Religion as colonial knowledge category. Approaches to the decolonisation of social thought
Social-scientific theorisation of religion is a momentous example for the imperialism of ‘Western’ knowledge production. Consequently, religion is introduced in this paper as a social category of othering and boundary making that has been developing its impact since the 15th century. This includes a closer look at the notion of religion and its situatedness in the European history of ideas. A central component of this history of ideas is the religious/secular divide; it is constitutive for Western, European (self-)understanding and experiencing the world. I will approach the conceptualisation of religion from a phenomenologically inspired sociology of knowledge perspective that brings the possibility of varying coexisting forms of knowledges into account. Further on, it allows to consider postcolonial theories and to decentre the religious/secular divide as a particularistic epistemic optic in a different way.
To this end, I will first introduce religion (following the state of the art) as a colonial knowledge category. This includes a look at the coloniality of power and difference, and the question how colonial subjects, their forms of knowledge and experiences have become subaltern, while religion developed as a code of (European) self-description in the context of encounters with ‘the’ colonial others. In this regard I will also discuss the extent to which the conceptual relevance of religion increasingly included a ‘dose’ of racialisation, particularly in the 19th century.
In a further step, I will take a critical look at the epistemological foundations of theoretical thinking about religion today. I assume that these foundations are based on a secularist stance within the immanent frame, which results into a particularistic epistemic optic of difference. As a consequence, this frame (inherently) fosters a methodological secularism (due to the religious/secular divide), which causes the inferiorisation of religion as an ontologically subaltern form of knowing and experiencing the world.
In a third and final step, I discuss the possibilities of a decolonisation of thinking in the study of religion using the phenomenological sociology of knowledge perspective with which I aim to go beyond the colonial difference of thinking in oppositions and antithetical typifications.
“To read in an Indian way” (Johann Gottfried Herder)
On whether the German were of Indian Origin and how this was related to the Hebrew Bible
There is a close connection between the rise of Old Testament scholarship and the discussions about the roots of German culture around 1800. In this struggle, poets, scholars and members of the educated classes discussed whether the Germans were descendants from the Greeks, Indians or Hebrews. Postcolonial scholarship can explain this search for a distinct identity with a kind of second-order colonialism (Russel A. Berman). The fascination for other cultures not only shaped emerging academic studies and was part of the epistemic change, but also paved the way for German imperialism by the end of 19thcentury. To understand the rise and history of German knowledge about India during the 20thcentury, it is helpful to research the period, when Germans fell in love with India for the first time.
Tirtha Prasad Mukhopadhyay
Ecumenical Tendencies of German Missions in 19th century India: Broad themes and Ethnic Dialectics
The pattern of conversion follows the model of pacification strategies that the Church adopted in the Americas. Provision of sustenance, food, menial employment, were all part of the missionary strategy employed by Deerr and his followers of the Anglican Scottish Church and its diocesan missions. The crisis of reflective Christian theology is evident in Kruckeburg and Blumhardt’s assessment of the religious perception among the suffering masses in India. The dichotomy between material consumption of a suffering mass and the lack of faith, is reflected in the psychology of the mission as a historical crisis of unprecedented dimensions. Is it possible to suggest that the Missionary experience reflects an unsatiable lacunae in the Church’s notion of itself, as an entity caught between the spirit and its painful consciousness of an interminable ethnic fallenness.
The doctrinal confrontation of the Christian missionary project was characterized by doxological reflections on the underlying Judaic and Christian trinitarianism that supported the Protestant ideology of resurrection through Christ’s “Holy Spirit”, which is primarily a salvation ethic, against the general Hindu doctrine of salvation from reincarnations. In the entire debate that predominated the nineteenth-century orientalism however the trinitarian doctrine of the spirit, took a back seat owing to the complex invasion of German rational deist ideas, both amongst a German and British Anglican philosophy of transcendentalism and the deistic ontology inherent in the position of Indian reformist scholars like Bijay Krishna Goswami and Rammohun. On an ideological level, the missions failed to ignite the Indian mind, with the most mysterious aspect of orthodox theology. Of the missionaries, on the other hand, who wrote intermittently about the predicaments of a fledgling Protestant missionary church were Rev. Deerr who founded the Chapra Mission Church, and also Rev. Kruckeburg wrote reports that constitute a commentary on proselytizing activity, and the difficulties faced by the early missionaries. E. K. Blumhardt’s The Work amongst Villages in Bengal”: Light for India: A Record of the Christian Vernacular Education Society. 14:19-27. (1875).
‘Something completely different.’ Menaka, Uday Shankar and Indra Ramosay in the Dutch press (1931-1937).
In the 1930s, three Indian dancers performed in the Netherlands: Menaka, Uday Shankar, (both in 1031-1932 and 1936-1937) and Indra Ramosay (1933-1934). In newspapers they were announced as ‘Hindu dancer’ or ‘Hindu Ballet’.
These digitized newspaper reports allow a closer perspective on the European performances of the Indian dancers. On the one hand, the digitized sources offer the possibility to supplement factual data, such as the dates and locations of the performances. On the other hand, the reviews shed light on the reception of the Indian artists in the Netherlands.
Hardly twenty years earlier, the Dutch public had become acquainted with Hindu religiosity expressed through dance. From 1913 onwards, students from the colony of the Dutch East Indies organized dance, music and stories from different parts of the archipelago. Dutch visitors could now admire the cherished ‘Hindu Javanese culture’ of the largest island in the colony from up close. In the 1920s, Europeans discovered the traditions of Bali, with its majority Hindu population. Artists such as the German Walter Spies spoke of an “earthly paradise.” How did colonial imagery and the experience with Indonesian dance affect the perception and appreciation of Indian dance pioneers Menaka and Uday Shankar?
Death and Transfiguration: Indian Fantasies of Redemption in the Reception of Wagner and Schopenhauer
The doctor, composer and enthusiast of Schopenhauer Felix Gotthelf (1857-1930) composed a symphonic drama “Mahadeva” (1910), in which he transformed the motif of a Goethe ballad into a religious-artistic manifesto. Here he combined Indian philosophy as popularised by Deussen with the national-religious renewal in music by Richard Wagner and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, which was to culminate in a renewal of Christianity in a concentration on the motif of “self-sacrifice”.
“The Indian New Testament” on the German opera stage. Aesthetic and philosophical syncretism in Felix Gotthelf’s opera Mahadeva (1908)
In 1908 the German composer Felix Gotthelf (1857-1930) wrote his opera „Mahadeva“ – a mystery written in words and sounds for the stage, in which he connects motifs from Shiva mythology with narratives of Christian theology of salvation.
Felix Gotthelf, member of the Schopenhauer Society, saw the latest findings in Indology – namely the (new) translation of ancient Vedic texts such as the new translation of the Upanishads submitted by Paul Deussen in 1897 – as no less than an opportunity to complete Kant’s transcendental philosophy in a synthesis of Indian knowledge and Christian faith.
Gotthelf’s musical and literary work is thus part of a broad intellectual movement at the turn of the 20th century and the result of an ambiguous project:
On the one hand, it is result of an ongoing colonial knowledge transfer and thus a highly Eurocentric project that tries to achieve a comprehensive eschatology of modernity by merging Christianity, ethnological research and ancient Indian philosophy.
At the same time, however, it is also an attempt to back up the trend towards criticism of metaphysics in European philosophy with non-European traditions of thought and is thus part of an epistemological experiment with shared knowledge and open-ended result.
Gotthelf’s stage work Mahadeva was never performed again except for the premiere in 1910.
As part of the conference contribution, we are reconstructing parts of the opera in order to make the musical text of the opera readable and audible again and to ask questions about how Gotthelf has achieved the desired “reconciliation of knowledge and belief” as an aesthetic experience in the work of art.
Conceptions of Religion: A View from Colonial India
The trajectories of colonialism and nationalism were intertwined in India, and one of the implications of colonial governmentality was the ascendancy of the nation-state model of politics. As Sudipta Kaviraj explains, the advent of colonial modernity gave a boost to the nation-state model of politics in India. Kaviraj points out how governmental and conceptual frameworks associated with the nation-state transformed the sense attached to precolonial notions of religious community, and resulted in understandings of religion grounded in frameworks of majorities and minorities. In my intervention I wish to examine the reflections of Mahadev Govind Ranade (1847-1901) on the “saints” and “prophets” of Maharashtra as a site for probing shifts in understandings of religion in colonial India. The aim is to discern the way in which older, precolonial, conceptions of phenomena, interpreted to have some semblance to what gets categorized as religion, are recalled and re-shaped whilst the way is paved for a crystallization of their new connotations.
The Search for a ‘Religion of the Future’ in Interwar Berlin
In the exchange between Germany and India in the interwar period, was religious/ spiritual/ ritual knowledge transferred as a means of implementing international cultural politics? And if so, whose politics was at stake? To answer these questions, I propose to inquire into the cooperation between the Ahmadiyya Mosque and the Buddhist House in interwar Berlin.
Around 1900, the German Life Reform Movement had focused India as the cradle of ‘Wisdom from the East’, ‘Mysticism’ and superior ‘Aryan people’. After WWI, several religious missions from India started to make converts in Berlin. In 1924, Ahmadiyya from Lahore built a mosque and created a successful German convert community that attracted Orient travellers and scholars of Oriental languages. That same year, after having extensively travelled through Ceylon, the German Buddhist Paul Dahlke founded a Theravada mission in Berlin that attracted German ‘Bildungsbürger’ (many printers and book sellers among them). In both missions, converts had previously been active in theosophical lodges.
In the mosque, Germans met with Indians, Persians and other foreigners participating in the debate, thus offering a platform where German colonial thought structures and Indian attempts to counteract colonial rule mingled. Differently, the Buddhist mission presented a German view on (religious) India that was informed through the reading of Pali texts.
Both houses left behind an archive. In each archive, letters, invitations and seminar announcements speak of attempts at communication with the other mission, while in-house mission journals introduce subjects and participants. With the help of these sources, I will present the experiment of a ‘religion of the future’ that was going to offer a roof for all ‘world religions’. I will ask what participants meant when they used the word religion, how they thought this entity could be developed, and where this search lead them.
Vanya Vaidehi Bhargav
Lajpat Rai’s Re-definition of Hinduism in the Colonial Encounter
My paper, titled ‘Lajpat Rai’s Re-definition of Hinduism in the Colonial Encounter’, will focus on the early religious thought of Lajpat Rai (1865-1928), who by the early twentieth century would become a well-known anti-colonial nationalist. Rai was a contemporary of Gandhi’s, and is considered by scholars as an early pioneer of the Hindu nationalist ideology known as Hindutva. My paper will focus on Rai’s religious views in the late nineteenth century as he joined the Arya Samaj, one of the many Hindu socio-religious reform movements that sprung up in the context of India’s encounter with British colonialism and Christianity. As British colonial official-scholars and missionaries attempted to understand Hinduism they sought out comparable features with Abrahamic faiths with which they were more familiar, and often ended up redefining Hinduism in their light. By the mid-nineteenth century this turned into vituperative criticisms of Hinduism for its lack of conformity to Abrahamic traditions, particularly Christianity. This in turn had sparked efforts by Hindus to re-define and reorganise Hinduism. The Arya Samaj, which Lajpat Rai joined, was born in the context of this creative re-definition of Hinduism in light of the colonial encounter. My paper will demonstrate how Lajpat Rai and his Arya Samaj sought to re-define Hinduism by ridding it of its textual plurality, polytheism and idol-worship, the characteristics most criticised by British officials and Protestant missionaries. Instead, contemporary Hinduism was portrayed as a deviation from the original religion found in the ancient Vedas – India’s most ancient Sanskrit texts – which preached abstract worship of a single, formless God. To make his case for
Hinduism as Vedic monotheism, Lajpat Rai referenced Max Muller (1823-1900), the German born scholar of Indology and comparative religion. However, while Max Muller articulated a universalism which saw all religions as rooted in the reasoning of all humans equally, Lajpat Rai utilised Max Muller’s name in service of his effort to rehabilitate Hinduism’s standing visà-vis Christianity in the context of colonial humiliation.
Hakenkreuz, Swastika and Crescent: The “religious factor” in Nazi cultural politics regarding India
This paper examines Nazi Germany`s cultural politics concerning India`s two main religious communities – Hindus and Muslims. Between 1933 and 1938, Germany`s official interest in India was limited. However, Deutsche Akademie, an ostensibly private organisation, tried to exercise “soft power” in India by cultivating Hindu revivalist groups like the Gaudiya sect and the Arya Samaj through strategic deployment of the Aryan discourse. Indian Muslims were targeted informally by the Ministry of Propaganda and the Nazi-leaning Deutsche Orient Verein through rhetoric of global Islamic solidarity and promise of Germany`s friendship.
Until 1938, efforts to expand German influence in India had an anti-British undertone. As war became imminent, German Foreign Office started to sympathize openly with India`s anti-colonial movement, in order to destabilize British rule. This brand of cultural politics received a fillip as the militant Indian politician Subhas Chandra Bose arrived in Berlin in April 1941 to seek help in achieving India`s independence. In the ensuing propaganda venture encompassing radio, press and publications, the religious question, particularly the Pakistan movement, acquired a special significance. Secret reports written by German “India experts” which shaped the external cultural politics of the Nazi state, engaged regularly with India`s politics of religion.
Bose forbade the use of religionized identities in conducting propaganda. He solicited Indian Muslims to join the secular anti-colonial movement under Gandhi. However, after Bose left Germany in 1943, Nazi propaganda started urging Indian Muslims to join their co-religionists in other countries in a holy war against Britain, which was projected as “the enemy of Islam.”
Within this context, the paper seeks to address the following aspects:
(i) Nazi regime’s approaches to the religious politics in India
(ii) the production of “expert knowledge” that determined these propagandistic advances
(iii) the reception of German cultural politics in India.
Two Expressions of Sarva Dharma Sambhava in Indian Political Thought
This paper explores the idea of sarva dharma sambhava (which translates as equality of all religions), a cultural and socio-political expression of religious tolerance, most prominently associated with the idea and practice of secularism in contemporary India. The paper focuses on possibilities and closures produced by two expressions of sarva dharma sambhava: the dominant statist version of the idea of secularism found in the political thought of Jawaharlal Nehru, and an alternative non-liberal, non-secular and non-state version found in the writings and politics of M.K. Gandhi. The Nehruvian vision and version of sarva dharma sambhava, which takes recourse to a secular historiography of India – highlighting the subcontinental history in terms of syncretic and pluralist traditions and composite cultures – seeks to reintroduce and reinvigorate a proto-secular irenic past of mutual toleration that was ostensibly lost during the British colonial rule. This statist version demonstrates the uniqueness of Indian secularism by maintaining that it is not based on the Western notion of separation of religion and politics, but rather on ideas of tolerance based on the Indian tradition of equal respect for all religions.
The Gandhian version of sarva dharma sambhava, on the other hand, relies on a communal historiography of the Indian subcontinent, where it emphasizes religious communities as separate and distinct. In his politics, Gandhi did not seek justification for tolerance on already available resources found in India’s living pluralism – in composite culture and syncretism, or through normative claims based on ideas of liberty and equality as espoused in liberalism. For instance, he did not seek political equality through constitutional changes enforced by the state, like a uniform civil code, or legislations on religious freedom. This alternative non-liberal and non-secular version of religious tolerance finds expression in non-state forms of, what I call, ‘associational politics,’ which through social reform (Gandhi’s famous constructive programme) stresses religion’s ability for internal reform and its historical quality of evolution. By highlighting these two forms of religious tolerance found in the idea of sarva dharma sambhava, I argue that despite their distinctive conception, the Gandhian and Nehruvian traditions come together on the ideal of a secular India. That is, for both traditions the socio-political imaginary of India rests on the idea of a multi-national state, and not a confessional state of the Westphalian system. The paper thus seeks to problematise the contrived oppositional binary between the traditional and religious Gandhian thought and the modern and secular Nehruvian thought that is often reflected in political debates on secularism and religious tolerance in contemporary India.