Theory & Religion Series: Bruce Lincoln’s Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars

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by Adam Miller

* This post is part of the Theory & Religion Series, where contributors are asked to discuss a current project they are working on, or a book or essay by a particular theorist that they have found useful in their teaching and research in the study of religion.

When invited to contribute to the Theory & Religion Series for the Bulletin, two works at once came to mind: Discourse and the Construction of Society and Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars, both by Bruce Lincoln (with whom I’ve recently had the pleasure of taking a course on classical theory). I’ve decided to write on the latter because it made a greater impact by virtue of when I read it. If my memory serves me, I had just completed my first year at the University of Missouri, which began and concluded (respectively) with a course and comprehensive examination in method and theory. Needless to say, I was bewildered. I wasn’t sure whether I liked what I had gotten myself into. Hell, I wasn’t even sure I knew what that even was. I was lost. I happened to pick up Gods and Demons after taking a break from reading, and something clicked. I found my niche.

Gods and Demons is fabulous from start to finish, but the essay I would like to focus on here is “How to Read a Religious Text” (5-15), wherein Lincoln uses four excerpts from the Chandogya Upaniṣad in order to illustrate/advance a critical method grounded in social theory. At the risk of being long-winded, I’d like first to summarize the four analyses he provides, then return to matters of method/theory.

Attending first to issues of maintenance, Lincoln revisits his previous work[1] on the sixth chapter of the Chandogya, a text associated with the lineage of priests responsible for the transmission of the Sāma Veda. Therein, the authors of the text homologize various sets of categories (Brilliance, Water, and Food; Speech, Breath, and Mind; Red, White, and Black) with one another, and in turn with the three varṇas (Priests, Warriors, and Commoners). In so doing, the boundary between the cosmological/metaphysical and the social collapses, thereby causing the contingent social arrangement in which these homologies were formulated to seem like a fact of nature. “When arguments of this sort are advanced, accepted, and invested with sacred status,” he concludes, “the stabilizing effects are enormous” (6).

Shifting his attention from maintenance of macrosocial order to modification of mesosocial order, he contrasts the “normative order” (7) of priests with the order put forth by the authors of the Chandogya. The former follows the typical ranking of the three Vedas: the Hotṛ priest is associated with the Ṛg Veda, the Udgātṛ with the Sāma, and the Adhvaryu with the Yajur. But the order advanced in Chandogya 1.3.6-7 differs significantly. Via an analysis of the word ‘udgītha’ (the name of an important chant in Vedic sacrifices that also happens to be the property/responsibility of the Udgātṛ priests) in conjunction with some strategic homologizing of the kind mentioned above, the authors promote both the Sāma and Yajur Vedas, relegating the Ṛg to last place. And by extension, of course, the priests associated with these texts go along for the ride. “[T]he ordinarily paramount Hotṛ priest,” Lincoln writes in lively style, “was positively pushed…into the material realm of earth, dirt, and shit.”

Lincoln then focuses on the microsocial, taking Chandogya Upaniṣad 1.10-11 as his example. This excerpt tells of a poor man named Uṣati Cākrāyaṇa who managed to weasel his way into a sacrifice that had already begun, convince the patron of the sacrifice that some of his priests were doing it wrong (even though according to the hegemonic tradition they were doing just fine), and win for himself a decent paycheck. But this series of events, Lincoln notes, was made possible by the fact that Uṣati had some food leftover from begging the day before. This point may seem trivial. But it’s not. Without having some food to contribute to the sacrifice, he presumably would not have been able to get within earshot of the patron. Further still, food is significant on the level of cosmological discourse. Because it is a gross material, Food is typically the lowest of three categories (under Speech and Breath, both of which are subtle), and is often associated with the lowest varṇa or priestly class. (It also includes the earth, dirt, and shit mentioned above.) Though not challenging this hierarchy, this section of the Chandogya shows how “[f]ood is convertible to money…via several mediations [e.g., what Lincoln calls “pretentious chatter … convey(ing) the semblance of wisdom to gullible priests and patrons”]” (12, emphasis in original), the latter of which occupies the position of highest privilege for the poor Uṣati.

Finally, Lincoln brings Chandogya Upaniṣad 1.12 to the table. In this passage, a man by the name of Baka Dālbhya (or Glāva Maitreya)—whom “the mythic genealogy of the Udgītha chant [presents] as the paradigmatic model for all subsequent Udgātṛs…an unimpeachable source” (13)—is said to have witnessed a host of dogs chanting their own version of the Udgītha. In their version of the chant, the dogs valorize Food over all else. After expressing uncertainty about the “origins, genre, or intent” (13) of the passage, Lincoln characterizes it as “striking” (13) because in its revalorization of homologized metaphysical categories it presents,

[A]n economy of consumption and pleasure, where priestly speech—and not food—is simply a means to an end … [where] the ultimate beneficiaries and ruling stratum are those whom other systems judge to be ‘animals’: those for whom material existence and bodily pleasure are not degraded and degrading, but the goal and supreme joy of existence (14).

Bookending and punctuating these explorations, Lincoln makes some recommendations regarding how historians of religion ought to go about their business. And underlying these pointers—themselves clear echoes of his well-known “Theses on Method”—is an interest in the advancement of social theory.

Observing that all texts are the products of situated human labor, Lincoln advises they be approached skeptically and critically—especially those texts he classifies as religious texts, which are distinct in that they claim for themselves “more-than-human origin, status, and authority” (5). (This conceptualization of what makes a given text religious is an extension of his definition of religion in terms of discourse, practice, community, and institution.[2]) Given this assumption, he proposes that historians of religion attend closely to the structure and logic of the texts under analysis[3]—that is, identify the categories operative therein, the hierarchical relations between the terms, how the terms are homologized with one another (forming binary or ternary sets, typically), and the reasons the texts provide for privileging one set of categories over others. And, further, highlight any subtle revalorizations within a text as it relates to a larger body of “culturally relevant comparative materials” (9). Next, he suggests that historians “[e]stablish any connections” between the world of the text and the social world in light of the text’s authorship and the material conditions surrounding its “authorship, circulation, and reception” (9).

Taking all of this together, religious texts become a fruitful data set for the investigation of the ways in which human interests “are advanced, defended, [and] negotiated” (9). Put differently—and to use some vocabulary which I almost certainly picked up from Russell McCutcheon and Craig Martin, whose respective bodies of work have come to be just as influential to my thinking as Lincoln’s—religious texts are for Lincoln (as I read him, at least) one kind of tool among others by which human beings not only construct, preserve, and modify boundaries and hierarchical relationships between/among social groups from the macro level all the way down to the micro level, but make said contingent social arrangements appear natural.

In my MA thesis, I brought (an admittedly less sophisticated understanding of) these ideas to bear on a past-life story from a previously untranslated and understudied Mahāyāna sūtra, and I intend to continue employing them in my dissertation (whatever the specifics of that project turn out to be). Additionally, my goal as an online instructor has been to get my students thinking about what people often call “religion” in social terms, and to employ the hermeneutics of suspicion when thinking about those discourses/texts, practices, communities, and institutions that people typically call “religious.”

Compelling as I find Lincoln’s work to be, however, and as useful as it is for guiding my instruction—and as Lincoln himself has noted in print and in class—there is no such thing as a purely disinterested theory of religion, and there is always room for improvement with regard to method. So, although I fancy myself a Lincolnian of sorts, I do not like to think of myself as a blind loyalist. His work has provided a solid foundation for me, and I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for any cracks as I build upward.

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[1] Bruce Lincoln, “The Tyranny of Taxonomy,” Discourse and the Construction of Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 131-141.

[2] This definition has appeared in Lincoln’s Holy Terrors: Thinking about Religion after September 11 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003) and in the epilogue of Sarah Iles Johnston’s edited volume Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, 2004), the latter of which was reprinted as “Ancient and Post-Ancient Religions,” in Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[3] The guidelines reproduced in “Reading a Religious Text” and summarized here were initially presented in Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

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