SOCA2520 Religion and Politics

Notes for Lecture 4


A couple of people asked me for my lecture notes for this lecture, since I didn't have them with me for the Thursday afternoon class, and anyway we spent quite a bit of time talking about the war which had just started. Normally, I don't circulate my lecture notes, since they are fairly rough, often just hints to myself to discuss a particular topic, and it takes quite a lot of additional work to get them into a form which is appropriate for student reading. Also, I DO NOT want people to treat the lecture notes as a major source for the course. They are NOT the same as my lectures. However, I am putting these ones up for the reasons mentioned.


Lecture for week 4 (March 19/20 2003): Modern Buddhism and Hinduism

This week's readings are about the reconstruction of religion in India and Sri Lanka in the C19 and C20 in relation to colonialism and modernity. The lecture is mainly intended to give some prior background, but I think (especially given what is going on in the world around us at present) that it is worth underlining this whole question of the interaction between Asian and Western countries in the production of modern Asian religions (the “pizza effect” which Flood discusses, taking the idea from Agehananda Bharati, being part of this)—and in particular noting that it was and remains a very unequal interaction. Of Hindu and Buddhist societies only Japan and maybe Singapore could really be seen as part of the “developed” world, and even that does not go very far. For the most part, modern Hinduism and Buddhism developed in a situation of considerable political and economic inequality. It is not surprising that South Asians both imitated and resented what they took from Europe. We can see similar processes of imitation and hostility in more recent times.

The readings stress the Asian end of the process but there is also an important Western end, which constructed a lot of our images of the East (see Richard King's book). This was a process of collusion which produced the “Mystical East” and the “Materialistic West”. The invention of “Hinduism” and “Buddhism” as “religions” (all these are Western concepts). The Protestant model of religion —founder, text, clergy, corruption, reform, etc.

The two readings say quite a bit in passing about earlier forms of religion that have been marginalised or dismissed by the reformers. In both cases this is mostly the temple cult of deities, though this was much more elaborated on the whole in India than in Sri Lanka. In either case we are talking about the practice of rituals directed towards deities or spirits thought to be active in people's daily lives. The everyday practice of ritual away from the temple (in the household or for the village or larger community as a whole) is also important and again tends to be marginalised and treated as superstition by the religious reformers of the C19.

I need to give some brief background to religion in South Asia before the 19th century. Refer to table in Course Guide, p.8. The main distinction is between the VEDIC-BRAHMANICAL tradition (which began in Northern India) and the shramana or renunciate traditions of the JAINS, BUDDHISTS, etc (which began in Northeast India). The Jains and Buddhists were the two most successful of a range of such movements (the Jains began somewhat earlier than the Buddhists).

The early VEDIC-BRAHMANICAL religion (which provided the material etc for the later development of “Hinduism”) was essentially of this kind (although it did not use images‹these were a later development). "Vedic" refers to the ritual texts (in an early version of Sanskrit), "Brahmanical" to the people who performed the rituals. It is not clear how far Buddhism was a movement that grew out of opposition to this Vedic-Brahmanical religion (the most common story) and how far it developed from earlier ascetic traditions. In the 5th and 4th centuries BC (or BCE—particularly in the religious context it is better to use BCE/BC rather than BC/AD which are explicitly Christian in their reference) however you can see the development of ascetic-renouncer traditions with leadership from the aristocratic-ruler-warrior sector of society (the kshatriyas), and new more ascetical and inner-directed versions of the Brahmanical role from Brahmans (traditional priestly families). The "caste system" as we know it (with Brahmins as the purest and highest group) was a later development; at this time Brahman claims of superior status were not by any means universally accepted. I'll talk more about caste in a later week when we look at a modern Buddhist anti-caste movement.

Vedic-Brahmanical religion and the so-called renouncer or shramana traditions thus grew up alongside each other and intertwined with each other and both had a complex relationship to the practical everyday type of religion found in the villages and households. The BUDDHIST and JAIN model was of people who renounced society (monks) for an ascetic lifestyle who gradually also took on the role of ritual performers and teachers. They were probably always however more linked to the urban context; the merchant classes were particularly important. For these traditions the cult of the local spirits and gods was fine, but it was part of secular life and not really their concern. Their real orientation was towards enlightenment, liberation, future lives, nirvana etc. (Compare weddings and other life-cycle events—except for funerals which fitted into the future lives, other-worldly, salvation orientation.) The this-worldly/other-worldly opposition is always an important one.

The Brahmanical tradition also had a renunciate tradition (especially in later times) but it was really based around the hereditary families of priests and these gradually also established themselves not just as ritual performers but as teachers and spiritual advisors to lay people. They remained part of society (increasingly a powerful part, as they gradually became wealthy landowners, court officials and the like). For the Brahmanical tradition, the tendency was to see more continuity—this-worldly ritual was something they could do and do better, not something which was more or less beneath them. You tend to get continuity rather than opposition, and a constant movement to incorporate local cults and spirits and treat them as version of "higher" Brahmanical deities (e.g. in the Holi festival which seems to have begun as an annual village fire-ritual and was gradually incorporated into the mythology of Krishna).

The Buddhist and Jain religions dominated India for several centuries but gradually disappeared from India — in modern times Buddhism has been most important in Southeast and East Asia, but it survives in South Asia in Sri Lanka and Nepal. The Jain religion remains in existence in India but on a fairly small scale and mostly among merchant classes. The Vedic-Brahmanical religion developed into what we now call Hinduism—but in many ways that development was not really fully achieved until the C19, the subject of Flood's chapter.

The dominant religions in most of South Asia today are Hinduism and Islam. Islam arrived in the 8th century and gradually became very widespread. The “India” within which most of the people in Flood's account lived included modern Pakistan and Bangladesh, so it was about 25-30% Muslim, much more in some areas. (Modern India, after the separation of Pakistan and what is now Bangladesh at the time of partition in 1947, is about 10% Muslim.)

The Hindu Renaissance was also linked to the emergence of a new educated and relatively Westernised Hindu middle-class who increasingly took over from the old Muslim elites in the lower and middle levels of the British government of India. The same took place in Sri Lanka. Obeyesekere and Gombrich say much more about the class dimension than Flood. This is not surprising, since Obeyesekere is an anthropologist, and Gombrich a very sociologically-oriented Buddhist specialist) but it is very much present in Flood as well. In the background all the time for Gombrich and Obeyesekere is the Weberian account of the connection between Protestantism and the growth of capitalism. But one can say much the same of the 19th century Hindu renaissance from Ram Mohan Roy onwards, as discussed by Flood.

Finally we can ask: are these religions “fundamentalist”? Gombrich and Obeyesekere use the word in relation to Buddhism but with some reservations. Flood tends not to use it and indeed one problem in the Hindu context is knowing just what one might be "fundamental" about since there isn't a single text or scripture that is comparable to the Bible, and different traditions go back to different texts. We do notice though in both accounts the strong influence of Victorian Christianity and Victorian morality. Gombrich and Obeyesekere are especially clear about this. The most apparently“fundamentalist” bits of these religions often turn out to be the most Western, the bits they borrowed or imitated from 19th-century Protestantism—which of course was also the source of Western fundamentalism.


Geoffrey Samuel 24 March 2003