is much more likely to be shocked by how un-Protestant, even un-Theravādin, Buddhism in Sri Lanka really is. It is hard to fit Avalokiteśvara, an obsession with yakṣas, the integral worship of “Hindu” deities, and so on into an image of the bare white New England church. On the other hand, the Theravāda Buddhism that became the stock in trade of every Introduction to Buddhism class strikes me as very Protestant indeed. I look forward to reading Stephen Berkwitz’s new book about the poet Alagiyavanna, who eventually converted to Catholicism and sounds like an early example of a Sri Lankan scholar caught between worlds.

Vibhishana Crowned by Rama at Kelaniya (Photo by Stephen Jenkins)

Vibhishana Crowned by Rama at Kelaniya (Photo by Stephen Jenkins)

One of the most salient things about Sri Lanka is that the dominant majority feels like a threatened minority. Perhaps this is a more recent phenomenon, but it reminds me of how important India has been in shaping Sinhala identity. Traveling in Sri Lanka, I was struck by the presence of Vibhīṣana, the brother of the demon King Rāvana, at Buddhist sacred sites. In the Rāmāyaṇa, Vibhīṣana is portrayed as the good Rākṣasa that advises his brother to surrender Sri Lanka to the ideal Hindu King, Rāma. Although the Rāmāyaṇa did not have great currency among Sinhalese Buddhists, Vibhīṣana was deliberately utilized by Buddhist Kings as a model for their submission to the imperial power of South India whose Kings modeled themselves on Rāma.[3] This response demonstrates a self-conscious and sophisticated approach to manipulating and utilizing the ideals of the outsider as a practical technique for moderating their negative impact. The story of Sri Lanka’s contention with destructive invasive violence and outside imperialist ambitions long precedes Western colonialism. So, I close by wondering whether it might be useful to consider whether the earlier relationship with the once expansive power of South India has anything to tell us, even by way of contrast, about the evolution of Sri Lanka’s adaptation to colonialist forces.

[1] For a more extended rant on these issues see Stephen Jenkins. “A Review Essay on The Range of the Bodhisattva, A Mahāyāna Sūtra,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 2014.

[2] For a longer discussion see Stephen Jenkins, “Black Ships, Blavatsky, and the Pizza Effect: Critical Self Consciousness as a Thematic Foundation,” in Teaching Buddhism in the West: From the Wheel to the Web, Curzon Press, ed., Victor Hori, 2002.

[3] I recently discovered the work of Jonathan Walters on Vibhīṣana and he was kind enough to forward a copy of this fascinating article. Walters, Jonathan S. 1990-1994. “Vibhisana and Vijayanagar: An Essay on Religion and Geopolitics in Medieval Sri Lanka.” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities 17 and 18, nos. 1 and 2 (Special Jubilee Issue): 129-142.

“The Last Word…?” A Response to Bruce Lincoln’s interview on “The Critical Study of Religion”

First, let me say how pleased I am to be asked to respond to Professor Lincoln’s interview. Lincoln’s work was a tremendous inspiration for me as a beginning graduate student back in the 1990s, and it has provided a continuing source of provocation, reflection, and productive engagement for my own research over the last two decades.

There were several things that I appreciated about this interview. First, it was invaluable to hear some of the historical and biographical context for several of Lincoln’s seminal works, such as the story behind his “Theses on Method” and his reflections on Discourse and the Construction of Society (a book that I still use regularly in my own classes). Second, I very much appreciated his thoughts on pedagogy and the continuities between his approach to scholarship and his approach to the classroom. As a long-time teacher of religious studies at a large state university, I have always drawn inspiration from Lincoln’s serious, thoughtful, often argumentative, and yet always stimulating pedagogical style.

Finally, as with all of Lincoln’s writings and public talks, I very much admire the clarity and precision of his language.  Whether one agrees with him or not, Lincoln is an exceptionally clear, direct, and incisive speaker; there is never any excess verbiage or obfuscating jargon, simply a straightforward, articulate, and often passionate marshaling of evidence in service of well-reasoned argument.  I was particularly struck by the elegance of Lincoln’s concluding remarks on the critical study of religion. I think he is largely correct to say that the academic study of religion has long been characterized by an uncritical, feel-good sort of approach that has for the most part failed to ask more difficult, unsettling, and irreverent questions about religious claims: “Religion is a really powerful force in world history and a very complicated entity. I think it’s in need of serious critical study that isn’t eager to put the best face on the phenomenon, that doesn’t want to assert coherence and meaning and beauty and comfort but is prepared to see contradiction, ideology, self-interest, social and political forces of less than wholesome nature as at least part of the complex entity that is religion.” I could not agree more with this statement and very much hope that other scholars will be inspired to take up Lincoln’s challenge.

I do not have a great deal in the way of critical comments on Lincoln’s interview. Instead, I simply want to raise some provocative questions in the hope that these might inspire some discussion and debate among readers. In particular, I want to highlight one point of apparent tension – though a productive tension, I think – in Lincoln’s comments. This came up several times in the interview and particularly in the juxtaposition between Lincoln’s discussion of critical scholarship and his discussion of pedagogy. In the latter, Lincoln described his pedagogical style as one of conversation and argumentation rather than monologue, in which no one has the final answer on a given topic: “I like to argue with people. I don’t like monologues. I don’t like my own monologues. I don’t like other people’s monologues. I think they’re boring, and I think they’re evasive. I think challenge, riposte, conversation is where intellectual work takes place…The task is to say we’re colleagues and we have some issues we care about, and none of us have a final word on it.”

This approach to pedagogy appears to be in some tension with Lincoln’s discussion of critical scholarship in the interview. Here, again, he acknowledges the need for respectful conversation with religious practitioners: “I think we owe them the respect one owes to every human being, and that is of a serious conversation.”  Yet he also makes a strong claim to have “the last word” in this conversation: “The first level” of critique, he suggests, “is who has the last word. As a scholar writing for scholars, I think scholars have the last word and that the testimony of believers is evidence with which scholars pursue their work. But I grant no particular privilege to the testimony of those who are committed to a given faith of one sort or another.” This sentiment is echoed, I think, in Lincoln’s “Theses on Method,” particularly thesis number 13: “When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood…one has ceased to function as historian or scholar.”

I would like to raise two sets of critical questions here. First, can one really engage in a “serious conversation” in which one always has “the last word”? Or is that perhaps a “misrecognized monologue,” to use Lincoln’s terms? And what are the potential political implications of the assertion that scholars “have the last word”? As someone who has worked extensively on colonial India and on British and European Orientalist scholarship on Hinduism, I have to say that any claims to having the last word make me uncomfortable. After all, nineteenth century British Orientalists also claimed to have the “last word” on Indian religions, and that word typically went hand in hand with the project of imperialism. Challenges to Orientalist representations of India, in turn, came not only from later and more careful scholars, but also from religious practitioners, Hindu reformers, and others – and not only from elites such as Rammohun Roy, Vivekananda, Tagore, and Gandhi, but also from ordinary “subaltern” folk, peasants, tribals, etc. The result was a far more complex cross-cultural conversation that involved “scholars” and “believers” alike in messy and ambiguous ways.  I don’t think that acknowledging this fact means that we allow the religious believer to “have the last word” or to “define the terms in which they will be understood.” It simply means that we need to reflect critically on our own terms of understanding as well as those of religious practitioners (a point also made in the ninth of Lincoln’s “Theses on Method:” “Critical inquiry….ought probe scholarly discourse and practice as much as any other”).

This leads to my second question. Lincoln’s approach works well with cases that are long ago or far away, which is primarily the kind of material that he analyzes (with the exception of pieces such as his essay on the Lakota Sun Dance). But does it work as well with cases of living practitioners or ethnographic encounters, in which the scholar forms complex human relationships with religious adherents who may at times seriously disagree with the scholar’s “last word” or the academic terms in which they are understood? Moreover, does his approach allow enough space for the possibility that one’s own theoretical presuppositions may have to be rethought as a result of encounter with other religious lives?

To cite just one alternative example, a rather different sort of approach is suggested by Saba Mahmood in her work on the women’s piety movement in Egypt. The ethnographic approach that Mahmood proposes rests on a principle of “humility” and on “a mode of encountering the Other which does not assume that in the process of culturally translating other lifeworlds one’s own certainty can remain stable” (The Politics of Piety, p.199). Rather than imposing the theoretical apparatus of liberal feminism onto these Muslim women, Mahmood offers a model of reflexive conversation that allows her own academic assumptions to be challenged and rethought as a result of the exchange: “[I]t is through this process of dwelling in the modes of reasoning endemic to a tradition that I once judged abhorrent that I have been able to dislocate the certitude of my own projections and even begin to comprehend why Islamism …exerts such a force in people’s lives. This attempt at comprehension offers the slim hope in this embattled and imperious climate, one in which feminist politics runs the danger of being reduced to a rhetorical display of the placard of Islam’s abuses, that analysis as a mode of conversation, rather than mastery, can yield a vision of coexistence that does not require making another lifeworlds extinct or provisional” (ibid).

Of course, one could legitimately argue that Mahmood also overcorrects a bit on this point: that is, she largely renders her informants immune from critique and downplays the asymmetries of power at work in the women’s piety movement itself. Nonetheless, she does offer an approach that does not necessarily claim to have the last word, but instead asks the scholar to subject her own theoretical assumptions to critical scrutiny, reflection, and possibility of change.

So I would like to end with a final question that might perhaps inspire some further discussion from readers. Does critical scholarship of the sort Lincoln proposes really demand that we insist on the “last word”? Or could it also proceed along the lines that Lincoln suggests in his pedagogy, as an ongoing, critical, and yet self-reflective conversation in which “none of us have a final word on it?”  Again, my questions here are not meant to be damning criticisms of Lincoln’s work or of his comments in the interview. Rather, they are merely intended to provoke some additional debate, in keeping with Lincoln’s observation that “challenge, riposte, conversation is where intellectual work takes place.”

References

Lincoln, Bruce. “Theses on Method.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 8 (1996): 225-27.

______. Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual and Classification. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Urban, Hugh B. Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.
____. The Power of Tantra: Religion, Sexuality and the Politics of South Asian Studies. New York: Palgrave/ MacMillan, 2010.

At the Limits of Orientalism: The Politics and Problems of Labelling in the Career of Michael A. Cook

Few scholars in the discipline of Islamic Studies could claim to be as qualified as Michael Cook to advise students on the matter of early career publications. For many years, Professor Cook has exerted a prominent and powerful presence in the fields of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, where he has distinguished himself as both an accomplished specialist and an engaged comparativist. Yet while there can be little doubt as to the scope or sophistication of Professor Cook’s eminent contributions to his field, the author himself continues to be remembered primarily in relation to his early collaboration with Patricia Crone, Hagarism. Almost forty years after the work’s publication, the project which Cook in this interview describes as a ‘youthful idea’ continues to provoke controversy and division. Having so vigorously rocked the academic boat early in his career, Cook later changed tack gracefully when he realised that he had set a course in the wrong direction. Even so, it is not uncommon today to encounter Cook’s name clustered alongside Crone’s under the title of ‘neo-Orientalists’, a categorisation that in Cook’s case is generally justified with reference to Hagarism alone. And, indeed, the methodological premise of Hagarism – that is, that the rise of Islam can be most accurately documented on the basis of non-Muslim sources contemporary with the rise of Islam read at the exclusion of, rather than in conversation with, later Muslim sources – falls easily within Said’s characterisation of Orientalism as the arrogation to Western scholars of the right to speak ‘for’ the Orient. Indeed, the Orientalist project of Hagarism is of a double sort, in that it arrogates representational power of the Muslim to the non-Muslim at both the level of primary and secondary sources, a move that appears to assume the incapacity of Muslims for engaged scholarly enquiry about their own history.

Yet if Hagarism – a work published just one year before Said’s Orientalism – remains an example of Orientalist scholarship par excellence, the caricature of its author as a ‘neo-Orientalist’ some thirty-five years later is less convincing. Far from encouraging a rigorous engagement with Cook’s subsequent scholarship, such a classification seems to justify its relegation to the status of imperialistic irrelevance. Such an easy dismissal might be seen as an ‘Orientalizing’ of the ‘Orientalist’, in both the sense of speaking ‘for’ him and in the sense of rendering him ahistorical, a figure whose contemporary contributions are perceived as merely continuous with a trajectory set deep in the intellectual past. Yet not only has Cook repeatedly distanced himself from his early thesis in Hagarism, his later works are a far cry from the contemporary ‘neo-Orientalism’ of individuals such as the ultra-conservative Zionist, Daniel Pipes, alongside whom his name occasionally appears. Ironically, Pipes is among the few Western intellectuals who continues to reference Hagarism in support of his (generally polemical) political arguments.

If the flippant dismissal of Cook’s impressive scholarship under the heading of ‘Orientalism’ is neither warranted nor desirable, there remains the question of just how Hagarism was, to borrow Cook’s words, ‘formative’ for his later scholarly approach. Here, it is worth elaborating a little further on the ‘radical skepticism’ that Cook references as the backdrop for the writing of Hagarism at SOAS in the late 1970s. The crucial and unmentioned figure here is John Wansbrough, the Harvard-educated advisor to both Cook and Crone whose radically revisionist interpretation of early Islam as a Jewish-influenced sectarian movement in his 1977 Qur’anic Studies provided the touchstone for Hagarism’s thesis. Perhaps no less critical to Cook’s early intellectual development is Bernard Lewis, who served as Cook’s dissertation advisor and who must be credited, in part, with steering his approach and explanatory framework in the direction of intellectual history. Lewis, who is notable not only for his role as a foreign policy consultant to the Bush administration after 9/11 but also for being one of the only Western scholars to still identify as an ‘Orientalist’, remains a central yet highly conservative figure in Islamic Studies, a status confirmed in no small part by his persistent and at times highly venomous opposition to the works of Edward Said.

Hagarism was the product of a highly particular scholarly environment permeated both by an emerging radicalism and a deep traditionalism within the field of Islamic Studies. Novel in its willingness to engage contemporary non-Muslim sources in the study of early Islamic history, the work nevertheless retained many of the characteristics of highly traditional Orientalist scholarship of the genre still espoused by Professor Lewis: an emphasis on textual sources in the study of religion; a focus on the early development of the religion as critical to understanding Islam’s distinctive ‘essence’; a privileging of ‘civilisation’ as the fundamental unit of analysis; and a lack of attention to questions of power and politics as they pertained to the emergence of normative understandings of critical concepts, both within and outside the traditions under analysis. Undergirding this approach is the persistent influence of the Rankean strand of scientific historicism, an intellectual debt underscored by Princeton anthropologist Lawrence Rosen, who critiques Cook for his promulgation of the Rankean catchcry, “facts speak for themselves”.1

While I am hesitant, for reasons suggested above, to join with Rosen in labelling Cook an ‘Orientalist’, there are aspects of the latter’s recent work that indeed evoke traces of the more traditional approach described above. As one example, we might take Cook’s Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong (2001), an impressive volume that is the result of more than 15 years of meticulous research and whose footnotes put even Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire philosophique to shame. While the rigour and value of Cook’s recent volume are extraordinary, two aspects of the work’s structure and methodology stand out as conspicuously traditional in their assumptions. First, there is the question of chronology. Cook characteristically begins his analysis from the earliest sources, and continues his textual sifting up to the end of ‘classical’ Islam in the twelfth century CE. From here, the text leaps abruptly into the eighteenth century. This structural choice leaves the reader with the distinct (and, to my mind, misleading) impression that modern Islam can be best understood with reference to its earliest origins and development in what have survived as ‘mainstream’ texts (a term never explicitly defined or justified by Cook), while bracketing out the messier questions about Islam’s interrelations with other intellectual systems (including ‘heretical’ ones), as well as the impact of culture, politics, and economics upon its development. Second, having masterfully delineated the tensions and diversity within the genealogy of this concept in Islamic history, Cook then attempts to force these threads back together in a chapter tellingly entitled: ‘What is Distinctive about the Islamic Case’. Cook’s concern to discover the sine qua non of the Islamic concept of commanding right and forbidding wrong – a precept which Cook believes to be “found embedded (though not necessarily articulated) in just about all human cultures”2 – appears to lead him to fuse together two distinct positions mapped out in the first section of his work, a fusion that does justice neither to the complexity of Cook’s analysis, nor to the adherents of these two positions themselves, who might well have resisted being categorised together under the rubric of the ‘distinctively’ Islamic.3 Similarly surprising, given the complexity of the evidence examined, is Cook’s concluding remark that “Islam, within certain limits, tells people what to believe and how to live; liberalism, within certain limits, is about leaving them to work this out for themselves”.4 In light of Cook’s attentive treatment of Islamic conceptions of privacy within his discussion, this statement appears as a blatant oversimplification – perhaps more consistent with what modern Islamists and modern liberals say about themselves than with the experiential and historical realities of either system.

While it is not difficult to perceive, in Professor Cook’s more recent work, traces of a more traditional approach to Islamic Studies, the rigour and meticulousness that characterise his scholarship provide an exemplary model for young scholars and caution against the intellectual torpor that results, more often than not, from overhasty characterisations and inadequate critical engagement. Throughout a long and at times tempestuous career, Professor Cook has retained his unwavering commitment to the practice of thorough scholarship based on an extensive and close mastery of primary materials, including their languages. And while his emphasis that ‘bigger things do rest on smaller things’ may stand at odds with an increasingly instrumentalised and production-focused culture in the humanities, the discipline and patience at evidence in Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong provides a timely reminder of the valuable aspects of traditional academic approaches.

 


  1.  Lawrence Rosen, ‘Orientalism Revisited: Edward Said’s Unfinished Critique,’ https://www.bostonreview.net/rosen-orientalism-revisited, 1 January 2007. 
  2.  Michael Cook, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 562 
  3. Ibid., 583. 
  4.  Ibid., 514. 

Podcasts

Editors’ Picks, Summer 2018: Disenchanting India

This week, Ella Bock tells us why she thinks you should re-listen to our interview with Johannes Quack on Indian Rationalism, and a Relational Approach to Non-religion: “A great listen for better understanding the boundary between religion and non-religion, especially outside of a western context!”

Indian Rationalism, and a Relational Approach to Nonreligion

It is an unfortunate fact that in popular ‘Western’ imagination, the land of India is frequently orientalised, and naively conceptualized as ‘the quintessential land of religion, spirituality, and miracles.’ Although we would certainly not want to completely invert this stereotype by substituting one unnuanced and inaccurate construct for another, what happens when we take a closer look at a constituency who challenge this narrative, those who identify as ‘rationalists’ and engage in the criticism of ‘religion’ in India? One scholar who has done just that is Johannes Quack in his book Disenchanting India: Organized Rationalism and Criticism of Religion in India, published by Oxford in 2012. In this podcast, we discuss Johannes’ ‘relational’ approach to ‘nonreligion,’ before moving to concrete examples from his work in India.

What is a ‘relational approach’ to nonreligion? What does it achieve? What are some of the key characteristics of organized rationalism in India? What does all of this have to do with ‘religion’, ‘non-religion’, ‘atheism’ etc? What does this in-depth ethnographic work in this very particular context contribute to wider academic debates within the study of nonreligion, and religion more broadly?

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, magic wands, faux leather belts and more!

Of Demon Kings and Protestant Yakṣas

Let me begin by saying that this is not a critique, but an effort to contribute to a conversation about issues that have affected me personally as a scholar. In particular, I want to suggest a few approaches that might be straws for the fire in the evolving discourse regarding “Protestant Buddhism” and the general influence of colonialism on Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

My most personal experience in regard to the issues raised by the Religious Studies Project interview with Stephen Berkwitz came while doing research on warfare with Pāli scholars. Again and again, as I directed their attention to jātakas in which the Buddha was a warrior, they would tell me that no such jātaka could exist. Their impression of Buddhist pacifism was so strong that, even though their knowledge of Pāli literature was vastly superior to my own, it had created a blind spot for aspects of their own tradition. It is my impression, [one that might be fruitfully disputed], that that blind spot is a result of the war-weary West’s idealization of Buddhists as the perfect pacifist other. This idealization offered colonized peoples a new and highly attractive moral superiority, which they brilliantly wielded as an act of cultural self-defense. But the power of this naïve Euro-American projection also deprived Sri Lankan’s of the valuable cultural resources that it eclipsed. That blind spot does not obscure the “dark side of Buddhism,” as one recent scholar called the ethics of violence that seem to emerge when we look at Buddhist narrative literature, but rather obscures a richly nuanced and flexible ethic that might have provided rich resources for Sri Lanka’s civil war and postwar reconciliation. There could not be more at stake for the nation that gave the world the suicide-bomber. A similar kind of effect can be seen among young Tibetan refugees, many of whom reject Buddhism, generally blaming its pacifism, a pacifism that never existed, for the loss of their country. The disappointment of Western pacifists here is not unlike the reaction of early Orientalists who, disappointed by the ritualism and deity-worship they found in living Buddhist cultures, described a degenerate Buddhism.[1]

One of the uncomfortable aspects of these kinds of critiques, including my own, is that once again Western scholars seem to claim the high ground and reveal Sri Lankans as passive victims of false consciousness. However, we should remember that cultural heroes like Dharmapala and Walpola Rahula [whose What the Buddha Taught is still found in undergraduate syllabi and dharma-center curricula] knew our languages, culture, values, scriptures and scholarship, including everything ever written about Buddhism in the West, far better than we knew theirs. They exerted great influence on the presentation of their tradition and, along with Neo-Vedānta, powerfully influenced American and European thought. This was not a passive or even merely reactive endeavor. In my experience, Sri Lanka is extraordinary among post-colonial nations for the cosmopolitanism, power and sophistication of its intellectuals. Dharmapala was perfectly poised to open up a can of whoop-ass on naïve Americans at the World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Buddha taught evolution! Any image of colonials passively subjected to Western influence should be balanced by the embarrassing naiveté and false consciousness this whole discourse reveals among the colonizers and the powerful role seized by Sri Lankans in the representation of their own world.[2]

The whole issue of “Protestant Buddhism” needs to be considered from multiple dimensions that can get mixed up. Any reformulation of Buddhism tuned to Western sensibilities would by implication be tuned to Protestant and scientific biases. Rahula’s What the Buddha Taught is a brilliant adaptation to these biases. The reformulation of Buddhism that was tuned to Western needs, biases, and weaknesses, was also tuned to the needs of Westernized Sri Lankan intellectuals and helped draw them back to Buddhism. So, one dimension of the construction of “Protestant Buddhism” is the Protestantized, pacifist, and scientific image of Buddhism integral to dialogue with the West, including the indigenous Westernized intellectuals who were situated in between worlds. This construction was enhanced by the fact that Sri Lankan intellectuals, who were attracted to this image for many of the same reasons, presented themselves as representative of the tradition as such. These figures may have had more influence on the Western perception of Buddhism than they did on their own country’s.

Buddhists at a stūpa in Kandy worshipping the Hindu deity Kartikeya (photo by Stephen Jenkins)

Sometimes it seems that we mix up our own romantic Protestantized image of Buddhism with what we are pointing toward in Sri Lankan culture. There are useful and intelligent reasons to use the descriptor “Protestant” in describing modern changes in Theravāda Buddhism, but any observer expecting to find Rahula’s Buddhism in Sri Lanka is much more likely to be shocked by how un-Protestant, even un-Theravādin, Buddhism in Sri Lanka really is. It is hard to fit Avalokiteśvara, an obsession with yakṣas, the integral worship of “Hindu” deities, and so on into an image of the bare white New England church. On the other hand, the Theravāda Buddhism that became the stock in trade of every Introduction to Buddhism class strikes me as very Protestant indeed. I look forward to reading Stephen Berkwitz’s new book about the poet Alagiyavanna, who eventually converted to Catholicism and sounds like an early example of a Sri Lankan scholar caught between worlds.

Vibhishana Crowned by Rama at Kelaniya (Photo by Stephen Jenkins)

Vibhishana Crowned by Rama at Kelaniya (Photo by Stephen Jenkins)

One of the most salient things about Sri Lanka is that the dominant majority feels like a threatened minority. Perhaps this is a more recent phenomenon, but it reminds me of how important India has been in shaping Sinhala identity. Traveling in Sri Lanka, I was struck by the presence of Vibhīṣana, the brother of the demon King Rāvana, at Buddhist sacred sites. In the Rāmāyaṇa, Vibhīṣana is portrayed as the good Rākṣasa that advises his brother to surrender Sri Lanka to the ideal Hindu King, Rāma. Although the Rāmāyaṇa did not have great currency among Sinhalese Buddhists, Vibhīṣana was deliberately utilized by Buddhist Kings as a model for their submission to the imperial power of South India whose Kings modeled themselves on Rāma.[3] This response demonstrates a self-conscious and sophisticated approach to manipulating and utilizing the ideals of the outsider as a practical technique for moderating their negative impact. The story of Sri Lanka’s contention with destructive invasive violence and outside imperialist ambitions long precedes Western colonialism. So, I close by wondering whether it might be useful to consider whether the earlier relationship with the once expansive power of South India has anything to tell us, even by way of contrast, about the evolution of Sri Lanka’s adaptation to colonialist forces.

[1] For a more extended rant on these issues see Stephen Jenkins. “A Review Essay on The Range of the Bodhisattva, A Mahāyāna Sūtra,” Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 2014.

[2] For a longer discussion see Stephen Jenkins, “Black Ships, Blavatsky, and the Pizza Effect: Critical Self Consciousness as a Thematic Foundation,” in Teaching Buddhism in the West: From the Wheel to the Web, Curzon Press, ed., Victor Hori, 2002.

[3] I recently discovered the work of Jonathan Walters on Vibhīṣana and he was kind enough to forward a copy of this fascinating article. Walters, Jonathan S. 1990-1994. “Vibhisana and Vijayanagar: An Essay on Religion and Geopolitics in Medieval Sri Lanka.” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities 17 and 18, nos. 1 and 2 (Special Jubilee Issue): 129-142.

“The Last Word…?” A Response to Bruce Lincoln’s interview on “The Critical Study of Religion”

First, let me say how pleased I am to be asked to respond to Professor Lincoln’s interview. Lincoln’s work was a tremendous inspiration for me as a beginning graduate student back in the 1990s, and it has provided a continuing source of provocation, reflection, and productive engagement for my own research over the last two decades.

There were several things that I appreciated about this interview. First, it was invaluable to hear some of the historical and biographical context for several of Lincoln’s seminal works, such as the story behind his “Theses on Method” and his reflections on Discourse and the Construction of Society (a book that I still use regularly in my own classes). Second, I very much appreciated his thoughts on pedagogy and the continuities between his approach to scholarship and his approach to the classroom. As a long-time teacher of religious studies at a large state university, I have always drawn inspiration from Lincoln’s serious, thoughtful, often argumentative, and yet always stimulating pedagogical style.

Finally, as with all of Lincoln’s writings and public talks, I very much admire the clarity and precision of his language.  Whether one agrees with him or not, Lincoln is an exceptionally clear, direct, and incisive speaker; there is never any excess verbiage or obfuscating jargon, simply a straightforward, articulate, and often passionate marshaling of evidence in service of well-reasoned argument.  I was particularly struck by the elegance of Lincoln’s concluding remarks on the critical study of religion. I think he is largely correct to say that the academic study of religion has long been characterized by an uncritical, feel-good sort of approach that has for the most part failed to ask more difficult, unsettling, and irreverent questions about religious claims: “Religion is a really powerful force in world history and a very complicated entity. I think it’s in need of serious critical study that isn’t eager to put the best face on the phenomenon, that doesn’t want to assert coherence and meaning and beauty and comfort but is prepared to see contradiction, ideology, self-interest, social and political forces of less than wholesome nature as at least part of the complex entity that is religion.” I could not agree more with this statement and very much hope that other scholars will be inspired to take up Lincoln’s challenge.

I do not have a great deal in the way of critical comments on Lincoln’s interview. Instead, I simply want to raise some provocative questions in the hope that these might inspire some discussion and debate among readers. In particular, I want to highlight one point of apparent tension – though a productive tension, I think – in Lincoln’s comments. This came up several times in the interview and particularly in the juxtaposition between Lincoln’s discussion of critical scholarship and his discussion of pedagogy. In the latter, Lincoln described his pedagogical style as one of conversation and argumentation rather than monologue, in which no one has the final answer on a given topic: “I like to argue with people. I don’t like monologues. I don’t like my own monologues. I don’t like other people’s monologues. I think they’re boring, and I think they’re evasive. I think challenge, riposte, conversation is where intellectual work takes place…The task is to say we’re colleagues and we have some issues we care about, and none of us have a final word on it.”

This approach to pedagogy appears to be in some tension with Lincoln’s discussion of critical scholarship in the interview. Here, again, he acknowledges the need for respectful conversation with religious practitioners: “I think we owe them the respect one owes to every human being, and that is of a serious conversation.”  Yet he also makes a strong claim to have “the last word” in this conversation: “The first level” of critique, he suggests, “is who has the last word. As a scholar writing for scholars, I think scholars have the last word and that the testimony of believers is evidence with which scholars pursue their work. But I grant no particular privilege to the testimony of those who are committed to a given faith of one sort or another.” This sentiment is echoed, I think, in Lincoln’s “Theses on Method,” particularly thesis number 13: “When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood…one has ceased to function as historian or scholar.”

I would like to raise two sets of critical questions here. First, can one really engage in a “serious conversation” in which one always has “the last word”? Or is that perhaps a “misrecognized monologue,” to use Lincoln’s terms? And what are the potential political implications of the assertion that scholars “have the last word”? As someone who has worked extensively on colonial India and on British and European Orientalist scholarship on Hinduism, I have to say that any claims to having the last word make me uncomfortable. After all, nineteenth century British Orientalists also claimed to have the “last word” on Indian religions, and that word typically went hand in hand with the project of imperialism. Challenges to Orientalist representations of India, in turn, came not only from later and more careful scholars, but also from religious practitioners, Hindu reformers, and others – and not only from elites such as Rammohun Roy, Vivekananda, Tagore, and Gandhi, but also from ordinary “subaltern” folk, peasants, tribals, etc. The result was a far more complex cross-cultural conversation that involved “scholars” and “believers” alike in messy and ambiguous ways.  I don’t think that acknowledging this fact means that we allow the religious believer to “have the last word” or to “define the terms in which they will be understood.” It simply means that we need to reflect critically on our own terms of understanding as well as those of religious practitioners (a point also made in the ninth of Lincoln’s “Theses on Method:” “Critical inquiry….ought probe scholarly discourse and practice as much as any other”).

This leads to my second question. Lincoln’s approach works well with cases that are long ago or far away, which is primarily the kind of material that he analyzes (with the exception of pieces such as his essay on the Lakota Sun Dance). But does it work as well with cases of living practitioners or ethnographic encounters, in which the scholar forms complex human relationships with religious adherents who may at times seriously disagree with the scholar’s “last word” or the academic terms in which they are understood? Moreover, does his approach allow enough space for the possibility that one’s own theoretical presuppositions may have to be rethought as a result of encounter with other religious lives?

To cite just one alternative example, a rather different sort of approach is suggested by Saba Mahmood in her work on the women’s piety movement in Egypt. The ethnographic approach that Mahmood proposes rests on a principle of “humility” and on “a mode of encountering the Other which does not assume that in the process of culturally translating other lifeworlds one’s own certainty can remain stable” (The Politics of Piety, p.199). Rather than imposing the theoretical apparatus of liberal feminism onto these Muslim women, Mahmood offers a model of reflexive conversation that allows her own academic assumptions to be challenged and rethought as a result of the exchange: “[I]t is through this process of dwelling in the modes of reasoning endemic to a tradition that I once judged abhorrent that I have been able to dislocate the certitude of my own projections and even begin to comprehend why Islamism …exerts such a force in people’s lives. This attempt at comprehension offers the slim hope in this embattled and imperious climate, one in which feminist politics runs the danger of being reduced to a rhetorical display of the placard of Islam’s abuses, that analysis as a mode of conversation, rather than mastery, can yield a vision of coexistence that does not require making another lifeworlds extinct or provisional” (ibid).

Of course, one could legitimately argue that Mahmood also overcorrects a bit on this point: that is, she largely renders her informants immune from critique and downplays the asymmetries of power at work in the women’s piety movement itself. Nonetheless, she does offer an approach that does not necessarily claim to have the last word, but instead asks the scholar to subject her own theoretical assumptions to critical scrutiny, reflection, and possibility of change.

So I would like to end with a final question that might perhaps inspire some further discussion from readers. Does critical scholarship of the sort Lincoln proposes really demand that we insist on the “last word”? Or could it also proceed along the lines that Lincoln suggests in his pedagogy, as an ongoing, critical, and yet self-reflective conversation in which “none of us have a final word on it?”  Again, my questions here are not meant to be damning criticisms of Lincoln’s work or of his comments in the interview. Rather, they are merely intended to provoke some additional debate, in keeping with Lincoln’s observation that “challenge, riposte, conversation is where intellectual work takes place.”

References

Lincoln, Bruce. “Theses on Method.” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 8 (1996): 225-27.

______. Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual and Classification. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
Mahmood, Saba. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.
Urban, Hugh B. Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics and Power in the Study of Religion. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.
____. The Power of Tantra: Religion, Sexuality and the Politics of South Asian Studies. New York: Palgrave/ MacMillan, 2010.

At the Limits of Orientalism: The Politics and Problems of Labelling in the Career of Michael A. Cook

Few scholars in the discipline of Islamic Studies could claim to be as qualified as Michael Cook to advise students on the matter of early career publications. For many years, Professor Cook has exerted a prominent and powerful presence in the fields of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, where he has distinguished himself as both an accomplished specialist and an engaged comparativist. Yet while there can be little doubt as to the scope or sophistication of Professor Cook’s eminent contributions to his field, the author himself continues to be remembered primarily in relation to his early collaboration with Patricia Crone, Hagarism. Almost forty years after the work’s publication, the project which Cook in this interview describes as a ‘youthful idea’ continues to provoke controversy and division. Having so vigorously rocked the academic boat early in his career, Cook later changed tack gracefully when he realised that he had set a course in the wrong direction. Even so, it is not uncommon today to encounter Cook’s name clustered alongside Crone’s under the title of ‘neo-Orientalists’, a categorisation that in Cook’s case is generally justified with reference to Hagarism alone. And, indeed, the methodological premise of Hagarism – that is, that the rise of Islam can be most accurately documented on the basis of non-Muslim sources contemporary with the rise of Islam read at the exclusion of, rather than in conversation with, later Muslim sources – falls easily within Said’s characterisation of Orientalism as the arrogation to Western scholars of the right to speak ‘for’ the Orient. Indeed, the Orientalist project of Hagarism is of a double sort, in that it arrogates representational power of the Muslim to the non-Muslim at both the level of primary and secondary sources, a move that appears to assume the incapacity of Muslims for engaged scholarly enquiry about their own history.

Yet if Hagarism – a work published just one year before Said’s Orientalism – remains an example of Orientalist scholarship par excellence, the caricature of its author as a ‘neo-Orientalist’ some thirty-five years later is less convincing. Far from encouraging a rigorous engagement with Cook’s subsequent scholarship, such a classification seems to justify its relegation to the status of imperialistic irrelevance. Such an easy dismissal might be seen as an ‘Orientalizing’ of the ‘Orientalist’, in both the sense of speaking ‘for’ him and in the sense of rendering him ahistorical, a figure whose contemporary contributions are perceived as merely continuous with a trajectory set deep in the intellectual past. Yet not only has Cook repeatedly distanced himself from his early thesis in Hagarism, his later works are a far cry from the contemporary ‘neo-Orientalism’ of individuals such as the ultra-conservative Zionist, Daniel Pipes, alongside whom his name occasionally appears. Ironically, Pipes is among the few Western intellectuals who continues to reference Hagarism in support of his (generally polemical) political arguments.

If the flippant dismissal of Cook’s impressive scholarship under the heading of ‘Orientalism’ is neither warranted nor desirable, there remains the question of just how Hagarism was, to borrow Cook’s words, ‘formative’ for his later scholarly approach. Here, it is worth elaborating a little further on the ‘radical skepticism’ that Cook references as the backdrop for the writing of Hagarism at SOAS in the late 1970s. The crucial and unmentioned figure here is John Wansbrough, the Harvard-educated advisor to both Cook and Crone whose radically revisionist interpretation of early Islam as a Jewish-influenced sectarian movement in his 1977 Qur’anic Studies provided the touchstone for Hagarism’s thesis. Perhaps no less critical to Cook’s early intellectual development is Bernard Lewis, who served as Cook’s dissertation advisor and who must be credited, in part, with steering his approach and explanatory framework in the direction of intellectual history. Lewis, who is notable not only for his role as a foreign policy consultant to the Bush administration after 9/11 but also for being one of the only Western scholars to still identify as an ‘Orientalist’, remains a central yet highly conservative figure in Islamic Studies, a status confirmed in no small part by his persistent and at times highly venomous opposition to the works of Edward Said.

Hagarism was the product of a highly particular scholarly environment permeated both by an emerging radicalism and a deep traditionalism within the field of Islamic Studies. Novel in its willingness to engage contemporary non-Muslim sources in the study of early Islamic history, the work nevertheless retained many of the characteristics of highly traditional Orientalist scholarship of the genre still espoused by Professor Lewis: an emphasis on textual sources in the study of religion; a focus on the early development of the religion as critical to understanding Islam’s distinctive ‘essence’; a privileging of ‘civilisation’ as the fundamental unit of analysis; and a lack of attention to questions of power and politics as they pertained to the emergence of normative understandings of critical concepts, both within and outside the traditions under analysis. Undergirding this approach is the persistent influence of the Rankean strand of scientific historicism, an intellectual debt underscored by Princeton anthropologist Lawrence Rosen, who critiques Cook for his promulgation of the Rankean catchcry, “facts speak for themselves”.1

While I am hesitant, for reasons suggested above, to join with Rosen in labelling Cook an ‘Orientalist’, there are aspects of the latter’s recent work that indeed evoke traces of the more traditional approach described above. As one example, we might take Cook’s Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong (2001), an impressive volume that is the result of more than 15 years of meticulous research and whose footnotes put even Pierre Bayle’s Dictionnaire philosophique to shame. While the rigour and value of Cook’s recent volume are extraordinary, two aspects of the work’s structure and methodology stand out as conspicuously traditional in their assumptions. First, there is the question of chronology. Cook characteristically begins his analysis from the earliest sources, and continues his textual sifting up to the end of ‘classical’ Islam in the twelfth century CE. From here, the text leaps abruptly into the eighteenth century. This structural choice leaves the reader with the distinct (and, to my mind, misleading) impression that modern Islam can be best understood with reference to its earliest origins and development in what have survived as ‘mainstream’ texts (a term never explicitly defined or justified by Cook), while bracketing out the messier questions about Islam’s interrelations with other intellectual systems (including ‘heretical’ ones), as well as the impact of culture, politics, and economics upon its development. Second, having masterfully delineated the tensions and diversity within the genealogy of this concept in Islamic history, Cook then attempts to force these threads back together in a chapter tellingly entitled: ‘What is Distinctive about the Islamic Case’. Cook’s concern to discover the sine qua non of the Islamic concept of commanding right and forbidding wrong – a precept which Cook believes to be “found embedded (though not necessarily articulated) in just about all human cultures”2 – appears to lead him to fuse together two distinct positions mapped out in the first section of his work, a fusion that does justice neither to the complexity of Cook’s analysis, nor to the adherents of these two positions themselves, who might well have resisted being categorised together under the rubric of the ‘distinctively’ Islamic.3 Similarly surprising, given the complexity of the evidence examined, is Cook’s concluding remark that “Islam, within certain limits, tells people what to believe and how to live; liberalism, within certain limits, is about leaving them to work this out for themselves”.4 In light of Cook’s attentive treatment of Islamic conceptions of privacy within his discussion, this statement appears as a blatant oversimplification – perhaps more consistent with what modern Islamists and modern liberals say about themselves than with the experiential and historical realities of either system.

While it is not difficult to perceive, in Professor Cook’s more recent work, traces of a more traditional approach to Islamic Studies, the rigour and meticulousness that characterise his scholarship provide an exemplary model for young scholars and caution against the intellectual torpor that results, more often than not, from overhasty characterisations and inadequate critical engagement. Throughout a long and at times tempestuous career, Professor Cook has retained his unwavering commitment to the practice of thorough scholarship based on an extensive and close mastery of primary materials, including their languages. And while his emphasis that ‘bigger things do rest on smaller things’ may stand at odds with an increasingly instrumentalised and production-focused culture in the humanities, the discipline and patience at evidence in Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong provides a timely reminder of the valuable aspects of traditional academic approaches.

 


  1.  Lawrence Rosen, ‘Orientalism Revisited: Edward Said’s Unfinished Critique,’ https://www.bostonreview.net/rosen-orientalism-revisited, 1 January 2007. 
  2.  Michael Cook, Commanding Right and Forbidding Wrong in Islamic Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 562 
  3. Ibid., 583. 
  4.  Ibid., 514.