Critical Questions Series 3: Category Formation and “Eastern” Traditions


by Deepak Sarma

This is the fifth instalment of the Critical Questions Series 3. The first post by Steven Ramey can be found here, the second by Nicole Goulet here, the third by James Mark Shields here, and the fourth by Sarah F. Haynes here.

QuestionThe varieties of Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Shinto, along with the “indigenous traditions” of Asia and the Pacific Islands, are commonly referred to as “Eastern” in the taxonomies of most introductory textbooks. What is your sense of where these categories stand today? How do you grapple with issues of category formation in the study of religion that have been historically filtered through a Euro-western lens? How does your own identity factor into the equation?

All taxonomies are humanly constructed and the so-called East-West dichotomy is no exception. Problems arise when the stipulated category is reified and held to be part of an essential foundation. Greater problems arise when these humanly constructed categories are arranged hierarchically, when these stipulated hierarchies are held to be part of an essential foundation, and when they are used to exploit.

The study of religion and religious studies is little more than a history of the reification of stipulated categories. Some recent reflections on method and theory, moreover, are valiant attempts to deconstruct these constructions and to rejigger these reifications. Their success is indexed, in part, to a market driven by a publication and education economy whose masters and mistresses are less than likely to assist in the deconstruction of these convenient, simplified, and simplistic taxonomies. The end result has been, and is likely to continue to be, a manifestation of the reifications in such tangible forms as textbooks, and as introductory classes taught in Universities and Colleges. And in today’s publication and educational economy, which is faltering and somewhat desperate (on-line and MOOC’s aside), challenging basic assumptions, and teaching about the construction and reification of categories is not encouraged –unless, of course, it is foreseen (or predicted) to be economically productive or fruitful. Alas.

Ironically (or commendably), the created and constructed categories and hierarchies are often used by those who are exploited and, by doing this, themselves exploit the publication and education economy. Who hasn’t come across authors and speakers who embrace and peddle their own “Eastern Wisdom”?

My classes are primarily focused upon the construction of categories –“Eastern,” “religion,” “Hinduism,” “Yoga” and so on. The students who take them (or are subject to them) are self-selected and succeed if they jettison jejune opinions. So I grapple with the issue by grappling with the issue!

Dr. Deepak Sarma, professor of South Asian religions and philosophy at Case Western Reserve University, is the author of “Classical Indian Philosophy: A Reader” (2011), “Hinduism: A Reader” (2008), “Epistemologies and the Limitations of Philosophical Inquiry: Doctrine in Madhva Vedanta” (2005) and “An Introduction to Madhva Vedanta” (2003). He was a guest curator of Indian Kalighat Paintings, an exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art. After earning a BA in religion from Reed College, Sarma attended the University of Chicago Divinity School, where he received a PhD in the philosophy of religions. His current reflections concern cultural theory, racism, and post-colonialism. 

This entry was posted in Critical Questions Series, Pedagogy, Politics and Religion, Religion and Society, Religion and Theory, South Asian Studies, Southeast Asian Studies, Theory and Method, Theory in the Real World, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Critical Questions Series 3: Category Formation and “Eastern” Traditions

  1. Karen Zoppa says:

    I am confused: is the assumption that all “religion” scholarship is coerced into obeying “economies” that are “market driven”? It is a very interesting and worthy question – does the academy now operate on capitalistic assumptions? Is this true? If so, what are the implications? But in the mean time – it does beg the question.

    Secondly, what do you mean by “deconstruction”? It is not exactly a signifier that lends itself to denotation. I am seriously intersted in this discussion.

    Karen Zoppa

  2. Deepak Sarma says:

    This posting, “What Makes a University Great,” which appeared on the Huff Post, may be of interest to readers of this Bulletin. Here is the link:


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