ExitToday (24 Jan, 2008), the “Rethinking Religion in India” Conference in India, at the IGNCA, New Delhi, came to an end. After the traditional thanks, and an off-topic closing address, it was difficult to see what was exactly achieved through the last four days of meetings. Yet unclarity over the results need not detract from the fact that this conference was excellent in stimulating thought, particularly over the concept of religion in the Indian context. It is evident that this study is in still in its infancy, but that this new way of thinking is among us is undoubtable.

The detailed review of four days of the conference are found in my earlier post, so no need to reiterate them here. For this review I have chosen to summarise some of the comments I heard (and overheard) about the conference (both good and bad) by the conference attenders. Also, I hope to answer the question, ‘what now?’ that was posed in the penultimate session of the day.

Comments from some of the participants about the conference

There were three kinds of comments coming from participants (and I mean the audience) about the conference (during session and outside sessions).

The first kind were those who felt the conference was irrelevant. They were quite negative about the conference, feeling upset about many things including the fact that there were so many ‘foreign’ speakers, or even those who were upset by their perception that the ancient Indian religion was being questioned. Another comment coming from this quarter was that this question, “rethinking religion” was irrelevant to the ground realities of India, especially in the context of the lived “religious experience” of the people. What was needed, these people seemed to say, was tools and discussion about negotiating multiple realities and improving the communication (teaching) of religion.

The second kind of comment came from people who felt the conference was disjointed and going out of topic. It was difficult to group these people, because while I too felt the conference tended to go off topic, these people were not always agreed about what the conference seemed to be about or what the focus must be. Many of these people were also disturbed with the gender question, feeling that it led away from the conference concerns.

The third kind of comments were from the participants who were frustrated by not getting enough time to speak or comment. I remember one participant angrily ask during the final day, “Will there be opportunity for the audience to interact?”

Each of these three comments need to be listened to, though I don’t naturally believe that they are equally valid. The following post uses these and other perspectives to make suggestions on how future conferences on “rethinking religion” could work.

What now? Proposals for future conferences

Dr. Balu suggested that they could drop the Parallel Papers and put in more workshops. This suggestion was met with surprisingly mixed opinions. Some liked the Parallel Papers and some didn’t.

I feel the question about the conference should be thought through in terms of what organisers want to achieve.

In the beginning of the conference Dr. Balu said very clearly that there was only one question, and only three options to answer.

question: “Are there native religions in India?”
Answer options: “No”, “Yes” or “we can’t answer this question until other questions are answered.”

Sadly, none of these options were chosen. Even if we are leaning to the third option, there was no identification of what those questions are, that need to be answered. It was also not clear, who would be doing the answering. Were the resource people going to draft a statement? Were the audience going to be involved in making a group statement?

If clarity and resolve are sought, I think the form of the conference needs to be thought through in terms of what the organisers want to achieve especially in terms of who will achieve it. Dr. Balu had said early on that he wanted audience participation. But out of the four days, I don’t think the audience got more than 1 hour in all four days, to respond (out of which, only a few people could get to speak). Clearly, the audience (participants) were not the key people who were in the scheme of things to answer this question in any definiteness.

If the audience participation is wanted… if it is truly believed that it is crucial for the success of the conference… then it must be planned into the programme. How indeed will we all participate? Group workshops are a start, and certainly better than this conference. If that means sacrificing anything from the previous structure, then it must be done.

Secondly, the focus of the conference needs to be made clear to all (assuming that usually it is very hard to actually communicate it). Personally, I enjoyed the conference, including the divergences because it all fell within my interest area. However, I can see how frustrating it is to hear people speak in cross purposes, even when a question is so clearly given.

As a result, I suggest not more specialists, but less. Perhaps we just need one ‘specialist’ as a resource person for one important topic… like for instance, the theory of language, or the colonial representations of religion etc. Then, they would join the audience and we’d all work issues together, as equals.

Finally, the question of relevance. Personally, I agree with Dr. Balu that we need to be clear about what we are talking about before we talk about it. However, as it is evident, even the smartest minds are never ‘united’ about what they are talking about. As a result, perhaps it is better to bring in the practical concerns sooner… even as they were suggested by some in the audience. This may not be so out of the category concern, especially since our concern, ultimately is to rethinking a paradigm of thinking interculturally in India; perhaps some more practical concerns will bring in fresh ideas and perspectives.

What do I mean by this? Certainly not more empirical papers, which sadly pick out (find) their own concepts of religion and the religious in the cultures they are observing. But probably something like “actual formulation and testing of the formulation” in the conference space. For instance, if we make a statement, rather than keep it till the end, we then have a testing process (from previous research) whether the new statement is theoretically (and possibly practically) viable. This working out may help bridge the gap between the theory-practice binary.

Final comment

And now I have to say this. I really enjoyed the conference. But I was especially impressed and grateful that the conference was made available to us for free. More importantly, they not only made it free, yet treated us all as honoured guests. The facilities and hosting available to us was phenomenal, and we were beneficiaries of a lot of graciousness. I was also informed, by one of the organisers that most of the money for the conference came from Indian sources. That was all the more commendable (I’m sure not many know or appreciate this). I also commend that work that the local institutions, like Kuvempu University are doing.

Next year’s conference may be a smaller affair, in a less high-profile city. Maybe even in Shimoga. But that may actually be a good thing. This year, the issues have been highlighted and spread across a large audience. The vice-chancellor of Kuvempu had wanted “visibility”, and I think visibility has been achieved. Now, with a smaller and more focused group, perhaps these issues will move towards helpful/relevant new directions and hopefully, resolutions!