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This article is a reflection of Geertz on his work as an anthropologist explaining the shifts and turns it has taken in his understanding of religion. He explains his preference to study religion anthropologically as a fall out of his grounding in humanities as well as the themes that older anthropologists have studied about religion. Along with kinship, religion has been a major area of study for anthropologists. Ever since he agreed to study religion in Java, his has been a journey over complexities of all kinds.
Looking back at the period when he started his study of religion in Java, he talks about a major shift that took place on the aims and objects of the anthropology of religion around that time. All the studies previous to that concentrated on religions of the tribal communities, along with the assumption that elements found in ‘High religions’ could be detected easily in religions of tribal communities. The shift was to address the ‘high religions’ directly to understand the social, historical and cultural contexts in which they thrived. This shift was a reflection of the paradigm shift in Anthropology in general from deserts and jungles to the new nations being formed in the post colonial era. The anthropologist was faced not with an assemblage of myths and myths but with elaborate social and cultural formations with a wide historical background. This made the anthropologists to change their method as well as refine their questions.
Looking at what this shift meant for Java, one notices the religiously coloured divisions on the one hand, but a strong spiritual temper (moral climate) on the other. The language and terms available to the anthropologist to describe the new situation of the multi-layered spiritual currents connected to the flow of everyday life, were very few. In the case of Java the multiple suspicions and jealousies along with the spirit of nationalism could not be seen as all ‘religious’ but they were all results of ‘world-views’ which evolved over centuries.
The traditions that went into such world views life Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and Austronesianism were recognizable but not clearly enough. These traditions and the mind sets associated with them generated and sustained the jealousies and suspicions. To analyse such developments the anthropologist needed a different method. The violence caused by culture wars and mass murder had a close connection with religious dispositions. Here one sees the interplay of local traditions and world religions.
The first question such a situation raised is the all too familiar question, ‘what is religion?” Even so many years after the publication of Religion of Java, Geertz still is at a loss to clearly spell out the exact subject matter he studied in that work!
The whole enterprise relates to a problem in anthropology in general: how is one to name and classify cultural formations in societies similar to ones own but at the same time with
significant differences? One strategy is to start with an idea of what each formation means in one’s own culture and seek out similarities. Such a strategy does not lead to much clarity as it does not settle the question, ‘what is religion?’ The way out is to say: what we talk about concerns MEANING. Meaning is the one idea that can be successfully employed to refer to the religions of the new nations. What we usually understand by religion in our culture and in the cultures of the people we study concern ‘the meaning of life’.
Though this focus on meaning may look like not a clear way of looking at religion, many new developments in the human sciences like linguistics, semiotics and so on provide us with means to make sense of complex questions.
In the light of the contributions made by many scholars like Saussure and others on ‘meaning systems’ or ‘cultural systems’, we may apply the following three themes to the study of religion.
1. The autonomy of meaning: The phrase is taken from philosopher Wittgenstein. It refers to meaning as a public matter which is constructed in the flow of life. Hence, meaning is not subjective or private. 2. Meaning is materially embodied: meaning is constructed and conveyed by symbolic devices. A symbolic device may be termed ‘religious’ based on its use. Culture does not consist of ideas in the mind but are ‘equipments for living’. 3. Ultimate or existential problems of meaning: when the usual equipments for living fail at the face of unexplainable, the symbolic systems that come up can be termed as ‘religious’.
Based on these themes Geertz stressed the way in which the world view of communities and individuals on the one hand, and their ethos (way of life) on the other, are reinforced in religious practices like ritual and myth. Religion tunes human actions to a cosmic order and projects the images of that order on the everyday life.
Geertz’s subsequent work in Morocco set the stage for testing these ideas. Morocco was unlike Java in the sense that it did not have strong influences of world religions other than Islam. Compared to the plurality of Java, Morocco presented a rather clear uniformity. Based on his work in both Java and Morocco, he could assess the ways in which one world religion has taken on different moods and motivations in Java and Morocco. In Java it presents a ‘syncretic (diffuse) intuitionism’ and in Morocco ‘confrontational moralism’. In both cases, the overall ideas of order provided by Islam played into locally developed practices to produce distinct ways of being in the world.
As his observation of Islam in Java and Morocco continued, the connection between the world view and the ethos became more uncertain, because of which people began to be defensive and identity consciousness around those connections. This gave rise to ‘religious-mindedness’. The symbols that people used to signify powerfully their world view are losing their authority. There occurred a change in the connection between the world view and the ethos. The simple connection that existed before is now replaced with organised support. Such a turn is reflected in back to Quran reform movements or political organisations of religious interests.
In the last four decades a lot of changes have taken place in both Morocco and Indonesia. Along with changes in the political sphere, Geertz notices a change in the religious sphere. In the place of the syncretic practices that existed before, now there is a more rigid type of religiosity emerging. Such moves are named Islamism, Jihadi Islam and so on.
In the second half of the 20th century study of religion, with some exceptions, was not mainstream in the social sciences. The ‘secularization thesis’ which claimed that religion has been reduced to a private personal affair with no significance to the public sphere gained momentum. In the forecasts made by many religion was the least likely to play any decisive role in human societies of the future. Even in the 1960s Geertz did not subscribe to that view and his stand in a sense is vindicated by what is happening in the first decade of the 21st century. Today we witness an assertion of religion claiming dominion. The expressions are all around us in the form of HIndutva, Neo-evangelism, the Wahhabis and so on.
Having noted the contemporary developments, Geertz attempts to analyse the general trends.
1. Major religions and some minor ones have broken free of their places of origin and are becoming wide spread in other areas. This had happened earlier as well but the movement was more clearly defined. Today the movement is dispersed. 2. Following a religion is increasingly becoming an instrument of public identity.
The diverse nature of individuals belonging to different religious persuasions is changing the very character of public belief. There is a fast pace at which dispora communities are taking shape.
The shift from ‘religiousness’ to ‘religious mindedness’ that Geertz observed in Java and Morocco in the 1960s, has now spread to the whole world in diverse ways. The form and content of religious expression are changing. The movement of people from one locale to another makes them more conscious of their ‘religious’ identity in another context. It also produces many other possibilities. For example, faced with a new cultural situation, one may water down one’s faith identity to render it less offensive to others, or one may confine religion
to one’s private life and show off another persona in the public sphere. Or again, one may consciously project a virulent strain of one’s religion to an unbelieving world!
To sum up, studying religion has been a matter of sorting through various happenings in the public in an effort to determine how the overall ideas about what is reality (world view) and particular ways of going about it (ethos) play into one another to sustain the idea that on balance this world makes sense.
In the face of rapid change as individuals and groups frantically try to hold their lives together, an anthropologist of religion cannot research religion but only go around the events and watch them happen. We are right in the middle of the jumbling of the world’s catalogues and though Geertz longs for the return of certitudes that accompanied the people who lived in the 1950s and 60s, all that he sees now is chaos – a mammoth jumble!