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

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By Nicole Goulet

This is the second instalment of the Critical Questions Series 3. The first post by Steven Ramey can be found here.

Question: The 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?

It is difficult to discuss the problem or politics of the categorization of “Eastern’’ religions without a nod to the equally problematic category of “Western” religions.  Many scholars would agree that the traditional East/West structure of Introduction to World Religions courses is archaic and Eurocentric and therefore in need of reconfiguration.  In some departments, thematic courses are offered in its’ stead—Religion and Death, Religion and Sexuality, Religion and Media, and so on.  Other departments have instead chosen to address World Religions according to geographical region.  And yet others still have gotten rid of Introduction to World Religions completely, or at the very least, have abandoned the introductory textbook in favor of more specialized readings.  All such efforts are to some degree attempts to ameliorate the impact of what Edward Said called Orientalism on the construction, study, and understanding of religion in general, and Eastern religions specifically.  But do such well-intentioned efforts suffice?  That is, are examples such as those cited above really challenging traditional assumptions about religion (while simultaneously informing students about various world traditions)?  Or are they simply obscuring the continuing impact of centuries of western caricature on the studying and teaching of “Eastern” religions?

In our globalized world the categories of east and west have become nonsensical.  Contemporary technology allows people from all over the world to travel, communicate and live in communities that are highly diverse.  Our multicultural array of students can certainly attest to this.  Since Columbus sailed the blue, at the very least it has been the case that religions have not been significantly constrained by geographical boundaries.  Which is not to say that in some regions certain religious groups constitute a significant or even hegemonic majority.  Christianity in general remains the dominant religion in Canada, for example, and Catholicism in particular is still the predominant religion in Francophone communities within that polity.

And yet, the symbolic power of East and West remain.  The category of “East,” especially as it relates to religion, continues to be freighted with cliché, stereotype, and occasionally downright racism.  In the popular media, if not the scholarly world, those people who constitute the “East” are represented with reliable frequency as foreign and exotic; sensual and erotic; passionate and subjective.  That is: not white, not modern, not the “West.”  Even in cases where the “East” is not portrayed in overtly demeaning terms, in undergraduate textbooks for example, it is still the subject of romantic visions of what constitutes a ‘true’ Buddhist (the meditative renouncer on the path to enlightenment), the ‘true’ Hindu (the meditative renouncer on the path to enlightenment), and the ‘true’ Taoist (one who meditates to gain enlightenment) persist.  And such habits of representation persist in many texts which purport to be deconstructing and problematizing the categories of “East” and “West.”  So to simply rid ourselves of the categories by banning them from the classroom does little to diminish their continuing impact on the study and teaching of religion.

Instead, by facing the categories head on, through introductory text books, and other academic and popular sources, that may very actually reinforce these problematic stereotypes, we can teach students to critically evaluate the ways in which religions are described and portrayed by a wide-range of observers, practitioners, and critics.  Think how productive it would be to follow Mary Pat Fisher’s section on Buddhism with Werner Hertzog’s “Wheel of Time” as well as the usual primary texts and scholarly sources.  Not only do such sequences force students to recognize that ideas about a religion (be it East or West) are constructed, but that they are contestable.

An alternative approach would be to draw attention to the issues of the category of “East” by subjecting all religions to the same analytic categories of race, class and gender.  For example, most introductory texts frame Hinduism in such a way as to assert Brahminical Hinduism as the “true” Hinduism, with subsequent developments as alternatives to this authentic core.  In discussing such historical developments in relation to the assertion of, and response to Brahminical power, other forms of Hinduism can be affirmed (while simultaneously rejecting colonialist ideas of what Hinduism was/is).  Which brings me to one last observation: the very moment when the categories of East and West were invented and applied to religion, was a colonial moment.  That it is possible to argue the origin of our discipline can be found in the history of European expansion suggests, to me at least, that the continuing hold the idea of the East has over our society needs to be confronted by us, together with our students, in the classroom.

Nicole Goulet’s (PhD. University of Manitoba) research includes issues of race, class and gender in colonial India; Hindu nationalist movements; feminist and postcolonial theories in relation to Hinduism and South Asia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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

  1. Russ says:

    The implication seems to be that one way to avoid the problematic colonially-imposed categories of East/West is to replace them with the unproblematic transcultural categories of race/class/gender. But shouldn’t these categories of analysis come under scrutiny as well?

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