Classification is a political act. Like the creators of “Coexist” images, the author/editor of any discussion of World Religions has the power to choose what groups are discussed and who is left out. In a recent critique of the Norton Anthology of World Religions, Brianna Donaldson carefully discusses two groups that the editors excluded. Donaldson describes Jainism and Sikhism as being “footnotes,” often not included in lists of major world religions, perhaps because of their challenge to the status quo and their size in contrast to communities identified as Hindu and Buddhist. No list of World Religions exists outside of the context in which it is created, with the political and social interests that become a part of that selection process. Donaldson’s assertions brought to my mind Jonathan Z. Smith’s assertion,
It is impossible to escape the suspicion that a world religion is simply a religion like ours, and that it is, above all, a tradition that has achieved sufficient power and numbers to enter our history to form it, interact with it, or thwart it (“Religion, Religions, Religious”).
The desire for greater inclusion extends to a number of other “footnotes” to the Anthology, Shinto, Zoroastrianism, shamanism, various African Traditional Religions, Native American religions, etc. In fact, it never really ends, as we can point to ever-smaller groups who are left out.
The inclusion / exclusion critique, though, has another side that scholars and editors often overlook. Each description of a religion/community/ideology also excludes some who identify with it but understand the collection of practices and beliefs differently. Donaldson constructs a norm as she describes these footnotes,
As part of the tradition of wandering śṛamaṇic monastics who rejected Brahmanic authority, animal sacrifice, and birth caste, Jainism offered an ethical path of knowledge and action open to all. Guru Nanak’s fifteenth-century insight of one unified reality (Ik Onkār) undermined exclusionary religious identities of “Muslim” and “Hindu,” welcomed women as full members of society, and undermined class and caste distinctions by facilitating common meals and shared voluntary service.
While these assertions fit typical narratives, they also establish a standard that some who identify as Jain or Sikh do not hold, either in ideal or practice, in the fashion that Donaldson declares. For example, caste divisions appear, at least in practice, among communities that identify as Jain and Sikh. While Donaldson carefully acknowledges multiplicity among those who identify as Jain and Sikh, even suggesting that both traditions emphasize a recognition of multiple perspectives, some who identify with each actively try to limit what perspectives count as Jain or Sikh, respectively. Her characterization of both, then, excludes some who identify themselves with each tradition. On the other hand, some who revere Nanak and the Guru Granth Sahib without identifying as Sikh are excluded when the Guru Granth Sahib is labeled as Sikh. Any assertion has limitations of excluding while including.
Therefore, inclusion, while noble sounding, is impossible to achieve. Making the tent bigger includes more but hides the nature of exclusion inherent in acts of identification. What becomes important is to acknowledge, as Donaldson does, how choices are made and the implications of various exclusions.
Image credit: Coexist by Aia Fernandex (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr