ConferenceToday, Day 4, of the Rethinking Religion in India, was the last day of the conference. And both anticipation and exhaustion was evident in the participants. I begin this (personal) review straight away with the Roundtable Session starting at 11:15am.

As usual, the Roundtable Session was the session designed for the scholars/specialists in the Roundtable to speak, and for us (participants) to listen in. Today’s papers were by John Zavos and Sharada Sugirtharajah; and the theme for the Roundtable, as usual, was Colonialism and Religion.

John focused on the idea of “invention” dealing with the important questions in the construction of ‘religion’, “who did the inventing, what kind of plan did they use and how did they manage to implement this plan so successfully?” The problem with the presentation was that John spent so much time with his introduction, that he ran out of time before he could arrive at his main point, or even apply his study to the Hindutva narrative, which incidentally is his speciality.

An important point however did not go unnoticed… was that the construction of identities included a spatial realm where new supra-local identities were getting a forum to dialogue and practice (and thus enforce) new identities.

Sharada suffered from a similar problem, as John, though she was able to provide a concluding statement. Her study was to focus upon the methodological claims of colonialists (missionaries) in Hindu representation. Sadly, again setting the stage she wasn’t able to develop that very point in depth. Her conclusion was that we need to pay attention to the hermeneutical motives in the colonial representation and understanding of Indian traditions and thus urged a development of a conceptual framework for a more nuanced framework for understanding a religion.

What followed, in terms of discussion, can be seen as the turning point of the conference and what follows below is my own take of the event and a diagnosis on what I think was actually happen.

The first response by the panellists was whether colonialists motives affect the quality of description; which is to say that the kind of colonialist descriptions were not uncommon… for over 1500 years in fact it was possible to see similar descriptions of Indian traditions.

Sharada conceded, and I think too easily, saying that even if the descriptions were “correct” (Sharada even admitted that some foreigners know Hinduism better than Indians, which is the problem that Balu raises I think… whether the ‘religion’ that the west knows is really the religion of the people)… still we can/should reject their methodology/motives.

This set up Sharada for the main accusation, by Vivek Dhaneswar, that she missed the point of the conference. Actually, I don’t think Vivek was saying that “she” missed it, but in his inclarity, and it’s true that Vivek was rambling most of the time (and not really saying clearly what he needed to say), it turned out to be an accusation against Sharada.

Sharada instantly attacked back… by being “defensive”, saying that that was the scope of the paper given to her… etc etc… More particularly, she said that she thought she was here to discuss “how we were understood by Orientalist and missionaries… so that we are in a position to start thinking more cognitively about alternative ways of looking at religious description.” Considering that the title of the Roundtable Session was “Colonialism and Religion” it was perhaps expected that Sharada would deal with her subject in this way, anyway.

That’s when the fireworks began… and Dr. Balu suddenly flared up and told Sharada to be quiet… and interrupted her while she was speaking. This was offensive not only to some in the panel, but many in the audience, who spoke out, “let her finish, let her finish” but Balu was clearly upset and couldn’t be stopped. He joined the panel (he was sitting with the audience) and tried to move the debate forward, saying that there was not point repeating what Sharada was saying.

The tension was palpable and the Indian (and I guess that’s a stereotype, but I’m still using it functionally) desire to avoid confrontation was evident. We were just too uncomfortable to listen to the debate arguments anymore. Perhaps too, we were all too aware that this was an uncharacteristic exertion of “power” by Dr. Balu, which was expressed by Dr. Naomi quite diplomatically yet firmly “I’m angry with you.”

Though the conversation continued, which I think was largely out of context (focusing on categories etc).

Suddenly, out of the blue, Dr. Balu apologised, “I’m sorry Sharada,” he said. “when you get angry, you shout.” In a split second, Sharada replied, “It’s ok.” And suddenly, the tension was released and we were back to the focus being the focus.

While the emotional resolution was good, I don’t think there was any resolution in terms of academic enquiry.

Dr. Sharada’s position was clearly “Rethinking Religious Description in India” or even”Rethinking Religious Study in India.” Whereas the conference, especially Dr. Balu’s position, has been clearly the rethinking “religion” which is to say, we need to (or at least that has been the purpose of the conference) clarify “religion” before we talk about it’s study, its description, or even its phenomena.

The problem is that many people in the conference, even those who agreed that Hinduism was constructed, did not always clarify this category.

Therefore, I didn’t, at the end of all this session, share the optimism of Richard King who said that he was glad with the heat because it was evidence that “something was cooking.” I’m not sure either what is cooking (what argument is being developed), or whether it will taste good (make sense).

It is obviously not fair to end this day review on this note, which is why I hope to add one post that will be my feedback on the conference, in terms of organisation and purpose/goals (which is what the workshop in the afternoon was to focus on).

As a day discussion though, I must admit that the heated argument only reminded me that this religion issue is certain hot, but resolution within it is a long way away.