Rethinking Religion in IndiaMoving on… to day two… the “Rethinking Religion in India” conference (at the IGNCA, New Delhi) clarified the question and moved closer to a resolve of the central issue. Today was also considered by many, before the conference, to be the highlight of the conference, where Professor Balagangadhara would be speaking… and there was much expectation and excitement about his and other sessions as well. What follows is, once again, a person reflection (not necessarily an academic review) of the event.

Today was much colder (see what I mean by not necessarily academic) and the sessions were to start at 9:00am… which strangely felt early. Sadly, neither this, nor any other session, has started on time (and I’m sure it’s more frustrating for the organisers, because many of the reasons look outside their control). Anyway, the morning session was called the Parallel Paper session, where four different issues would be addressed simultaneously and we would get to choose. I chose to attend the Colonialism and Religion, session, hoping perhaps for some clarity (for academic interest) on the impact of colonialism (according to some scholars) on religion. I know this is “old news” for a few, but it’s something I was interested in. It turned out that the there were two presenters, who presented papers on some aspect of their field… which touched upon colonialism, but didn’t actually deal with colonialism and religion (rather focussed on a subject and saw colonialism related to it indirectly or directly). The papers were a little frustrated because of the specialist nature of the subject chosen, which tended to distance the participants, but still there was a lot of time for discussion. More sadly, the third speaker landed up at 10:30 pm for a session that ended at 11:00. We were well into the discussion and he turned up, said something to the moderator, and then began presented with an apology, “I’m sorry I am LITTLE late.” Ya, only by about 1.5 hours!!!

Anyway, I know that’s a little mean-spirited, because he may have had a genuine reason. but still, it could have added to unnecessary frustration which I avoided by skipping to another Parallel session, entitled “Aryans are Indians, so what?” I obviously missed the papers, (because I attended the last half hour), but I got the jist that one of the presenters posited the thesis that there may not have been Aryans in the first place, and if true, would have significant consequences to the understanding (self and other) of Hinduism. ie. no one can say that caste system developed out of Aryan immigration and throwing out of the Dravidians, or even the development of the Vedic traditions etc. It was a stimulating discussion and also the interaction was lively. I almost wished I had eavesdropped on the other parallels just to see what the discussions were actually about.

A little scheduling confusion enabled me to see what’s happening in the third parallel session, one that was to focus on a Hindu response to the question of ‘Rethinking Religion”. I sat through a part of the first presentation by Srivastava Goswami. It was actually quite interesting, until he went into the details about Hinduism… which were too detailed, and I felt not directly related to the central question of the conference.

One thing interesting from Goswami’s presentation was his use of Gandhi who said that there was a pure essential Hinduism, that Hinduism had one and indivisible root, but with “innumerable branches.” Goswami went on to say that in today’s discursive context, where “form needs content, ideas need example, truth needs context” the search for root (the pure Hinduism) can only work by looking at the branches.

Goswami’s did make one statement that I disagreed with, which reminded me how language still remains so problematic in communication. To state that naming is a colonial power, especially as Al Bruni named (defined) Hindu in the early centuries, Goswami gave the example that we can not choose our names, they are given by the other. I immediately felt that names are usually given by family, but MY parents, MY ancestor… and thus an inappropriate illustration for colonial problematic that Goswami seemed to be pointed to… unless he meant to point to the fact that Al Bruni was indeed our family… our generations, wouldn’t that be lovely! :)

I skipped this parallel session to attend what I thought was the best session of the conference so far… the first of the Round Table sessions, a unique (for me) speaking format where two eminent speakers would present papers and then a panel of experts would discuss with us as observers. Usually, it would be problematic, but the level of exchange was quite high that to listen-in was a pleasure not a burden. The two main presenters were Geoffrey Oddie and Richard King . Wow, good stuff. Of course I’m bias towards their positions, but still here were two eminent scholars, and I had the privilege of listening-in.

I do wish that there was a better movement towards resolution… though. Somehow all these important issues are raised, but there is never enough time to ‘conclude’ the argument. Somehow, perhaps, it may be good to through some scholars into a room and don’t let them out until they arrive at a consensus… or something! :)

Just to highlight one thing was the 6-points that make religions a problematic category in India…
1. Religion is a universal… that can be distinguished from other forms of society…
2. the creedal emphasis… faiths… primarily to be understood as systems of belief
3. the idea that scripture (canonical) is authoritative
4. discreetness… that religions should be discreet… any mixture… is syncretism… (bad)
5. primacy of pure origins…
6. the view that religions are essentially conflictual… they are naturally in conflict with one another, hence they are in opposition…

(a good list to get to know)

The expert panel highlighted the problem of language, especially drawing attention to how a missionary(?) may ask an Indian in the early days, “what is your religion?” and there would be very little understanding of what the missionary actually meant. It was interesting to hear how in a 1921 census most of the interviewed had no idea what to write when asked “what is your religion?”

Like I said, however, there was no real resolution… and we were left with an subconscious belief, which probably we held before the conference, that religion as a linguistic category remained problematic. But how does it prove that “religion” exists or not.

I liked Vivek Dhareshwar’s comment that we need clarity about what we’re talking about… but I doubt we gained that there.

Still it remained an excellent session and I was glad I attended.

Moving on to Dr. Balu’s session, in the afternoon, was eagerly awaited by many, and the conference room was more crowded than usual. Clearly Dr. Balu was the star.

Sadly, especially for people well acquainted with Dr. Balu’s work, he choose not to present a paper (and thus further his own research), but to answer some of the questions that had been cropping up in the conference. That was important, I think, and helpful to get the participants up-to-speed, but what Dr. Balu in the session was pretty much what he had written in his book, and so for some of us, we would have regretted the missed opportunity to hear Dr. Balu push things forward. Anyway, this is not to say that his presentation was not interesting… because it was… just a minor regret existed.

The comments, especially by another of my recent academic heroes, Laurie Patton, seemed to express just that… as she suggested a few points for furthering Dr. Balu’s own work.

Again, however, it was very evident that we needed more time to discuss. And Dr. Balu’s own frustration was evident because another programme was scheduled soon after. But the many questions that emerged were not satisfactorily answered and as a result, once again, the possibility for a resolution in this conference was put to some doubt.

The final session was actually arrange by the Indian Academy for the Study of religion. It did seem that these scholars had assumed that religion existed and focussed more on how to better communicate it in the classroom (academia). Which sadly was a little different from the purpose of the conference, making it all the more frustrating that we didn’t have enough time to focus on the central question and actually get the participants to participate.

In summary, it may seem like I’m cribbing, but actually it’s not true. This has been an amazing conference, quite stimulating… and the only frustration lies in the fact that although the initial goal was clearly to achieve a resolve… to actually get there, realistically and constructively… we need to encourage more in-depth participant… participation. There just does not seem like there’s enough time for that… and therefore perhaps, this conference will be… like many other conferences… which for me, at the moment, is still not that bad of thing.