Whose Interests Are Served?

by Steven Ramey

* This post originally appeared on the Culture on the Edge blog.

A video that focused on religion among the urban middle class in India a couple of years ago illustrates what happens when people discuss problems with applying the category “religion.” The journalist quotes Ashis Nandy, an internationally recognized scholar, who brings up the problems applying the category “religion” to the context of India (starting at 3:52).

Though we call Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism religions, in South Asia and, I would suspect, even in East Asia they were not religions in the Western sense. There is no word in any Indian language which is a synonym of religion.

The journalist plows forward undaunted, virtually ignoring the implications of Nandy’s assertion by tweaking the application of “religion” on its edges. The journalist paraphrases Nandy as he continues.

Instead, Nandy says religious practice is localized and individualized in India, particularly in the predominant Hinduism, which has no centralized leadership. Hindus profess faith in one creator, Brahma, as part of a trinity with Vishnu, the protector, and Shiva, the destroyer of evil, shown in this Aastha channel animation. They are manifest in countless deities and forms. People can and often do choose a personal god or gods informed by family or village traditions, personal experience, or even word of mouth. The pantheon can sometimes transcend what to Westerners might seem firmly drawn lines between religious faiths.

So, we can recognize what is religious, even though Nandy declares that “they were not religions in the Western sense” and proceed to note the minor differences in leadership, personal choice, and boundaries, allowing the essentialized notion of “religion” to remain virtually unchanged.

Whose interests does this decision to ignore the critique of the category, after quoting it, serve? For a news service named “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly,” quoting the critique makes the story appear sophisticated while rethinking the category too much might reduce viewer interest.

In a broader sense, though, traditional applications of the term “religion,” despite minor tweaks, cloaks the ways some use the category to promote their particular interests. Just before the journalist moves into Nandy’s quote (starting at 3:32 in above video), the General Manager of Aastha TV, a channel in India promoting particular movements and practices commonly described as religious, appears on screen to declare,

There are programs that show a lot of divorce or extramarital affairs and things that way. But that’s actually not a fact in India, so our network, on the contrary, is actually showing you, okay, this is India. This is the religion, these are our values, and this is how we live.

Religion, then, equals “our values,” which too many in India ignore. Much of the language of academics and the media, uses labels of religions and the category religion/non-religion in ways that serve the interests of purveyors of a particular notion of tradition, whether people intend to promote that or not.

Steven Ramey is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Director of Asian Studies at the University of Alabama. His book Hindu Sufi or Sikh (Palgrave, 2008) focuses on communities who identify as Sindhi Hindus and the ways they contest dominant understandings of identities, both in India and beyond. His newest project addresses the assumptions in the language of religious labels and the ways those assumptions determine research and valorize particular constructions of religions. He blogs for The Huffington Post and the Bulletin for the Study of Religion and serves as the Series Editor of Culture on the Edge: Studies in Identity Formation, book series with Equinox Publishers.
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