NAASR Notes: Adam T. Miller


by Adam T. Miller

NAASR Notes is a feature with the Bulletin where we invite members of the North American Association for the Study of Religion to describe books they are reading and/or research and writing projects that will be of interests to scholars in the field. For previous posts in this series, follow the link

This past spring, I completed my first year of coursework as a doctoral student in the History of Religions program at the University of Chicago. Coming from the semester system, it was hard to get used to covering almost the same amount of ground in just ten weeks. Now that it’s all said and done, though, I think I’m a fan of the long-distance sprint. In my most recent endurance challenge, I had the privilege of taking Historiography for Historians of Religions with Bruce Lincoln. Most of the material we read and discussed in class was incredibly thought provoking, but the sequence of Hayden White’s The Content of the Form and Carlo Ginzburg’s History, Rhetoric, and Proof really took the cake. Now that I’ve had some time to let the academic year sink in a bit, I’d like to share a few thoughts using these two works as a starting point. I should note up front that these ideas are still taking shape, so any feedback is welcome. The goal/hope is for these musings to provide a foundation of sorts for my colloquium paper, on the basis of which my advisor(s) will determine at the end of my second year whether I am ready for qualifying exams. Okay, on to the meat and ‘taters…

As I understand it, Hayden White (1928 – ) has spent much of his career reflecting on historiography, on the ways in which historians have written up their findings. In short, he treats historical scholarship as literature, and reads it as a literary critic. For White, the form of a work of history—that is, its narrative qualities of storyline, character development, drama, tension, resolution, and so on—is never neutral. What a historian counts as development or resolution, for example, reveals much more about his/her interests than the events he/she claims to depict. A less satisfying but more accurate depiction of the barrage that constitutes a given period of time on White’s view would be the annal—a chronologically ordered list of events, each of which exists almost as an island to itself. Anything more is distorting, ideologically motivated rhetorical flourish. And so, for White, historical narratives are rhetoric. We might even say mere rhetoric.

Reacting against such critiques of historiography (though not at all advocating a return to positivism or a Hegelian focus on the State), microhistorian Carlo Ginzburg (1939 – ) argues that although history and literature share significant overlap and historical narratives have a rhetorical dimension, they are not thereby mere stories whose degree of accuracy is indeterminable. He supports this position by returning to Aristotle, in whose view rhetoric and proof were related. Indeed, for Aristotle proof lies at the very heart of rhetoric—the thought being that an argument is more persuasive, a narrative more plausible/probable, when accompanied by evidence (the more the better). What this means is that even though rhetoric and history are inextricably linked, some stories can be judged more accurate than others. Holocaust deniers, for example, are flat out wrong—no matter how persuasive some audiences find their revisions to be. For a less extreme (but no less instructive) illustration of this argument, see Ginzburg’s “Lorenzo Valla on the ‘Donation of Constantine.’”

Now, as readers of the Bulletin are well aware, things get messy when religion gets brought into the mix. For as so many illustrious names have argued, the category emerged in a limited cultural sphere for reasons unique to that sphere, did/does not clearly delimit one kind of stuff within that sphere (or the spheres to which it spread), has few (if any) analogues in other spheres, and so on. What counts as evidence for religion, in other words, is up for grabs. And as such, if ‘religion’ is to be part of our analytical vocabulary, it must be defined/theorized. Given my interest in social formation, the best option on the market is, in my humble estimation, Bruce Lincoln’s definition in terms of discourse, practice, community, and institution.[1]

In addition to offering a definition of religion, broadly conceived, Lincoln also distinguishes ancient religion from post-ancient religion. Here I’ll quote him at length:

[A]s ancient religion gave way to post-ancient, one could observe a discourse based on canonic corpora of sacred texts displacing inspired performances of sacred verse; practices of prayer, contemplation, and self-perfection displacing material mediations through sacrifice and statues of the deity; deterritorialized elective communities constructed on the basis of religious adherence displacing multistranded groups, within which ties of geography, politics, kinship, culture, and religion were isomorphic and mutually reinforcing; and institutions that, with some exceptions, had better (also more creative and varied) funding, a wider range of activities, and more autonomy from the state displacing their weaker, more localized predecessors.[2]

I should note two things before moving forward. First, this distinction is based on of a wide range of materials gleaned almost exclusively from the ancient Mediterranean world; second, it is not clear to me whether Lincoln intends this distinction to have any analytical purchase beyond that world. With that said, I’ve been thinking for a while about how this theory might hold up when laid over first millennium India, and more specifically whether and to what extent it might help historians of religion think about the emergence and development of Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Without going into too much detail, Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism seems to confound aspects of Lincoln’s theory. With regard to the foundation of discourse, it is commonly maintained that “the categories ‘written’ and ‘oral’ traditions fit Indian religions very poorly,”[3] and that “[t]he boundary between oral and written Buddhist texts was clearly an open one.”[4] As for practice, textual and material evidence suggests that those associated with the Mahāyāna engaged in both mediated/external and unmediated/internal practices.[5] In terms of community, although the bodhisattva path seems to have been a widespread supererogatory option of self-identification and practice closely associated with the Mahāyāna, it is not clear what criteria marked Mahāyānists as distinct from others according to Mahāyānists themselves. And lastly, with regard to institution, the archaeological record permits speaking of an institutionally distinct Mahāyāna only after the fifth/sixth century, more than half a millennium after the composition of the first Mahāyāna sūtras.[6] Which is to say that the Mahāyāna—whatever it was, whoever constituted it, however its members saw themselves in relation to like and unlike others, etc.—doesn’t even register because for quite some time it was not different from the established monastic system.

Whether Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism actually confounds Lincoln’s theory, I think, depends on how one views the relationship between theory and data. If an analysis concerns an area where the category ‘religion’ either did not exist or had no analogues, then it seems to me that whatever one’s definition/theorization happens to be is what constitutes certain aspects of the material under investigation as religious. In the case of ancient and post-ancient religion, then, the Mahāyāna does not confound Lincoln’s theory, but rather the theory gives historians of religion a novel way of seeing the evidence at hand, calling into existence two types of religion that ultimately dissolve into a larger social theory and, as such, could be of great use in thinking about the history of Mahāyāna Buddhism in India.

If this is all quite confusing, it’s because it remains so even to me. I am not only still working on how to best express what I want to say, but also trying to figure out whether what I’m struggling to say is important and worth saying. But in any event, that’s one of the more significant things that I’ve been up to. I’ve enjoyed reading the NAASR Notes series so far, and look forward to more updates!


[1] Lincoln theorizes religion as “(1) A discourse whose concerns transcend the human, temporal, and contingent, and thus claims for itself a similarly transcendent status…(2) A set of practices whose goal is to produce a proper world and/or proper human subjects, as defined by a religious discourse to which these practices are connected…(3) A community whose members construct their identity with reference to a religious discourse and its attendant practices…[and] (4) An institution that regulates religious discourse, practice, and community, reproducing them over time and modifying them as necessary, while asserting their eternal validity and transcendent value.” Bruce Lincoln, Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars, 75-76; see also

[2] Lincoln, GDPS, 82.

[3] David Drewes, “Early Indian Mahāyāna Buddhism I: Recent Scholarship,” Religion Compass 4.2 (2010), 60.

[4] Jan Nattier, A Few Good Men, 59.

[5] Buddha and bodhisattva images (which were themselves “treated as flesh and blood…[and as] possess[ing] full existential efficacy”) are common in the archaeological record starting around the second century CE, and self-cultivation/perfection by way of meditation is a hallmark of Buddhism, broadly conceived. Richard S. Cohen, “Kinsmen of the Son,” History of Religions 40.1 (2000), 15.

[6] There is “not a single reference to gifts or patronage extended to an explicitly named Mahāyāna or Mahāyāna group until the end of the fifth and beginning of the sixth centuries.” Gregory Schopen, “The Mahāyāna and the Middle Period of Indian Buddhism,” in Figments and Fragments, 11.

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