Religion and the Specter of the West

Religion and the Specter of the West: Sikhism, India, Postcoloniality, and the Politics of Translation

Arvind-Pal S. Mandair
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    Religion and the Specter of the West
    Book Description:

    Arguing that intellectual movements, such as deconstruction, postsecular theory, and political theology, have different implications for cultures and societies that live with the debilitating effects of past imperialisms, Arvind Mandair unsettles the politics of knowledge construction in which the category of "religion" continues to be central. Through a case study of Sikhism, he launches an extended critique of religion as a cultural universal. At the same time, he presents a portrait of how certain aspects of Sikh tradition were reinvented as "religion" during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

    India's imperial elite subtly recast Sikh tradition as a sui generis religion, which robbed its teachings of their political force. In turn, Sikhs began to define themselves as a "nation" and a "world religion" that was separate from, but parallel to, the rise of the Indian state and global Hinduism. Rather than investigate these processes in isolation from Europe, Mandair shifts the focus closer to the political history of ideas, thereby recovering part of Europe's repressed colonial memory.

    Mandair rethinks the intersection of religion and the secular in discourses such as history of religions, postcolonial theory, and recent continental philosophy. Though seemingly unconnected, these discourses are shown to be linked to a philosophy of "generalized translation" that emerged as a key conceptual matrix in the colonial encounter between India and the West. In this riveting study, Mandair demonstrates how this philosophy of translation continues to influence the repetitions of religion and identity politics in the lives of South Asians, and the way the academy, state, and media have analyzed such phenomena.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51980-9
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-42)

    A certain repetition of the colonial event seems to haunt the very manner in which different portions of humanity have attempted, or indeed have been permitted, to engage with what has come to be called “the political.” This repetition can be visualized in terms of the revived function and reassigned place of the phenomenon called “religion”—more specifically, its recent return as “political religion,” or its seeming incompatibility with the demands of secular liberal democracy and multiculturalism. For South Asians the relationship between religion and repetition continues to be a vexed issue in their attempts to rethink the questions of...

  6. Part I. “Indian Religions” and Western Thought
    • 1 Mono-theo-lingualism: Religion, Language, and Subjectivity in Colonial North India
      (pp. 45-105)

      As late as the 1980s, a period that saw the end of the Cold War and the spread of free-market global capitalism, many political commentators continued to regard the phenomenon of religion as an anomaly in the hegemonic narrative of Western secularist modernity. Yet barely two decades later, faced with the global resurgence of religion, this uncontested self-identification of Western secularism with modernity and postmodernity was forced to see itself as suffering from a crisis, a rupture in its self-congratulatory narrative. A notable indicator of this change was provided by the special report and lead article on religion and public...

    • 2 Hegel and the Comparative Imaginary of the West
      (pp. 106-172)

      Arguably the most important theoretical movement to have influenced postcolonial studies of India stems from Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism. Now built in to the very fabric of discourse on South Asia, the central thrust of “post-Orientalist” critique is directed at the static understanding of “area” as an object of scholarly inquiry, and more specifically at the versions of Orientalism spawned by the intimate relationship between Indology and British colonialism. In hindsight, though, Said’s influence on South Asian studies may seem surprising, given that he has not specifically engaged the major source of Orientalism in the case of India, namely...

  7. Part II. Theology as Cultural Translation
    • 3 Sikhism and the Politics of Religion-Making
      (pp. 175-239)

      This chapter investigates how the category of “religion” was transferred from the first ethnographic reports of the Sikhs in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to the cultural, theoretical, and political projects of the Sikh elites in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, giving rise over a period of about fifty years (1870s to the 1920s) to the ontotheological underpinnings of the modern Sikh imaginary. Such a transformation was enabled by the imposition of a dominant symbolic order on the indigenous cultures, followed by the appropriation of this symbolic order by the native elites. As we noted in...

    • 4 Violence, Mysticism, and the Capture of Subjectivity
      (pp. 240-310)

      In this chapter I continue to trace the movement of cultural translation designated by the term “Sikh theology” into the humanities program of the modern Western university, specifically the discourse of the history of religions. To do this it is necessary to determine how the subject of Sikhism, or the Sikh subject, came to be determined as a distinctly “religious” subject. I argue that a certain understanding of violence, or, rather, a set of unexamined assumptions about the relationship between religion and violence, is necessary for the construction and deployment of this subject as “religious” in the modern academic study...

  8. Part III. Postcolonial Exits
    • 5 Ideologies of Sacred Sound
      (pp. 313-378)

      In chapter 4 we glimpsed the possibility of pulling away one of the key terms in the Sikh lexicon, namely, the concept of śabda-guru (the Word as Guru), from the grasp of an ontotheology imposed on it by Sikh neocolonial and modern Western interpretations. Yet the question remained whether, once disentangled from the colonial metaphysics, the term śabda-guru could then be relocated into some indigenous context. During the late 1970s and 80s, in the wake of a postwar crisis of humanism that seemed to have afflicted the humanities and social sciences, different versions of this very move were implemented by...

    • 6 Decolonizing Postsecular Theory
      (pp. 379-432)

      In the previous chapter I argued that it may be possible to break the cycles of repetition that produce identity politics centered around structures of transcendence. These structures have continued to govern the modern and postmodern (globalized) forms of Sikhism and Hinduism by limiting their engagements in the world to revivals or retrievals of an essence or an original identity. For Sikhs such a break can be effected through interpretations of texts such as the Guru Granth Sāhib, which are inherently capable of posing resistance to the sui generis model of religion, thereby allowing us to connect central terms in...

  9. Epilogue
    (pp. 433-436)

    Each chapter in this book has, in different ways, engaged with and provided an extended critique of the concept of religion as a cultural universal. Through a case study of Sikhism, I have tried to demonstrate how certain aspects of Sikh and Hindu traditions were reinvented in terms of the category of “religion” during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As scholars working in different disciplines have increasingly recognized, the context of India’s colonial encounter with the West provides fertile ground for the emergence and crystallization of concepts and categories that inform—but at the same time test the...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 437-484)
  11. Glossary of Indic Terms
    (pp. 485-488)
  12. Index
    (pp. 489-516)