In the previous parts (Part One and Part Two), we saw the nature of Christian encounters with the Roman world and the Indian sub-continent, along with attempts of western intellectuals to define and explain religion. We also saw how the Protestants tried to take on the atheistic movement in the Age of Reason.
In the final part, we shall see the authors discuss the mechanisms of domestication of pagans by intellectual argumentation backed by brute power, of course. Most importantly, the author argues for the impossibility of religion in India on metaphysical and sociological grounds. And finally, he compares different cultures in terms of learning configurations of each culture and how this translates into evolution of sciences in a religious background. The conclusion he draws is that most religious narratives and discourses are now wearing simply a new secularized coat. The gist of the narratives remains the same.
Domestication of Pagans
The pagans saw religion as the tradition of a people and the Semitic religions saw religion as God’s gift to humanity. The pagans of the past and the Hindus of today cannot understand the gulf between the two. It is easy for the pagans or for the Indians to accept Christianity as another form of tradition; but that tolerance can never come for Christianity or other Semitic religions. Their nature as a religion had to label other traditions as religions too and then classify them as true or false. Power at the central level no doubt helped in the propagation of these Christian ideas.
The ‘true religion’ plays upon the very nature of tradition with the result that it ultimately succeeds in erasing its otherness as a tradition. The stories and legends surrounding the collective practices of a tradition become the theoretical basis for the tradition, now coined as a religion. Practices of generations now require to have reason, justification, meaning, and purpose. One of the important consequences of turning a tradition into religion is that it begins to refer to itself in search of a ‘deeper foundation’- a reflexivity which never existed before. One important step in this conversion is a universal history of humankind starting with the imaginary past of the Jews.
Idolatry and Its Importance in Religious Expansion
Idolatry is a religious concept, rooted in Christian theology. It looks outward into the non-Christian world and enables the assimilation of the secular world into the Christian world. In the dynamic of religious expansion, idolatry is a crucial concept in the arsenal. In this expansion, the obvious question was ‘What is it to be Christian?’ The trichotomy existing before of Christian (or sacred), secular (or civic), and pagan (or profane) became a simple dichotomy of sacred or profane; or Christian and pagan. The pagan world was a totality of all pagan practices including the truly secular ones like New Year celebrations, circuses, banquets, and so on. But political and army power saw that the pagan world became contracted taking out its secular aspects completely. The secular pagan world became a pure pagan world and then it vanished. The same is going on in India, but we have been resilient. But, for how long?
Idolatry and Devil worship are potent methods of creating the other, attacking them virulently, and then absorbing their culture into Christianity after ridding them of their sins. It is because their culture roots in religion. Going about in this culture requires ‘knowing about.’ This includes knowing about what other cultures know about the world. Hence it creates religions and world-views in other cultures. But this is only one way of configuration of learning brought by religion. The fact is that there are other configurations of learning elsewhere in other cultures which are not rooted in religion.
What Are the Consequences of Finding a Culture With No Religion?
With respect to theories that define religion as a ‘mechanism for social integration’ (the functionalist) or as an ‘experience of the sacred’ (the phenomenologists), if we come across a culture that has no religion then we have to assume that the culture uses different mechanisms for experiencing the holy or social integration. In which case, either our definition is wrong or inadequate to explain religious evolution.
Oddly, though it appears self-evident that all cultures have religion, yet it is not possible to say what the consequences of its absence are. No theory in fact explains the universality of religion, because we would see the consequences of these theories if we found a culture without religion. If we assume that not all cultures have religions then the consequences of this assumption for all theories till now would be: judgements about religion are pre-theoretical; any definition of religion will show arbitrariness of a stipulative definition (too vague/too specific/ too cumbersome); universality of religion is a non-empirical claim; and philosophers have been stupidly persisting with the idea of a universality of religion. Native Americans, Buddhists, Jainism are sometimes ‘not religions’ in the words of some authors.
A Culture without Religion- Metaphysical and Sociological Impossibilities of a Religion in India
The word ‘Religion’ gets secular tone by using the word ‘world-view’, which in fact means the same thing when looking at different cultures. The focus remains distinctly in the framework of the dominant culture. Like the arguments made in the religious framework that all cultures have a religion, an argument in secularized tones ensues that all cultures will have a world-view. The author obviously disagrees on this.
A world-view or vision of life is a framework or set of fundamental beliefs through which we view the world; and our calling and future in it. A world-view binds the adherents into a community. This classic definition of a world-view is no different from a definition of religion.
For more than 1600 years, before the advent of secular ideologies and scientific theories, the only candidates for the term ‘world-view’ were religions. The author asks three questions: Do all cultures have a world-view? Do all cultures need a world-view? Could we describe a community and its boundaries by describing the outlines of their world-view? In the framework of these questions, the author makes his strongest point that there simply cannot be a religion in India.
The two important properties of religion are: first, it must make a claim about the origin and purpose of the world (the how and why of the Cosmos); and secondly, this message must be true. Religion explains and makes intelligible the Cosmos as an expression of the purposes of an entity called God. Religious claims must be items of knowledge and have the as the same status as of other ‘true’ knowledge claims like for e.g. the Earth goes around the sun. This is the ‘metaphysical’ position of any religion.
Based on the metaphysical conditions, Indian traditions are not possibly religions. They do not properly raise the issue of origin of the Cosmos. Vedas, Upanishads, Brahmanas, Puranas, Itihaasas have multiple stories of creation and purposes of Cosmos. The ideas in the multiple stories say just about everything and everything. Depending on the context, an individual in the multiple narratives may call the question of Cosmos origin illegitimate, or consider it pure speculation lacking any truth value, or say that all claims are true, or even suggest that Cosmos has no origin and is always present. The Buddhists and the Jains have no conception of a God in the first place! Strangely, in Indian tradition and culture, a person can equally believe all the stories and may equally reject all of them. Finally, it looks almost as if the ‘origin’ question and the place of God are irrelevant.
One author says that ‘Creation in India is not a unique event at the beginning of time, but an ever-recurring moment, a repetition of something already known.’ Religion is thus impossible in a culture where the questions of origins can be an illegitimate one. The Western world is always in a grip of historicity trying to find the truth value of its scriptures. The Biblical history is right in the center of investigation with advocates and opponents on either side of the battle line trying to prove or disprove. This attitude hardly excites or disturbs their counterparts in India. The truth or falsity of the books are irrelevant in the Indian intellectual tradition. Ramayana is true, but Rama may or may not be true would be the kind of attitude which a Western intellectual in the grips of all its ‘isms’ can never understand.
It is the attitude of a culture towards the holy books that generates questions or fails to do so. Literature investigating the truth claims made by ‘religious texts’ is absent in India. To ask whether they are true or false is to exhibit a profound ignorance of the culture whose stories they are. They are simply not knowledge items as viewed by the Western intellectuals. Unfortunately, this has been a weapon to attack Indians by saying that we lack a science of history. Our culture did not require it and that is it. But we had other sciences which progressed without any restrictions from the ‘religious priesthood.’
The second argument which the author puts is the ‘sociological impossibility’ of a religion in India. There must be certain sociological conditions absolutely required for guaranteeing the identity of religions. These are: there must be a world-view codified in a textual source called a ‘holy-book’ and must be widely known; a standard world-view must be present with clear boundaries and which cannot undergo changes across generations; an authority must exist to settle disputes in transmission and interpretation of stories and legends (thus having a hierarchy of texts); there must be a source of excommunication when two interpretations collide (say Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Buddhism); there must be an organization to transmit and propagate its world-views.
These five sociological conditions are necessary to allow the transmission of the world-views across space and time so that they may preserve their identity over generations. None of these conditions fulfil in India with respect to Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, and so on. Hence, in metaphysical and sociological terms, it is an impossibility that Indian culture knows of religions or its secularized version-a world view. There is no world-view to outline in India.
Having a world-view almost has become an evolutionary necessity according to western intellectuals, says the author. It is a strong belief that every culture has a world-view and to study a view is to understand the culture of those people. The necessity and indispensability of the world-views is finally the secularized version of a theological belief.
Universalization or Secularization of Religion
Universalization implies that religion becomes simple and its form and structure becomes so well entrenched that its specific doctrines fade into the background even while the cognitive structure stays in place. Christian doctrines spread in two different ways: first by conversion into Christianity of the people; and second, by the widespread acceptance of its account by non-Christians, because the accounts spread in a secularized fashion.
This double movement expresses itself in the double relation religions have towards each other: they are intolerant of each other but there is also an inter-religious dialogue and feeling that ‘all religions are one.’ The final belief we end up with is the universality of religions across all cultures because of these two phenomena of Christianity: proselytization and secularization of its vocabulary. Religion is a significant element in the identity of western culture. The belief that religion is one of the constitutive elements of all cultures can be true only because the culture which believes in this is itself constituted by religion.
A Comparison of Cultures- Differences in Learning Configurations
A comparative science of cultures is possible when there are multiple descriptions by members of different cultures using the background of their own culture. Such a situation does not exist today, because all cultures have a description only in the western framework. The West developed as a cultural entity through mainly the double dynamic of proselytization and spread of the same ideas in a secular guise. So finally, all cultural descriptions rely on a Christian religious framework.
Learning is the way an organism makes its environmental habitable. This is an evolutionary need. Just as with nature, humans have a process to deal with other human beings in the society to form social groups. This crucial process of socialization consists of transmitting knowledge from the reservoir of the group. The reservoir consists of customs, myths, traditions; and the mechanisms of transmission are child rearing practices, schooling patterns, and so on. These socialization practices evolved either through deliberation or through unintended discoveries. A human capacity to learn is not a single species-typical learning process. There are multiple frameworks for this learning process and socialization in human beings. Thus, differences between cultures has to do with differences in social environments and different ways of going about in the world.
There are many kinds of learning processes and each culture has different kinds of knowledge. One kind of knowledge will build societies; another type will produce poetry, music, and dance; and another will develop theories and speculations. There is also a meta-learning which is the knowledge of reproducing knowledge too. There are thus different configurations of learning in each culture. In this structuring process of knowledge gain and transmission, one kind of learning is dominant and the other kinds become subordinate to the dominant configuration of learning.
Here the author makes a bold comment, which underlies the thesis of the whole book, that the dominant configuration of learning in the West is religion. Religion brings a configuration of learning which brings about ‘learning about’ things. The ‘why’ question becomes the dominant order of learning process. Religion generates an attitude and an orientation; it puts constraints on the intellectual and practical energies of the culture; it generates a feeling of relevance and importance. It can do so because it is the ultimate example of an explanation. In this background, it is not surprising to note the rising of secular sciences in the western culture, the resistance of religion to the sciences, and the desperate efforts to convert or colonize. The roots of all these phenomena remain firmly in religion.
Knowing a man’s action is to know his beliefs. This driving philosophy finally leads to assess the beliefs of other cultures from the actions which they perform. It may simply happen that in other cultures, actions may have a complete disconnect to the beliefs a person holds. The ancient pagan philosophers sometimes seriously questioning the existence of God were priests in temples offering sacrifices to Gods. This the Early Christians could never understand and this the modern secular paradigms do not understand too. A single framework is a severely limiting factor in the understanding of different cultures.
The gradual emergence of religion as the root model of order is what made the West into a culture. Seeking ‘knowledge about’ as the dominant learning process, generates theoretical knowledge: the natural sciences- a species of knowledge that grew out of a religious culture. Religion as a root model structures the experience of the world so that, in the absence of deeper underlying laws, the phenomenal world seems chaotic. Religion hence was a necessary condition for the development of scientific thinking. Religion related phenomena to each other; it provided an explanation for these unconnected phenomena by appealing to an invisible ordering force; and required a search for the underlying explanation. So, what we call a scientific attitude is contiguous with a religious attitude. Religion formed, nurtured, and gave birth to science. This is the reason the natural sciences emerged in the religious cultures.
Religions draws up its limits of knowledge, science does not. When the secularization of religion by way of the sciences starts threatening the religious doctrines, there is an obvious antipathy. The hostility of the Church to scientific theories is a consequence of this clash. Christianity ended up treating the scientific theories as rivals. The increasing knowledge of the slices of the world finally leads to a condition where the individual or community is indifferent to religious knowledge. This is again a consequence of religion being the root model of learning.
Learning Configurations in the Pagan/ Heathen World
The author now claims that there can be alternate culture-specific configuration of learning where performative knowledge (or a ‘how to’ ability) dominates. In a society where performative knowledge dominates, there can be amazing social stability, cohesion, structuring, speculations, and ordering of society. Being the dominant mode of learning, such a culture would even raise theoretical speculations in form of performative actions.
Rituals are such an entity of a culture like India where they may have taken a dominant mode of learning. It generates a configuration of learning; whose dominant learning process builds societies. In contrast, religion generates another configuration of learning whose subordinate learning processes build societies. Religious thinking from the West looked down on the rituals of the heathens and pagans; but it is an uncontested fact of history that religion has divided communities and humans, but rituals have united communities. Wars have come about based on religion but not based on rituals.
Rituals and religions do not build societies on their own finally; but they generate configurations of learning whose learning processes build societies. In this perspective, Indian ideas of Karma, Atman, are a different configuration of learning generated by a set of actions. A mode of learning dominant in one culture works as a subordinate mode in other cultures. The relationships between the dominant and subordinate processes of learning give shape to a culture. In this sense, religion or world-view is absent in Indian or Asian culture. This does not imply that religious elements are completely absent. They are indeed present, only they structure differently.
The West sees the differences in cultures only in its terms, i.e., as having another or different world-view. It cannot conceptualize them in any other way. That is why they will keep questioning or trying to understand karma, atman, or reincarnation in the Indian context. The Western culture has a mode of learning which says that every culture has a religion or a world-view. The pagan or the Indian culture understand and acknowledge that other cultures may have a religion or a world-view, but that it is not their way of going about in the world. This essential difference in thinking made the Semitic religions intolerant and Asian traditions tolerant and accepting.
The West obsesses with order and chaos and it channels all its energies to discover the order buried under the postulated chaos. They hence produced philosophers, theologians, and scientists trying to make theories breaking away from practical life and neglecting an experiential order. The other type of culture (Indian or Asian) had in contrast invested its intellectual energies in creating, sustaining, and continuously modifying a social or practical order. Practical actions, like rituals, became sophisticated patterns of interaction. Theoretical discussions about some imagined order was neither essential nor encouraged.
The two cultures met in an unfortunate set of circumstances. The Asians were willing to learn and the West thought it could only teach. And a consequence of this was Babington Macaulay’s thoughts on Indian education and knowledge systems. Finally, Asian traditions do subordinate theory to practical performances. Over the last 150 years, Asia has been shifting its learning processes in a way that can take the term ‘westernized’, but the author is emphatic in saying that this is happening in an Asian way.
Roman religio was more of performative knowledge. As a collection of rituals, ceremonies, festivals, civic functions, religio transmitted from generation to generation; and at the same time, people experienced it as something crucial to social interaction. There is a requirement of performative knowledge, exemplified by rituals, to build societies and sustain social interactions. But the Western culture or religion with a notion that human action is an execution of an idea or belief, it appears impossible for them to conceive of knowledge that is not theory or belief, but practical in nature.
In summary, tradition is a variant of performative knowledge and religion here does not require any theoretical justification. What Christianity did, as its Jewish predecessors, was to try to absorb practical or performative knowledge into the theoretical, and to see human activity as the execution of an idea or plan.
Final Thoughts of the Author SN Balagangadhara
That religion is a cultural universal is a belief common to western intelligentsia, western trained intellectuals, social scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, and human socio-biologists. Neuroscientists look for genetic or neural basis for religion. The whole argument of the author focusses on telling that religion is not a cultural universal; and explains in detail why people think it is so. The belief that religion is universal among cultures is not based on any empirical foundations.
In dealing with Roman religion, Jews and Early Christians framed the question of comparisons in terms of ‘true’ or ‘false’ religions. The second encounter of the Europeans with Indians in the 16th century dissected Indian traditions based on the framework provided by the schisms in Christianity between the Protestants and the Catholics.
Europe manufactured Indian religions, says the author. It began in Paris, the cultural center of Enlightenment in Europe. The process then shifts to London, the administrative and political center of colonial India. The British founded the ‘Oriental Renaissance.’ The German Romantics distributed this package. This process is a result of a conceptual conception of a culture in religious terms.
Anthropological facts are merely secularized terms from the Bible. Religion by nature generates the belief that religion is a cultural universal. The author claims that the belief in the universality of religion is false and calls it a scientific proposal open to debate and proven false. The traditional understanding of religion has only given us wars, strives, conversions, and Inquisitions. To understand religio as a traditio allowing varied practices, and at the same time having a characteristic of an indifference to the differences will build up far more harmony and understanding in the world, which is still in the grip of religious wars.
The biggest damage which Western culture has inflicted in its history is that each culture is the ‘other’ of western culture in the same way. Western descriptions erase otherness. Religion and its secular offshoots including the sciences simply reduced the sheen of all other cultures to a monochromatic dullness. Power, force, language, and a sense of superiority by a combination of academics, religious missionaries, administrators, travellers, and powerful armies emanating from Europe certainly created havoc with the world cultures in a very lasting manner.
My generation grew up in a political-social-academic-cultural environment where the principles of secularism and liberalism were firmly entrenched. I grew up successfully almost ashamed for being an Indian, for being a Hindu, and for being a Brahmin. There was never a time when I could stand up and look at the damage done to all my identities at multiple levels by these vicious discourses.
The White European colonial with the Bible in one hand and the English language (amongst others) in the other has caused a severe havoc with our country at all levels. Our culture, heritage, traditions, literature, arts, sciences, scriptures- everything – underwent a deep distortion in their hands. The biggest mistake we did after Independence perhaps was to continue with the English language. We could not pull off the yoke and remained trapped in the same colonial discourses, completely internalising them. Very unfortunately, our political and academic leaders remained hijacked despite a release.
It is a tragedy that the West confronted the tree of Indian tradition by taking hold of the branches and making them different religions. This was in trying to make sense of the tree. The individual branches fought or agreed with each other depending on the levels of scholarship. Sadly, the present Indian intellectuals have completely internalised all these discourses in a classic colonial hangover, far deadlier than we can imagine. However, there is a risk of stating that there is ‘no religion in India’ without explaining the context. Our cherry-picking human mind will always come into play when the missionaries and evangelists start licking the lips at the idea that there are helpless souls all around them without any religion!
SN Balagangadhara along with Divya Jhingran have done the greatest service to Indians by restoring pride and by giving us new eyes- plucking out the previous ones- to stand up and reverse the gaze on the Western world. We can tell how much wrong they inflicted on the world cultures since time immemorial. It is time to forgive and forget, but sadly, our own people continue with the old discourses allowing the flames of anger to simmer. There are no figures, graphs, statistics, cartoons, photographs, and light moments in the book. The book runs from the first page to the last on the sheer brilliancy and logical argumentation of the authors. My only request to the first-time reader would be to read the book slowly, savouring each chapter, paragraph, and sentence. And get ready for a complete shake and a stir.
Disclaimer: This piece by Dr Pingali Gopal was created with permission from SN Balagangadhara. The ideas and the themes solely belong to the latter. Many of the passages in the article are excerpted directly from the writings and essays of Dr SN Balagangadhara without direct indications in each case. Dr Pingali Gopal claims no expertise or primary scholarship in the subject matter. The purpose of the article is to bring the ideas of Dr SN Balagangadhara to a wider audience and hopefully stimulate the readers to explore further.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author. Indic Today is neither responsible nor liable for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in the article.