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Let Us Talk About Your Book:
Arvind Pal Singh Mandair - "Religion & The Specter of The West" Part XIX

Q & A with Author by SIKHCHIC.COM




Continued from last week ...

   I’d like you to move on to the main themes of  the individual chapters of your book. Your intellectual positioning in regard to the category of ‘religion’, for example, is particularly intriguing. One reviewer has even suggested that there is some slippage in the way you use ‘religion’.

But before you address that … there’s something else I want you to address relating to the same area.

You mentioned earlier in the interview that another one of your main preoccupations in “Religion and the Specter of the West” was to “examine the ideological relationship between religion and secularism and how this affects the Sikh life-world”.

Some would say that the category of ‘religion’ provides a comfortable positioning for the Sikhs. For example, it positions us within the select (elite?) group of “World Religions”. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? Why would Sikhs want to give up that positioning? And what does ‘the secular’ have to do with this

A    There are several good questions here. Let me answer them in reverse order.

I will get to the ‘slippage’ in my position (which is part of my theoretical stance) subsequently. But first, let me address the second question about the comfortable positioning produced by the category ‘religion’ and how Sikhs should give up this positioning.

To begin with, I am not talking about giving up that positioning. That would be rather silly. Sikhi has become Sikhi(sm) through its encounter with the West. Sikh-ism is now a real entity. But it has become this particular entity only by emulating Christianity and accepting (uncritically) a chain of reasoning provided by the secular frameworks of the West.

These include the political institution of the nation state which accords all sovereignty to itself, and the intellectual institution of the Western University which provides a guarantee that the information and knowledge upon which this positioning is based, is correct; and correct because it is guaranteed by the work of scholar-experts.

And the work of scholars can provide such a guarantee because their work is based on correct reasoning, i.e., reasoning that has followed the rules of mathematics and science which guarantee ‘truth’.

Listen to what I said on pages 6-7:

There is now a growing consensus among scholars that questions the prevalent notion of religion as a cultural universal. Religion is now understood to be a relatively recent invention that emerged during the course of the nineteenth century at the intersection of a variety of different discourses.

It is increasingly accepted that the construction of religion as a concept cannot be separated from the formation of the comparative imaginary of the West. Indeed, Daniel Dubuisson has argued that “religion … must be considered the locus in which the identity or figure of the West has in principle been constituted and defined”.

This is why, he suggests, that “instead of speaking about the religious consciousness of the West, it would surely be more judicious to say that the West is religious only in the very exact and strict sense that religion, as a notion intended to isolate a set of phenomena thenceforth considered homogenous, is the exclusive creation of the West, and is thus what may constitute its innermost nature.”

In her recent book, “The Invention of World Religions,” Tomoko Masuzawa echoes these sentiments arguing that since the discourse of religion and religions was “from the very beginning a discourse of secularism, … these two wings of the religion discourse did the work of churning Europe’s epistemic domain” and “forged from that domain an enormous apparition: the essential identity of the West”.

This essential identity not only crystallizes into a self-sustaining belief in the West’s unique and sovereign nature, it also helped to preserve and promote its universalizing tendency, paradoxically, through a language of pluralism as found
in the discourse of ‘world religions’.

For Dubuisson, it is through the language of pluralism embedded in the discourse of ‘world-religions’ that the West has in a sense drawn around itself a magic – and narcissistic – circle.

This charmed circle “both limits its reflections and flatters its epistemological talents. And with the inevitable reassuring effect that such a mechanism produces, the West believes all the more willingly in the relevance of this concept, since other civilizations merely faithfully reflect its own chimeras. And this will be the state of things as long as the debate is conducted exclusively on the conceptual field chosen and defined by the West alone”.

So basically what I’m saying is that the positioning of an entity as a ‘religion’ or as part of a ‘world religion’ framework is accepted because it carries a certain epistemic authority. When this positioning appears over and over again in textbooks, in encyclopedias, in dictionaries, etc., it becomes regarded as a veritable truth.

As more and more scholars have been acknowledging (and there is an industry of literature on this, so it cannot be ignored as many Sikh Studies folks do), the category of ‘religion’ has a history. It is not transhistorical and cannot be treated as a transhistorical category. Many historians simply apply it to premodern contexts as if it were a universal (transcultural, transhistorical concept).

This is simply wrong. In light of all the empirical evidence and established debates that now exist, we cannot simply say that religion has done this or that “throughout history” - since such a statement ignores history itself. The premodern category of religio is not the same as modern category of ‘religion’.

So we cannot simply say that religio(n) has always essentially existed but has simply changed over time. While we can use modern terms (and their meanings) to describe pre-modern realities, even if pre-modern actors did not think or use such terms, nevertheless, it is important to be clear that such terms are used in a peculiarly modern way of framing the discussion, and does not imply the discovery of modern realities underneath a pre-modern disguise …

This becomes patently obvious if we consider standard definitions of ‘Sikh’ and ‘Sikhism’.

For example, the Oxford English Dictionary provides the following definition:

Sikh: Member of an Indian monotheistic sect founded in the fifteenth century.

Sikhism: The religious tenets of the Sikhs.

Right away we’re given the impression that Sikh and Sikhism are reducible to a religious type (monotheism), an ethnic type (Indian), a geographical location (India) and a historical period (fifteenth century).

A clear indication that Sikhs and Sikhism have settled into a comfortable position within the Anglophone consciousness, and through that into the seemingly natural and neutral environment of our everyday language as found in the English dictionary.

At a certain level this kind of representation is by no means unhelpful, especially if all one requires are quick and uncomplicated answers to the questions ‘What is Sikhism?’ or ‘Who is a Sikh?’ This is why it works well in encyclopedias, world-religions textbooks and even the internet.

But if one wishes to probe beyond that, it can become a hindrance and source of confusion for several reasons.

First, it characterizes Sikhs and Sikhism as defined objects with a truth-value (‘religion’) that does not correspond either to the Sikh life-world, which has never recognized the conceptual separation between religion and the secular, or between religion and politics.

The apparent truth-value of such definitions renders them difficult to contest and be redefined within the Sikh community, partly because Sikhs themselves have internalized them. As seeming truth statements they elide the fact that ‘Sikhism’ is not an indigenous term but the result of a colonial encounter.

The indigenous terms sikhi, gursikhi, gurmat or dharam are extensively used by Sikhs who speak Punjabi. But in English or other European languages, it is the -ism that takes precedence thereby forcing the identification with the category ‘religion’.

There is now overwhelming evidence to show that this process of ‘religion-making’, that is, the transformation of an action-oriented Sikhi into a rigid object Sikhism, occurred during the colonial period through a process of inter-cultural mimesis between Sikh and European scholars disguised as natural translation.

Secondly, there are legal ramifications. I can’t go into these in detail, but I’ll raise a couple of questions about possible future legal issues.

For example, what happens when Sikhi evolves, or travels beyond these set ‘religio-secular’ definitions? And Sikhi will evolve. It is already evolving as it adapts to different environments and different circumstances.

Thirdly, the notion that ‘religion’ is a convenient and benign category for representing and translating non-Western cultural concepts, has been historically constructed around ‘religion’ – a category that has always been highly unstable and strongly
contested. Yet especially during the last century scholars have researched and described ‘religion’ as if it had always been a transparent notion, based on common sense observable reality, universally applicable, a word or an idea that can be translated unproblematically into any language, of any culture, at any time in human history.

In reality, though, as the work of many recent scholars has shown, ‘religion’ is a modern invention which authorizes and naturalizes a form of Euro-American secular rationality. In turn, secular rationality constructs and authorizes its other: ‘religion and religions’. Consequently, the way that we normally talk about religions and spiritualities is permeated with notions about the universal availability of some supposedly distinctive kind of experience, practice or institution, which in its essential nature, is private, otherworldly and non-political.

All too often, though, this originally ‘religious’ experience is compromised in actual practice because practitioners cannot avoid an (illegitimate) attachment to ‘political’ power. In turn, secular politics – itself a modern invention arguably parasitic on the modern invention of ‘religion’ – has been disseminated as the universal arena of rational, non-religious practice validated by common sense.

These Anglophone constructions, which present ‘religion’ and ‘politics’ as essentially opposed, have embedded themselves into our everyday language about the world we live in. As with the OED entries on ‘Sikh’ and ‘Sikhism’, we tend not to question the framework behind these definitions, because we feel that our everyday language reflects natural rationality - a reasonable proposition that any normal person would agree with.

This is precisely what is happening when indigenous terms such as sikhi or gurmat are represented as ‘Sikhism’ or ‘Sikh religion’, which are in turn presented as essentially different from ‘Sikh politics’.

Such constructions effectively repress what is most interesting about Sikh tradition, namely its complete involvement from the outset in the material world, in worldly politics, the close connection between its devotional mysticism and its intimate connection to the question of violence. We see this repeated far too often in the discourse of Sikh studies particularly in textbooks that serve as an ‘Introduction to Sikhism’.

While the majority of such texts do an excellent job of laying out the empirical facts and familiarizing readers with a potentially tricky subject matter, it is also the case that they tend to portray Sikhs as essentially religious subjects, without realizing that they are simply reading the religion-secular binary back into the narrative of Sikh history.

Thus from the very beginnings of their history the Sikhs are presented as an essentially religious type whose lived experience has to be placed within the private sphere of devotional experience. As such they have to be kept distanced from the exercise of public power which belongs to the ‘political’ types (emperors, administrators, politicians, colonial rulers, etc.).

But even a casual glance at Sikh history shows that this was never the case as it did not reflect the way Sikhs have understood the relevance of their lived experiences in relation to the wider world.

Continued next Week …
May 29, 2014

Conversation about this article

1: Bhai Harbans Lal (Dallas, Texas, USA), June 01, 2014, 7:44 PM.

Arvind raises very pertinent and not so popular questions. He rightfully describes the way Sikhs and Sikhism are defined. I am looking forward to the definition he will arrive at. Meanwhile let me tell you what Guru Nanak told Siddhs during his lengthy dialogues with them. The Siddhs asked Guru Nanak about his matt (religion). Among nearly 150 questions asked, there were six directly about the identity of Nanak's religion using the term 'matt' for religion. I paraphrase six of the questions they asked alongwith Guru Sahib's answers. What is the origin of your matt? When humanity took birth. What is the name? Sat Gurmat. Who is the Guru? Shabad. Who is the chela or follower? Surat. What age (period) for which your religion is best suited? Today. What makes your religion distinct? That Shabad may take you across this ocean. According to Bhai Gurdas, this system of belief distinguished the Guru's religion apart from others. As it is clear it does not fit at all how Sikhs or their religion is described today. It does not confine Sikhi right away, as Arvind points out: "we're given the impression that Sikh and Sikhism are reducible to a religious type (monotheism), an ethnic type (Indian), a geographical location (India) and a historical period (fifteenth century) ..."

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Arvind Pal Singh Mandair - "Religion & The Specter of The West" Part XIX"

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