Do All Roads Lead to Jerusalem? traces the history of western encounters with other cultures on two occasions - the 'pagans' of Greece and Rome and the 'heathens' in India. The West has produced many descriptions of other cultures. A close examination of these descriptions reveals that they tell us more about western culture than about the cultures the West has attempted to describe. This over-arching theme is developed by examining one element in western culture, viz., religion.
This book argues that religion is not a cultural universal and the belief that all cultures have religion is an assumption on the part of all scholars of religion. The reason for this is that western culture has been shaped by religion so that members of this culture are conceptually compelled to describe other cultures from within the framework of religion. From Biblical scholarship to the Enlightenment, from the Reformation to the Romantics, from believers to atheists, the cognitive scheme is the same - one that has been set in place by the experiential framework of Christianity. Is it any wonder that members of such a culture saw religion wherever they went?
By means of methodical arguments and lucid explanations this book demonstrates that religion is not a cultural universal and explains why it is believed to be so. Scholars in the field of religious and cultural studies will find this work illuminating, original, and deeply compelling.
S.N. Balagangadhara is a Professor and Director of the Research Centre, Department of Comparative Science of Cultures (Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap) at Ghent University, Belgium.
Divya Jhingran studied western philosophy and has done research on theory and practice in the Indian traditions. She lives in New York.
In 1994, E. J. Brill published The Heathen in his Blindness ... , whose second Indian edition was published by Manohar in 2005. Ever since the book was first published, a need was felt for bringing out a smaller and more readable version. However, this meant a quasi-total rewriting of the book, a task that I did not feel like undertaking. Until, that is, Divya Jhingran stepped in and took it upon herself to perform this huge task. The result is what you have in your hands: a simpler, slimmer and very readable version of my book. Divya's magnificent effort has taken nearly two years to complete. The end result, in some senses, is a new book: while being faithful to the original, this book also surpasses it in clarity, focus and accessibility. There is no way I can thank her adequately for what can only be termed as an extraordinary feat and a labour of love.
This book brings the central thread of my research and enquiry much more sharply into focus than the original. It cuts out all the digressions and the secondary lines of enquiry that The Heathen was forced to pursue for the sake of academic completeness. Consequently, Divya and I have jointly decided to publish this book under a new title, instead of calling it an 'abridged edition' of the original work. By bringing the central thread clearly into focus, this book answers many criticisms made by some of my readers, who missed the key arguments of The Heathen. It is my sincere hope that the reader will now be able to follow my investigation better without being distracted by the secondary arguments that the original contained.
Perhaps it would be good to outline my basic argument by elaborating on the title: All Roads Lead to Jerusalem. If the point of reference that provides meaning to the word 'religion' is taken to be the Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), it is my claim that Indian culture does not have any indigenous religions (like 'Hinduism', 'Buddhism', 'Jainism', etc.). However, for many centuries now, in both academic discourse and in theological debates, one continues to speak about Indian religions. I explain this situation by showing that the discussions about religion are fully trapped within a theological framework that is basically Christian (and Semitic) in nature. In this book, I not only clarify that framework but also show how and why it imprisons all discussions about the existence of religion.
Some of my critics found fault with The Heathen because they felt that I defined the word 'religion' the way I wanted to, and that too in the first chapter itself. Nothing is farther from the truth. There is no definition of the word religion for the first seven chapters of the book. This is because a specific definition of the word is not required for outlining the historical and theoretical origins of the contemporary situation with respect to religion. I provide an ostensive definition of religion in chapter eight, and then proceed to develop a hypothesis on what religion is, in chapter nine. A definition is necessary only when one develops an explanatory hypothesis and not before. Of course, many of my critics have missed this crucial point in their haste to criticize without paying adequate attention to the scientific way of investigating a phenomenon. It is my hope that this volume will go some way in solving this problem.
Yet other critics, in their rush to pigeonhole me, have decided that I am a post-colonial thinker and a follower of Edward Said. It is hard to figure out how they came to this conclusion, but it might nevertheless be useful to declare openly that I am neither of the two. While I did read Said's Orientalism, it was singularly unsuitable for the task I had at hand. Even though my initial reaction to the way the West portrays the East may have been a conviction similar to that of Said - that these writings are inherently racist, imperialist and sexist - pretty soon this conviction gave way to doubts. It is neither possible nor particularly enlightening to condemn all European authors as being racist or imperialist. Nevertheless, we're still left to grapple with the question: why did they all say pretty much the same things? What lies behind the systematic nature of this western way of talking about the Orient? In other words, surely the more interesting question is 'Why is the West orientalist?' Said's plea ends up denying any possibility of understanding cultural differences or indeed why Orientalism came into being, or what sustains it. To say, as the post-colonials do, that the relation between power and knowledge answers this question is to make a mystique of Foucault's idea, as though it explains everything. If such buzzwords do anything at all, they explain why the post-colonials earn a good living: they talk the talk of their employees, and walk the walk of their patrons. This is not to deny that there are genuine and committed people among them, or even to deny that they want to address themselves to genuine and urgent issues. It is only to draw attention to this aspect of post-colonialism.
My quest has been to try and highlight the fact that labelling someone racist, or orientalist, or Eurocentric merely obfuscates the deeper issue, one that is more insidious than any of the above three. Why do these attitudes persist, why do they keep reproducing themselves, and how have they come to infect the social sciences in India and the rest of the world? My research has nothing to do with the post-colonial way of looking at things. In fact, I consider that line of research intellectually pernicious. I do not seek to follow some fad; I seek to begin the process of scientifically investigating cultural and social phenomena with the seriousness that they deserve.
Some others, especially in India, and the defenders of ' political correctness' in the US, have decided that I belong to the 'Hindu Right' and that I am a spokesman of the Sangh Parivar. Of course, this charge is entirely baseless. It is a matter of public record that I claim that 'Hinduism' (as a religion) does not exist in India. Consequently, from my writings on the subject, no one can accuse me of supporting a stance that is founded on 'Hinduness' or 'Hindudom' or 'Hinduism', (whether conceived as a religion or called Sanatana Dharma). So, from where could these people have drawn this conclusion? Unfortunately, gossip-mongers do not go by evidence or fact; mendacity and demagoguery provide them with their 'moral' justification.
It is ironic that the so-called secularists in India and their 'Hindu' opponents are mirror-images of each other. Their ideas about religion, their responses to the colonial descriptions of India, the respective paths they have chosen to pursue - all of these are symmetrical and arose amid the same constellation of concerns. If the rise of Hindu nationalism is a major threat to intellectual freedom in the study of India, so is the state of (implicit and explicit) censorship imposed by the secularists. If I criticize the secularists it does not automatically follow that I side with nationalists or fundamentalists of any stripe. Let's assume that, in some of my writings, I happen to reach the same conclusion as some or the other ideologue from Hindutva. The question is: what does that indicate, or prove, or provide evidence for? After all, you may reach the same conclusion as the Hindu Right does when asked about the chemical composition of water. Would this count for evidence that you belong to the Hindu Right?
Any movement that captures the imagination of a people has to have some kind of a narrative. Normally, the crafting of such a narrative involves the labour of intellectuals. The Indian Congress Party used to have a narrative, although it has completely lost it in the last few decades. The Communist parties had a strongly resonant narrative provided by intellectuals from yesterday and today. The Hindu Right has indeed found resonance with a broad cross-section of the people in India and yet they appear to have no distinct narrative of their own. The fact that they are characterized as Fundamentalists, Fascists, or Nationalists indicates that these characterizations have more to do with individual feelings about the above-named movements rather than the story the Hindu Right narrates about itself.
This is a book about western culture. To be more specific, it is about one element that went into the formation of western culture, i.e., religion. Anthropologists generally recognize that people from any given culture use concepts and theories native to their own culture when they describe other cultures. Underneath this fact lies the problem that this book will examine. The problem is: in what way are the beliefs of the people from western culture reflected in their descriptions of other cultures? Or to formulate it more concretely, can we specify, for instance, how much of what the West says about India is rooted in western culture rather than in Indian culture? By examining the way in which people from the West have described religions in India, we can decipher what their portrayal tells us not only about religion but also about their own culture.
Since culture is a broad term, to sharpen the focus, there is a specific guiding theme throughout this book. It is an examination of the claim that all cultures have religion. I will argue that this claim about the universality of religion tells us more about western culture than it does about human cultures, and examine why this is the case.
While intellectuals throughout the world generally agree that all cultures have religion, they concede that many people are irreligious, atheists, agnostics, or simply ignorant about religion. So their assertion about the universality of religion is merely a claim that native to each culture is some religion or the other. Religion, they believe, is not only characteristic to cultures, but also one of its constitutive elements. Since religion partly lends identity to a culture, it seems to make sense to believe that differences between cultures can be explained by speaking about differences in their religion.
This commonsense idea rests upon generations of anthropological research and the comparative studies of religion. Most ethnographers put it rather bluntly: Since religion is a universal phenomenon, any study of a society or a culture cannot ignore it. They fill their journals with matters as diverse as the meaning of corn pollens for the Navajo Indians, the role of the guru in India, the evidence for miracles, or the problem of evil and the existence of God. The belief that religion is found in all cultures is not just limited to anthropologists and religious scholars. Philosophers, social scientists, and psychoanalysts share in this belief, while socio-biologists speculate on the genetic basis of religion, or neuroscientists try to figure out the nature of the human brain that creates religion.
Mountains of literature have been generated by these different fields. This has had an enormous impact on the way in which religion has come to be conceptualized all over the world. It has resulted in an accord between scholarly theory and folk knowledge. The intellectual and the man on the street both share the view that religion is a cultural universal. So much so that today it is almost sacrilegious to suggest that there may be cultures that do not have religion. What are the issues that underlie this apparent consensus on the idea that all cultures have religion?
To tackle this problem, we will need to reflect on the following three statements: (i) western culture has been profoundly influenced by Christianity; (ii) people from different cultures experience many aspects of the world differently; and (iii) the theoretical study of culture and religion emerged in the West. The point to note is this: The constitution and identity of western culture is tied to the dynamic of Christianity. Therefore, if people from other cultures experience the world differently; it should be possible to conceptualize their cultures differently from the descriptions generated by western theorizing. It may well be that in some cultures, let's say the Indian culture, there are no indigenous religions at all. Why have such alternate possibilities never been entertained? It is because the belief that all cultures have religion is taken as a starting point for all such studies. It is a presupposition that has never been examined.
Why have generations of brilliant scholars overlooked this possibility? Why has it been problematic for them to conceive that that all cultures need not have religion? To get to the bottom of this mystery we will have to wade through two thousand years of history. In doing so, we will establish how the experience of a small segment of humanity in the West has become universalized to describe all of humanity. We can then proceed to consider the implications of this, not only for the understanding of Indian culture, but also for the field of religious studies, and the social sciences in general.
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