Category Formations and “Eastern” Traditions: Summary

by Matt Sheedy

The following is a summary of the third instalment of the Critical Questions Series dealing with category formation in “Eastern” traditions. Though the authors approach this question in a variety of ways, each is informed in their own way by post-colonial discourse and highlight the importance of deconstructing traditional textbooks in order to challenge prevailing normative representations of “East” and “West” that still thrive within the study of religion today.

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?

Steven Ramey discusses how the production of “East” and “West” in the study of religion are social constructions that reinforce certain stereotypes, while also pointing out how terms like “Hinduism” and “Buddhism” are historically constructed, noting that “many scholars who avoid the East/West dichotomy continually reinforce these labels that are similarly problematic.”

Ramey argues that it is not the scholar’s task to reinforce such boundaries as East and West, Hinduism and Buddhism, but rather to analyze what people mean when they use such labels. As a critical strategy, he recommends using traditional textbooks in the classroom, where “the objective should be a critique of the discourse of World Religions rather than primarily teaching the data within that discourse.”

Nicole Goulet observes that many departments of religion have addressed the problem of category formation through the use of alternative approaches, such as thematic courses (e.g. religion and media) or by focusing on certain geographical regions. Despite the rise of post-colonial studies, in the wake of Edward Said, however, she notes how the “symbolic power” of these categories remain largely in place, especially as they are filtered through popular “Western” media:

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.

As one alternative to these constructions, Goulet advocates subversion by deploying critical theories of race, gender and social class.

James Mark Shields draws our attention to recent shifts in these category formations by pointing to how Islam was classified as an “Eastern” tradition not so very long ago before being welcomed back into the arms of the “West.” Shields likewise aims to confront these problems by addressing their constructed and colonialist legacies.

At the same time, he argues that traditions like Judaism, Christianity and Islam can be taught together, while pointing out their “West Asian” cultural constructions, along with Hellenistic influences. While noting the shared roots between Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism, as well as Taoism and Confucianism, Shields raises the problem of how the study of these traditions must also confront the dominant Indian and Chinese lenses through which they are typically filtered, exploring instead, for example, the varieties of African representations that seems to allude both Euro and Asia-centric constructions.

Shields also notes how orientalist depictions work both ways, as with “Japanese Buddhist ‘reformers’ in the Meiji period” who “effectively reconstructed a ‘modern’ Buddhism” for agnostic Western consumption.

Sarah F. Haynes begins her post by pointing out how with advance of globalization in the present age, the categories of East and West have become significantly blurred, while their reification continues. What to do? Addressing her own proximate location as a scholar of Buddhism in the “West” who teaches “Western” students about “Eastern” traditions, Haynes discusses how the problems of East/West representation (post-Said) are not only perpetuated by “Westerners,” but also by some within “Eastern” traditions themselves, who engage in a process of “reverse Orientalism,” as when the Dalai Lama “is depicted as a peaceful mystic, a simple monk, and Tibet as a Shangri-la.” Here the “agent of identity formation has changed but the audience and methods remain the same.”

Agreeing with Goulet’s arguments, Haynes asks why stereotypical depictions of the “East” continue to hold such symbolic power and suggests that a critical interrogation of the reasons behind this problem is an important direction for both scholarship and teaching.

Deepak Sarma begins his reflections by pointing out how constructed categories are always arranged hierarchically and considered to be representative of some “essential foundation.” While noting some “valiant” attempts to contest these humanly constructed categories, Sarma observes that one of the challenges in destabilizing such classifications is a “market driven by a publication and education economy” that makes “simplistic taxonomies” more appealing and sellable–even more so in these times of economic imperatives and the expansion of on-line courses and MOOCs.

As with the other contributions, Sarma cautions that “Eastern” constructions are also and often peddled outside of the “West” and that exposing students to these various representations is a productive way of tackling the paradigm head on.


It should not be surprising that each of these scholars is informed by critical and post-colonialist theories in their various orientations toward scholarship. Indeed, talk of a post-Said constellation, whether it was mentioned directly or merely implied, suggest a sea-change from decades past, where critical debates on representations of the “Other” are coming more to the forefront depite retrenchments and on-going idealizations.

An interesting twist that some of these scholars addressed was the problem of “reverse Orientalism,” suggesting that dominant or normative categories and conceptualizations imposed upon the “East” by the “West” are not a one-way street and are indeed often embodied in complex ways by the imagined “Other” herself. This trend in more recent scholarship can be seen, for example, in Webb Keane’s book Christian Moderns: Freedom and Fetish in the Mission Encounter (2007), where the colonial encounter, both past and present, is viewed less as a relationship of total domination and more of one in which the colonized “Other” is also understood as possessing agency, despite being subjected to forms of conversion or social control.

While few of the authors took up the matter of how their own identities impact their scholarly work, it is a question worth considering given the additional challenges that all (or at least most) scholars of “Eastern” religions must face in attempting to represent cultural traditions that are widely considered “foreign” in this part of the world. Indeed, all scholars of religion must contend not only within and against dominant scholarly paradigms, but also with how to address and negotiate issues of racism and cultural appropriation that we as individuals (as human beings, as citizens, etc.) cannot simply put aside like some positivist mind-trick. How these broader representations and subtle (and not so subtle) social pressures impact our work is worth further consideration–a point that Deeka Sarma seems to be touching upon in a different way with his mention of the financial pressures of our current economic climate and trends toward on-line education.

Perhaps the most challenging question comes from Steven Ramey’s post, where he suggests that scholars move beyond labelling traditions like Hinduism as Hinduism and focus instead on the varieties of such terms as they are used by social actors. Herein lies one of the larger challenges within the critical study of religions–how to address the problem of the social and scholarly creation of purportedly “religious” concepts, traditions and ideals, while balancing critique (e.g. deconstruction) with maintaining a consistent set of terms for what it is that we are making reference to when we attempt to identify the beliefs and practices of distinct groups through comparison.

Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual and myth, and social movements. His dissertation offers a critical look at Juergen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.

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