What Came First, the Difference or the Similarity? Part 2

Picture 4Yesterday, in Part 1, I wrote about some of the conceptual problems that I find in a recent Hufftington Post article on the ironic similarities between two sets of devotional rituals, said to be shared by Hindus and Buddhists in Sri Lanka, and the way — again, according to the article, and also the site on which it is based — that this commonality might provide a basis to overcome perceived difference and conflict.

But there’s more to talk about at the site (created by, according to the Huff Post article, a Sri Lankan-based, University of Chicago trained anthropologist). For instance, its Intro page opens as follows:

Devotion to Kannaki-Pattini is an inspiring example of Hindu-Buddhist syncretism in Sri Lanka. The goddess is revered by many Tamil Hindu and Sinhala Buddhist Sri Lankans, though rituals and practices of veneration vary between the two religions, and regionally. Ironically, a significant number of Sri Lankans are unaware that she is a shared deity – an indication perhaps of the extent of the alienation between the two main ethnic communities in this small island nation. Tamil Hindus know her as Kannaki and Sinhala Buddhists as Pattini.

We’ve discussed the problems with this scholarly understanding of syncretism before, of course, and that was pretty much the topic of Part 1 of this two-part post. But what I find particularly important to point out is how this text prioritizes the scholar’s viewpoint over that of the locals themselves (who are, we’re told, “unaware” of this scholarly insight) —  a silencing of the Other that is now a grave sin in scholarship, we’re told…, unless, it seems, you are reproducing a generally liberal, politically left political ideology, of course.

Case in point, here at the Edge, a few months ago, we seem to have inspired a bit of a spirited conversation on Facebook, concerning using the word “data” to name the people or social situations which we study, which in turn prompted us to write a couple posts of our own (e.g., here). The main concern, with those who criticized us for, as it was phrased, dehumanizing people by calling them data, was that voices, intentions, meanings, and thus people’s value as persons were supposedly erased in our scholarly work, making such scholarship disrespectful, unethical, and a naked power-play. What I find most interesting, though, is that I do not seem to find such critiques of anthropology such as that cited above, in which the scholar’s view of similarity trumps the participant’s view of difference.

For, to repeat:

Ironically, a significant number of Sri Lankans are unaware that she is a shared deity – an indication perhaps of the extent of the alienation between the two main ethnic communities in this small island nation…

The failure to see the similarity spotted by the scholar is not ironic at all if you start not with the scholar’s apparent premise that these groups are more alike than they realize, and that they just sadly fail to see the truth the scholar observes, but, instead, if you start by taking seriously (as we’re always told we must do) the participant’s own claims of (in this case) difference — a difference that is classifiable pejoratively by outsiders as mere “alienation” only if you import a set of values alien to the so-called people on the ground, a set of values with which I personally may agree or not, but one that is obviously not shared by everyone in this situation.

Simply put, depending to whom you speak, this goddess is not a shared deity whatsoever (i.e., “She is ours!”), but, to the outsider working toward what she likely sees as the utterly reasonable goals of reconciliation and unity, she is. Thus, the name used by the scholar becomes a compound, Kannaki-Pattini, much as someone deeply involved in inter-religious dialogue might start talking about “the Judeo-Christian tradition” or, perhaps, even invent new terminological techniques to promote an inclusive worldview, maybe something like “God-Allah,” to press the point that, despite seeming differences, both Christians and Muslims worship the same god. One could easily imagine a comparable photo essay merging all practices relevant to, say, devotion toward Jesus, regardless the group or the setting (akin to Mircea Eliade writing a chapter on, say, water symbolism in which difference in setting matters little so long as water is involved), accompanied by a text lamenting the divisions between his various devotees.

But…, — and this point is surely obvious, no? — there are one or two or, let’s just say, millions of people on each side of that particular Muslim/Christian social divide who, despite all periodically talking about “Jesus” (or Noah or Abraham or Moses…) would vehemently reply that no, they do not worship the same god, likely asserting ownership over Jesus to the exclusion of all others! Where is their voice in all the claims of unity and commonality? Are they just wrong? Is the scholar’s description in a contest with theirs, to decide who’s described the situation best or in the correct way? Are scholars here to correct the people whom they study, making sure they’re Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist or Christian in the “right” way…?

So on what basis does the researcher claim to know about a similarity that’s unknown to the very people whom she studies? Where is the voice of those who see no reason to use the compound name —  perhaps even those who would be deeply offended by so glibly overlooking their view and renaming their goddess to suit our interests?

Where is the outcry for scholarly silencing of these Others…? Or, perhaps, they’re just the wrong sort of Others…?

Of course we, as scholars, see things the people whom we study don’t see; for we focus on, prioritize, examine in detail things of interest to us, doing so by means of tools and questions that we bring to the field. That’s just the way scholarship works; but are those things that we see in some sort of contest with what is seen by the people on the ground? I don’t think so, for, as scholars, I’d argue that we’re playing another game entirely, suggesting that it is not ironic, but inevitable, that the people whom we study see things differently from us.

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