Today was the first day of the Rethinking Religion in India Conference held in New Delhi, in the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). This review won’t be a detailed review, because I’m sure papers will be released (I hope) that will give more detailed and scholarly introductions and explanations. My review (and hopefully subsequent reviews) here is simply to put to paper (figuratively) certain impressions about the conference, and highlight certain key ideas that interested me.

Rajpath (india gate) getting ready for Independence DayTravelling to the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (which is actually quite close to India Gate) is a bit of a nightmare during the republic day parade practices. The roads are blocked… and open roads are closed randomly (to us). eventually I had to enter through a side (back) gate and was and found a side entrance… and it was a relief to see the huge “Rethinking Religion in India” banner.

Anyway… the registration was surprisingly painless and I found that I was early. I even had a chance to browse through a quite-impressive book-sale selection.

Anyway… the conference was more interesting… so onto that.

We had the preliminary speeches… that were to set the stage for the conference. It was nice to hear about Kuvempu University, in Karnataka (Shimoga)… a small university trying big things… by their vice Chancellor Prof. B.S. Sherigara (a natural scientist we were informed). They are one of the organisers of the conference and one couldn’t help but be excited about the possibilities of their involvement and initiative.

We had the Belgium ambassador address the meet too, no, don’t ask me his name, but the fact that he was there, suggested the strong Belgium initiative behind this. Anyway, his most interesting statement… actually there were two… was firstly the religion is an important topic for diplomats, and secondly, the findings of the conference do not represent that of the Belgium government! Thank you Mr. Ambassador for reminding us of that. :)

Dr. Balu (Dr. S.N. Balagangadhara) spoke next, and he’s the sort of star of the conference… particularly since he’s one of the main controversial and stimulating and perhaps even correct? spokespersons in this debate… and many of the speakers are inclined to reference his work. Anyway, what Dr. Balu said surprised me, because he said one of the chief problems that led to this conference was the problem in education, where the humanities (and social sciences) were getting side-lined to the tehnological oriented subjects… as a result, he feared that in 20 years we may not have any teachers left to teach these subjects. This, to me, seemed a gross over-exaggeration, but also an irrelevant issue in the ‘quest for knowledge’. It was almost as if, by highlighting it as a chief problem, it seemed we were trying to save our jobs and lifestyle. Anyway, I’m sure Dr. Balu has his own logic and support for his statement… which may be true… even. But I didn’t think that’s the reason why we should be conferencing in the first place. Anyway… the reason why humanities are in the slide is partly due to the irrelevance to life and the false categories that have been emerging. The latter is something that we, in the conference, hoped to achieve.

Dr. Balu also made one interesting and perhaps inflammatory statement… that he didn’t find dealing with university students from JNU and IIT productive because they were just stooges, repeaters of the dominant thinking. He found more hope in students from Kuvempu University who, because of their rural exposure, more open to true/genuine critical thinking. Again, this may or may not be true. But it sure gets us thinking… at least me… am I repeating the world… or am I saying something because I have “sought and found”.

Anyway… Dr. Balu was followed ironically by Dr. Chakravorthy from the Indira Gandhi Centre… who interestingly quoted ONLY western scholars while talking about the need for indigenous thinking and dialogue paradigms. Perhaps Dr. Balu was not too off the mark in representing Indian urban scholars as lacking original thinking skills.

That was lunch break… and about lunch all I can say is that the organisers were really generous. This is a free conference… we didn’t have to pay anything. Still, we were treated to a meal that was not mean by any standard.

Next session, was the first platform session, which is to say that a platform session was the main session that would continue over the four-day period.

The basic theme of the Platform session, as well as the entire question, was to answer; “are there native religions in India?”

To begin, the moderator, Jacob (something) basically reiterated Dr. Balu’s arguments (almost verbatim, except for his sodium chloride image which was to illustrate that our theories matter… to decide whether the water he drinks is water or poison).

Anyway, Dr. David Lorenzen spoke first… and for those who know his work… his main thesis in Who invented Hinduism? is that the view that the colonialist invented Hinduism is false since there is enough historical evidence to suggest that the religious category Hindu as opposed to Muslim existed much before the colonialists set foot in India. Dr. Lorenzen obviously represented the necessarily “other” side which would naturally lean towards the problem of religion. Anyway, Dr. Lorenzen’s work is well researched… and the main problem, however, lies in the identification of the category of religion in the first place… ie. as Dr. Balu asked, what makes Hindu a “religion”… and for that Dr. Lorenzen almost seemed to say “it just is.” Anyway, I would recommend Dr. Lorenzen’s work for a more complex reading of history rather than the simplistic everything bad began in the enlightenment kind of thinking.

The other speaker was Dr. Timothy Fitzgerald who, as a critical theorist of religion, like Russell McCutcheon, critiques the problematic dichotomising of religion and everything else.

In his presentation, Fitzgerald makes a quick sweep of the problem of the concept of religion, particularly highlighting the problem in the dichotomy between religion and politics. His main argument is that while religion as a category in early Christian era was a more holistic concept (including politics), it was in early/mid modernity that an idea of non-religious came into being, which included… and ultimately was defined as politics (and other such spheres). These categories, for Fitzgerald, are however so loose (and discursive) that they need other binaries to support them, which in turn lead to other binaries… hence extremely difficult to define and delineate… and hence (possibly) totally false constructs in the first place.

Basically, his thesis is that to say that religion is a “thing”, something pre-discursive and universal in all cultures is problematic since the concept of religion is so fluid and changing.

Of course Fitzgerald’s paper did not directly help answer the question whether there are native religions in India (only by implication).

The respondent to the Platform session was Naomi Goldenberg, who I must say, was an exciting person to listen to. Her disarming response kept the mood light, while highlighting some issues that needed to be raised. Of course, she too was biased towards the religions may not exist view, and was unsatisfactorily critical of Dr. Lorenzen’s assertion about the biological cause of religion. My problem with her (and Dr. Balu’s excess critique), was that they were both NOT natural scientists and were speaking against natural scientists by the belief that they would be coloured by their beliefs and ideologies. While this may be true, still natural scientists have their own methodology and their own conclusions and cannot be used and critiqued by humanities so easily… and must be listened to in their own terms. Perhaps Dr. Lorenzen too is not a natural scientist, but perhaps more caution in accepting and rejecting the findings of other fields may have been the more appropriate response.

The question-answer session was interesting… partly because of what I think there was a prevalent misunderstanding (that I’m sure is going to crop up again) about the topic of the conference… that seems to discredit indigenous traditions… hence two people remarked against the ignorance (by the speakers?) of the concept of dharma. Of course I spoke up about this, asserting that dharma was not in question… we were not rethinking dharma (whatever it means), but religion… and particularly whether the word/concept “religion” even rightly defines/describes dharma. But anyway… that’s how the session ended… and I really look forward to day two tomorrow.