WednesdayDay Three… for the “Rethinking Religion in India” in New Delhi… was quite intense, and thus this post is less detailed than I would actually want. Many issues were dealt with today, there were also plenty of attempts for greater clarity, and a few divergences as well. This report (review) is once again, a personal impression of the day, and not intended to be exhaustive or thoroughly academic.

Traffic snarls because of the upcoming Republic Day, made it difficult to get to the conference venue on time. But it seems that most of the participants (and organisers) have reconciled to the fact that delay is normal.

Once again, the day started with the Parallel Paper sessions. This time I chose to attend one paper in the “Caste and India” session before heading to the “Colonialism and Religion” session.

Claudia Periera focussed upon a Gaudde community of Goa, which was quite low in the social order, and who practice both Hindu and Christians practices. The issues dealt with were that of conflictual identities, where the community had its own way of living that did not always fit within the categories that were prescribed for it. As methodology, the paper relied heavily on anthropological approaches and while the issues raised by Dr. Balu about anthropology of religion were not directly addressed, still it was an interesting example of the problem of religious description.

Heading to the “Colonialism and Religion” presentation, I made it in time for James Hegarty’s dense (in the heavy sense) presentation also on the problems of description, but this time with a more philosophical focus. This was followed by Masahiko Togawa’s presentation on the problems of translation, especially of the concept of Hinduism found in early Muslim texts.

An interesting moment in this session was when the participants were a little uncomfortable with James’ perceived essentialism… especially with his use of the word “fact”. When Geoffrey Oddie questioned him about his “fact” usage, James defended himself saying that he didn’t actually mean “fact.” Geoffrey promptly went on to clarify his question by saying “In fact what I’m trying to say” which was followed by a similar usage of “in fact” by James himself. (If you missed the ironic humour of this exchange… well… on to the next point!) :)

The Roundtable Session, following the Parallel Sessions, was once again highly stimulating and challenging. Akeel Bilgrami emphasised that there was need to answer the previous unanswered questions… namely, a) the problem of translation, not only of translating words in the vernacular, but translating keeping in mind the conceptual vernacular as well, and b) clarity about what religion actually is.

Interestingly, Akeel went on to define (clarify) religion as colour, something that can be known only through experience. Why is this interesting? Because it keeps religion as mystery, and it is easy to see why Dr. Balu was so frustrated (represented in his book) by theoreticians about religion who do not really clarify their subject.

Laurie Patton’s next presentation was based on empirical research on women learning/using Sanskrit. It was a genuinely engaging paper, as the insights, while certainly limited to her scope, did seem to have understandable and relatable implications.

I was interested to learn that the Sanskrit had (at least for the women interviewed) non-‘Hindu’ connotations, especially during the freedom struggle. Similarly, the confusion in conceptual categories as respondents would say, “Our use of Sanskrit is not religion, it’s spirituality… mera dharm hai…” All this seemed to highlight the shifting and problematic meanings associated with things we have traditionally identified as naturally religious; and Richard King’s comment makes sense: “the concept of religion… is very very messy… it is so vague… because we kind of know what we’re talking about… but the more we investigate it… we have to ask what we actually mean by religion…”

Regardless of the engaging presentations and the discussion that followed, Dr. Akeel’s commented that the question raised in the previous session (now popularly known as Jacob’s question), and which was reiterated by him in the beginning of this session, was still unanswered.

Lunch was followed by the Platform Session, where Dr. Laurie Patton and Dr. Naomi Goldenberg presented papers intended to deal with the central question of the conference, “Are there native religions in India?”

Laurie’s answer was no, yes, yes, and what are we actually talking about? Which is to say that she offered four answers;

i. a “no” if religion was protestant category that was strategically applied.
ii. yes, because of the needs of the university
iii. yes, because of political reasons (need for the community)
iv. a reorientation of the question, namely, changing “native” to “indigenous”

The main point of the presentation, is not the list of choices, however, but a presentation of future possible projects to ease the problem facing religions, which includes… changing the language that we use (more indigenous language)… and getting dictionaries to incorporate a “masala-mix” of difficult-to-translate indigenous terminology.

Naomi’s paper was a little more controversial, in that she suggested that we move the debate, at least for 15-minutes, towards gender issues. Why controversial? Because, as one of the respondents stated later, it didn’t make sense (to them) in view of the central goal of the conference. Without getting into the defense or critique of this, I was personally struck by her reminder (from Schwartz) that even in traditions that value heterosexuality, an extremely deep and important discourse is limited to male to male (homosocial, what a cool word!) interactions. This is certainly a problem within religions, and seems to warrant further investigation and possibly a corrective.

The responses, from panel and floor, were certainly disparate and it was difficult to see how it all fit in to the specific purpose of the conference. But I personally found the dialogue engaging, but even I found myself being frustrated that not many people understood for instance Dr. Balu’s arguments about how religion is problematic.

Anyway, the session finished at about 6:30pm and we were I think all relieved with the break… but I can’t help but wonder, how, when we’re so far away from answering the central question… (as a group), will we achieve that in the last day, namely tomorrow.