Whose Interests Are Served?

Aastha TV ChannelA 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.

4 Replies to “Whose Interests Are Served?”

  1. Among the interesting things to me is how the discourse on religion is somehow thought to be separate from the ability to talk about “Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism” etc. That is calling “them” not religion still participates in the world religions discourse inasmuch as the assumption that they are somehow naturally bounded entities that just need a different name. “They were no religions in the Western sense” carries with it an interesting historical consciousness inasmuch as the modern sense of what is or is not, say, Buddhist is projected back into some timeless, pre-colonial era, which flies in the face of so much research on the role Europeans played (and, along with them, local elites tweaking European taxons for local purposes), armed with their notion of religion, individual, faith, etc., etc., played when they landed ashore in many lands, busily naming and grouping aspects of daily life for their purposes. So despite the apparent critique the discourse is conserved nicely. We just go looking for a new name to call all the things we somehow know to pre-exist our knowledge about them.

  2. Absolutely. Later in the video, Nandy finds a new name to replace “religion.” He refers to them as “faiths” with “religious practices.” The critique only operates on the margins, if at all, on top of being ignored when it requires us to rethink too much.

  3. Easy, no, but I am reluctant to say impossible. We have to step back and think creatively about others ways these aspects of human society can be categorized differently, for example. Of course, others use the terms, so I find it interesting to analyze what others are doing when they use me, which I see as different from applying the terms myself.

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