That Old Time Religion

Arun has posted a link to a synopsis S. Balagangadhara's "The Heathen in His Blindness," a major critique of Western study of religion. This was interesting to me since I had never managed to understand his often intricate prose. My attempt to synopsize the synopsis: Hinduism as a religion was invented by Western colonialists, as was the anthropological conclusion that religion is a cultural universal, and, in particular, that the whole sociological/anthropological study of religion is hopelessly contaminated by Abrahamic prejudices.

Perhaps you are eagerly awaiting my opinion on all this - or not. Anyway, I think that if you accept his definition of religion, which essentially restricts the concept to those three Middle Eastern religions and their close relatives, what he says is true. It's also obviously true that one's culture inevitably colors one's analysis of any other culture.

Balu, as he is also known, has a cultural grievance and a resulting chip on his shoulder. He thinks, with some justification, that Indian culture has been unfairly devalued by analysis by Westerners, though many of the examples adduced are from a century or so ago. He's also pretty incensed by the famous intolerance of the monotheists, and seems to argue that it's not a vice of polytheists, or non-theists. Would that that were true, but we have seen that Hindus and Buddhists seem just a quick as monotheists to slaughter members of other religions.

Let's recall too, that 400 years before Christ, and more than 1000 before Mohammed, as well as well before Judaism had made a mark in the Hellenic world, the Athenians executed one of their greatest citizens, Socrates, for alleged impiety and atheism.

What about the alleged universality of religion in culture? Cultures are diverse enough that any claims of universality beyond the biological necessities are suspect. It does seem, though, that mythologies with a lot in common with religion are extremely widespread, and that there is even a pattern in the types of "religious" practices found. Hunter gatherers are almost always animists, assuming some kind of animating spirit in animals and even quite inanimate objects. Agricultural peoples have gods, often associated with natural phenomena. Civilizations seem to develop ritualized practices, usually featuring gods and spirits. All these have in common a belief in supernatural spirits or beings.

There are, however, practices we call religions that don't explicitly invoke the supernatural, like Buddhism. Some, like Israeli Historian Yuval Noah Harari would classify even Communism, Naziism, and humanism as religions.

Of course arguing over definitions is ultimately fruitless, but most, not evidently including Balu, would accept that whenever supernatural beings and rituals are linked to cultural prescriptions, we have a religion. By that standard, Hinduism is either a religion or a complex of religions.

It's probably worth mentioning that Indian politics has a dog in this fight, since India is officially secular, but the Hindu traditionalist party in power wants to protect certain privileges for religious temples.

Oddly enough, both the word "religion" and "secular" have been traced to Proto-Indo-European roots with the meaning "to bind," with the modern meanings perhaps linked to being bound to god or bound to time and the world.

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