You are on page 1of 13



Now that we have reached the end of our journey, it is time to look back. Not only do we need to see how far we have come but also assess the nature of the arguments put across. In the rst section, I shall provide a quick overview of the former. Here, I shall retrace the route very briey through the signposts of the titles of the individual chapters. I will not summarise the arguments, but presuppose them instead. In the second, I will summarise the basic thrust of the story and make a proposal regarding the epistemic status of the arguments. Together, they should help one take a stance with respect to the essay as a whole. In the third section, I shall relate the story of my book to a meta-theoretical argument in anthropology about the possibility of ever describing the other.


The essay begins with the following observation: both the western intelligentsia and the western-trained intellectuals from other cultures hold rmly that religion is a cultural universal. This belief is both part of the commonsense and a claim in the theoretical and empirical literature on the subject. Furthermore, the proponents of this idea are not practitioners of any one particular eld but, instead, represent a consensus that cuts across social and human sciences: from anthropology through sociology to human socio-biology. The belief in the universality of religion does not merely imply that there are believers in different parts of the globe or that there are religious communities in different cultures. When people say that religion is a cultural universal, be it as an empirical generalisation or as a claim about the nature of human beings, they do not just say, for instance, that there are Christian communities in all cultures. In the twentieth century world we live in, the claim does not mean that every human being has a religion either. These theorists notice the existence of atheism, agnosticism, or indifference to religious matters. They also notice that secular ideologies play a dominant role in the social life of most countries in the West.



If religion is a universal, it means that some or another religion is native to human cultures. That is to say, all cultures must have an indigenous, as against imported, religion (at least one). To the extent that religion is a cultural universal, the claim is not merely that native religions exist in all cultures but also that religion is constitutive of human cultures. That is, some or another religion lends identity to a culture, or that it is indispensable to a culture. Again, it is important to notice that both scholars and non-professionals hold this belief in the twentieth century. When socio-biologists and cognitive neuroscientists ask questions and put across speculative hypotheses about the genetic or neural basis of religion; or when the Europeans try to understand the immigrant communities in their midst (mostly from Turkey and Morocco) by talking about Islam; the presupposition is that cultures can be described (partially but not exhaustively) by relating religion to culture. The burden of this essay is two fold. It argues that religion is not a cultural universal while clarifying at the same time why one believes in its universality. The philosophical and scientic merit of the essay consists in the fact that the argument about the nature of religion captures both foci. I do not put forward ad hoc explanations and the argument is amenable to empirical and logical control. Together with their heuristic potential, these two aspects lend credibility to the reasonableness of the argument. The entire essay constructs one argument and develops two themes: is religion a cultural universal? Why do people think so? Each chapter signals a shift in the argument to come and, for the sake of convenience, I have dubbed each theme as half of an argument. Some Puzzles and Problems, as the rst chapter is titled, is intended to show that the way contemporary authors speak about religion in other cultures is rather puzzling. On the one hand, they appear unsure that what they speak about, properly speaking, is a religion at all. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, the religion of the Greeks and the Native Americans, they tell us, do not look like religions. On the other hand, and this is the puzzle, having recorded this observation, they proceed to describe and give account of these religions. The several citations show the puzzles these authors pose. My arguments show that these puzzles confront us with several problems. I formulate the theme of the next seven chapters by suggesting that there is a prima facie inconsistency in their reasoning and by asking the question why these authors have not seen it. Exploring the ways open to render them consistent provides us with the questions that the subsequent chapters answer. From chapters #2 through #7, the essay looks at the two possible grounds for the belief that religion is a cultural universal. One is a theoretical ground and the other is an empirical ground. The second, third, and the fourth chapters constitute a group and have two different functions. On the one hand, they explicitly address



themselves to answering the question whether the belief about the universality of religion is a result of empirical enquiries. On the other, they lay the groundwork for looking into the theoretical grounds for this belief in chapters ve, six, and seven. The second chapter, Not by One Avenue Only, sets the scene for what is to follow. The title alludes to the famous relatio of Symmachus. More importantly, by looking at the matrix in which Christianity grew, it signals the gulf separating the last pagan prefect of Rome from the rst Christian one. By contrasting the Roman religio with the religion of the Jews and the Christians, this chapter suggests that we should seek the origin of our problem in the emergence of the Christian world. The Whore of Babylon and Other Revelations picks up the story around the sixteenth century. The European culture encounters other cultures elsewhere in the world for the second time. The rst occurred during the Greek and Roman civilizations. Empirical investigations, if any, into the universality of religion will have to begin here if anywhere. Indian culture is the other now. The travel reports of this and the subsequent periods assume that religion exists in India too, except that it is the religion of the heathens. Before long, in Europe itself, heathens and pagans were to become very important. That is the rst obvious reference to Protestantism in the title: we meet the whore of Babylon in the book of revelations and the former, said the Protestants, is what the Roman Catholic Church is. This leads to the second reference to Protestantism: the schism within Christianity, between the Protestants and the Catholics, determines how one approaches the question of religion. The opposition between false religion and the true one the drama from the times of the Romans is replayed with new actors. The third, but not so obvious reference of the title has to do with the revelation that a group called the philosophes are amongst the new actors. The Enlightenment thinkers, I argue, not merely reproduced protestant themes but did so energetically. The secular sons of the Age of Reason extended Christian themes in a secular guise. Revelations do not stop here. They go further into and beyond the fourth chapter, whose title reveals the truth about Hinduism and Buddhism, Made in Paris, London, and Heidelberg. It shows where the Indian religions are made and plots the trajectory of the manufacturing process: it begins in Paris, the cultural centre of the Enlightenment Europe. This suggests that one must understand the creation of religions in India in terms of the compulsion of a culture. The process then shifts to London, the administrative and the political centre of colonial India. The British administrators lay the foundation for the Oriental Renaissance. The product, the religions of India, is nished and reaches wholesale distribution centres under the expert guidance of the Germans, especially the German Romantics. While this is the obvious



signicance of Heidelberg, there is something more. Between wholesale distribution and the consumer, other phases intervene: packaging, advertisement, attractive discount rates, promotion and publicity, and so on. Heidelberg, a provincial town, houses a university of international repute staffed largely by the grndlich intellectuals of Germany. The fth chapter sings a Requiem for a Theme. Here, I look at the most inuential idea which knows of several versions that the origin of religion has to do with our experience of the world and our responses to it. This chapter discredits the proposal by showing that, on the same grounds, one may argue with equal plausibility for the opposite conclusion. I show that neither the experience of the world nor our responses to it need be the same and, therefore, that which is supposed to account for the origin of religion in human societies can do no such thing. The ease with which one can reverse the conclusion tells us that we do not have a theory on our hands but merely some kind of a pretheoretical idea. This argument reinforces the suggestion made earlier in this chapter that the belief about the universality of religion is not a part of any one theory but that it underlies theory-formation. The sixth chapter, Shall the Twain ever Meet?, continues the story further. It is a thematic narrative of the nineteenth century, which carries us well into the twentieth century. It explores the theme of religious experience. An experience of the holy, of a mysterium tremendum et fascinans, is alleged to characterise religious experience. To show that this description cannot pick out a universal cross-cultural experience, the chapter briey analyses the texts of Schleiermacher and the ideas of Sderblom and Otto. These experiences presuppose that an individual is located in a specic religion, and that speaking of religious experience in these terms is parasitic upon being located in, and accepting the truths of a particular religion, in our case, the Protestant religion. In two secular theorists, Eliade and Durkheim, who speak about religion in terms of experiences of the sacred, I trace the subsistence of these themes. The seventh chapter, Guilty as Charged, My Lords and Ladies?, builds a case for the charge I made in the earlier chapter that the secular world is a secularised religious world. (These are the twain, which the title of the earlier chapter speaks of.) It argues that the question who is a Brahmin? presupposes a society where the caste system exists, in exactly the same way who is a religious person? makes sense within a culture where religion exists. Thus, we are acquainted with those who speak of atheistic religiosity. The chapter ends by showing how some anthropological facts are merely secularised claims from the Bible. Taken together, these seven chapters argue the theme that the belief about the universality of religion is a theological idea, and that its persistence indexes the secularisation of religious themes.



In the next four chapters, I try to make sense of this process of secularisation. Now, the manifest theme is what was latent hitherto: why, then, have reputed thinkers in the West not seen what they have been doing? Answering this question requires that one studies what religion is. To do so, it appears, we need to begin with a denition of the concept of religion. A Human Tragedy or the Divine Retribution?, the eighth chapter, tackles this issue. It shows that we need not dene the concept of religion at this stage, but merely accept constraints on the way we use the word religion. Thus, we restrict the reference of the concept of religion. Our object of study is religion, not its concept. Blessed are Those Who Seek gives a preliminary characterisation of religion. It does so by building upon the results of the earlier chapters. The ninth chapter conceptually reproduces the journey of the previous ones in order to say what religion could be. The question, of course, is whether we know we are studying religion and not some other object. The answers to this question are the adequacy tests: does the characterisation capture the different intuitions about religion and the several descriptions of religion? What is faith? What is its relation to doctrines? What is religious experience? What is worship? Because we can answer these questions without ad hoc modications of the hypothesis, one can show that religion is the object of study. My hypothesis also makes sense of the questions about the meaning of life and the possibility of atheistic religiosity. Imagine, There is no Religion, the obvious allusion to the famous song, is the tenth chapter. It shows that a great deal of imagination is not necessary to do so. There are cultures without religions, because certain necessary conditions required for their existence and propagation are systematically absent. By arguing that studying religion as religion forces us to do theology, it shows that we could try to investigate religion as worldview. Religion may be more than a worldview, but it is also a worldview. This shift in concepts tells us why it is interesting to ask the question whether religion is a cultural universal. If it is not, then cultures and individuals exist who do not need worldviews to goabout in the world. The argument tries to establish that India is one such culture. Prolegomena to a Comparative Science of Cultures tries to take the rst step in making sense of the possibility that cultures exist without worldviews. This chapter shows why the West believes in the universality of religion. Both the themes come together here: it is in the nature of religion to generate the belief that religion is a cultural universal. This chapter shows how religion has been a constitutive element of the West, and suggests how to thematise cultural differences. The eleventh chapter conceptually reproduces the previous chapters. It does so without modifying the hypotheses in an ad hoc manner.




In a way, one could also describe the entire argument of the book in the following way. A culture, the West, believes that all cultures are constituted (partially) by religion; it further believes that individuals and cultures require worldviews to orient and navigate themselves in the world. These beliefs are those of a culture and I show that they partially constitute the West. To show this, I specify how cultures differ from each other. Relating learning processes to cultural differences help us here. What is the epistemic status of my proposal and the arguments that have brought us so far? As I have been at pains to emphasise throughout, this essay does not pretend to provide a theory about religion. It is the rst phase in such a process. What you have on your hands is a partial description of a people and their culture as provided by someone from another culture. Despite this, the description is not mere ethno-graphy. Nor does it merely plead the case that people from different cultures could provide different partial descriptions of the world. It does more; better put, it is forced to do more. The essay shows that the belief in the universality of religion is false. Because this belief is pervasive in the common sense of the West and among intelligentsia in cultures other than the West, it is not enough that I appeal to pluralism in descriptions and rest content with it. More is required on my part. That more is simply this: provide you with good reasons, why my description is more acceptable than the received wisdom of the last three hundred years. These reasons, quite evidently, are meta-theoretical arguments. Constraints on a Description My proposals are cognitively productive. Many, many new problems have come to the fore; solution to each problem has generated newer questions. If science is a problem-solving activity, surely, my approach is scientic. The competitor theories are both barren and unproductive. Humes theory from the mid-eighteenth century and the Euhemerian theory antedating the birth of Christ are still in vogue today. That is to say, more than two hundred years of theoretical and empirical enquiry has not gone beyond the question: why does religion exist in all cultures? Because it is God-given says one camp; because it is man-made says the other. The question is the same, and the answers do not generate any new problems for enquiry. One runs where one is standing, which is a healthy exercise; but it does not bring us far.



One could also judge scientic theories in terms of their explanatory power. Should one use this criterion, the essay does not disappoint. It is able to bring together beliefs about religion with the nature of the object. It connects these with the experience of self and the discussion about personhood, relates social organisations to ritual, etc. in a tightly interlinked and a minimal number of hypotheses. Consequently, the hypotheses are promising; they indicate how theory formation should proceed. One cannot say the same of other theories or ethnographic descriptions. Thus, one could take up each philosophy of science and show that this essay is a more promising candidate than the others are. To do so would be irrelevant to my purpose. It is irrelevant not only because I have no theory, but also because of the status of my description and the context of the dialogue. I shall begin with the former rst. Status of a Description History of natural sciences has taught us that many scientic theories, which we believed were true, have turned out to be false. Consequently, it would be nothing short of a miracle if all my claims turn out to be true. Even though it is not obvious to me now, and I believe that my claims are true, the probability is high that many/some of them are not. Because of this, it is important to know how treat my claims. Though contested, an interesting distinction in the philosophy of sciences ties our theories to two contexts: the context of discovery and the context of justication. The former broadly picks out the relevant context(s), socio-psychological ones, of the origin of a theory; the latter refers to the relevant epistemic context(s) of theory appraisal. Like all interesting distinctions, it draws our attention to different problems: how does a theory come into being? Why accept it at all? One does not have to endorse a rigid distinction between these two contexts (discovery and justication) in order to appreciate that the scientic theories confront us with different kinds of problems. One such, applicable to the phase of theory-formation my proposal is in, is about the context of acceptance. The ideas in this essay require further exploration and development before it can become a theory. Such explorations involve a collective effort. The latter presupposes that you take these proposals as candidates for testing and elaborating. However, how can I persuade you to take my claims seriously? One strategy would draw attention to the counterintuitive character of my stance. However, every eccentric argument is also counterintuitive. The second strategy would show that, if true, the proposal has immense and important consequences. Many other claims can do the same: things might disappear when no one is looking; we are really ro-



bots programmed by Martians; our memories are false; we are gments of a dreamEach one of these, if true, has immense and important consequences. Nevertheless, we do not take them seriously, do we? The third strategy would demonstrate the truth of my hypotheses. That is precisely what building a theory would enable us to do: test the truth of a theory. The only way is to combine all these three strategies (suitably diluted) and compare my proposal with those that exist in the marketplace. I have tried to do this. My proposal could be true (there are some indications); it appears to be cognitively productive and heuristically fertile; it promises to deliver us an empirically testable theory. In each of these aspects, it fares better than its rivals do. Therefore, shall we try to see what this will give us? Maximally, in other words, I can extend an invitation. Present a reasonable case for the interesting nature of the endeavour. More, I cannot. Therefore, let me bring the case to a completion. I have been battling constantly not against a well-articulated theory or even a set of them, but against a deeply entrenched commonsense idea, which is a hydra-headed monster. While true of a culture whose commonsense it is, it has also prevented the emergence of an understanding and appreciation of other cultures. The previous statement, however, is controversial for more reasons than one. In the last and concluding section of the book, I want to look at one such reason. In fact, it takes the form of a challenge issued by some versions of contemporary anthropology. My previous paragraph, they might suggest, runs directly into


Questions: how could we ever describe the other? How could one ever break out of ones conceptual framework to describe the otherness of the other? Could one describe the other without using ones own categories? Let me begin with a nave formulation of the convictions behind these questions. Our theories about the world and its concepts determine our experiences of the world. Consequently, in describing the otherness of the other, we use our categories. Even if we use the categories of the other, the problem of translation guarantees us that we end up describing a variant of our experience of the world. Hence, it is not possible to describe the other. This is an epistemic dilemma for all cultures: they cannot describe the otherness of the other. The other is beyond language.



A Simple Formulation Let us look at a simplied version of the naive formulation rst: we project our categories upon other cultures. Thus, what we describe as the other is merely a variant of ourselves. This is hardly a problem. Assume that the only way we could ever begin describing the other is by projecting our own categories. In that case, let members from other cultures project their categories upon the social world as well so that we have multiple descriptions. When we have such multiple descriptions, we can ask the Kantian question: how should the social world be so that it allows multiple descriptions? The answer to this question will be the beginning of a comparative science of cultures. It is comparative in the sense that it begins from its very inception by taking multiple descriptions as the facts it must account for. In my book, I have tried to exhibit what the projection actually consists of. Here, I have tried to identify two phases. In the rst, there is a secularisation of theological themes and this generates some facts. In the second and subsequent phase, meta-level reections develop theories, which retain the facts of theology and try to explain them. That is to say, one does not begin by projecting some concept of religion. Instead, one generalises themes, generates facts, and accounts for them. Theology was the rst theory of religion. Secular theories transformed theological facts into their explananda. These facts are low-level themes from theology: for instance, all cultures have religion. In other words, the European intellectuals did not project their own categories in the process of understanding other religions. My opponent might not agree that my portrayal of history is veridical. However, that does not matter. The dispute is not any more about the epistemic possibilities of human beings. Instead, it takes on an empirical character. The same conclusion holds with respect to the more general questions as well. I will argue that the convictions supporting them are not epistemic but empirical in nature. On Equivocation and Suppression Consider the two cultures I have talked about: India and the West. Because we are talking about the other in anthropological terms, it means that (a) Indian culture is the other of the West; (b) The West is the other of the Indian culture. Let us examine the claim that it is impossible to describe the otherness of the other.



If we grant that cultures experience the world differently and that their descriptions reect this difference, it follows that: (c) the otherness of India, as the westerners experience it, depends on the western culture; (d) the otherness of the West, as the Indians experience it, depends on the Indian culture. Therefore, it follows: if these cultures are different, so are their experiences of each other. Hence, one cannot logically infer that it is impossible to describe the otherness. It is a matter of empirical research. Into what? Into how each of these cultures succeed or fail in describing the otherness of the other culture. In other words, it is a logical fallacy to claim that one could never describe the otherness: may be one can; may be one cannot. Of course, one could challenge the truth-value of the assumptions I have made. It might be the case that cultures do not experience the world differently; it might also be the case that their descriptions do not reect their experiences. Again, this is an empirical issue about two cultures, not an epistemic point about human beings. Suppose that one is willing to grant the truth-value of the above premises, and still insist that it is impossible to describe the otherness in language. We need a further premise to argue the epistemic impossibility: each culture is the other in exactly the same way. This too is an empirical premise. After all, cultures could be the others of each other in different ways. To argue that this is not the case requires recourse to language. That is, one has to argue that the difference between cultures is of the same kind. In that case, one cannot any more argue that the otherness is not expressible in language. Alternately, the assumption about the otherness is of uncertain truth-value: the unsayable otherness of the other may or may not distinguish cultures from each other. Perhaps, it is typical of one specic culture that the otherness of the others disappears from its descriptions of cultures. Given the argument of my book, the last point requires elaboration. Western culture has brought forth anthropology and ethnography, as we know them both. This fact makes the empirical premise transparent. Each culture (as the West has described them) is the other (of the western culture) in exactly the same way. What is the otherness in the Western description? It is merely anotherness. That is, the western description has effaced the otherness. It has transformed the other into another a variant of self. This means that the Indian, the African, etc. cultures as the West has described them is the other of each and of the West in exactly the same way. The western cultural descriptions of both itself and other cultures make each one of them the other in the same way. The other of each is merely another this is how the West has described the world. This situation gives raise to the feeling that the otherness has disappeared (which it indeed has) from the western descriptions.



In other words, one has to assume that each culture experiences the other the way the West describes (and experiences) the other. Now the empirical nature of this assumption is more transparent: one has to assume that the way the West experiences and describes itself and the other is the way all cultures experience themselves and others. This assumption could be true, but it is a matter for empirical demonstration. For the same reason, it could be false as well. From a Dilemma to a Problem Let me reformulate the above paragraphs very succinctly: we do have an epistemic dilemma of the other on our hands, if the West is the Cosmos of all cultures and if cultures do not differ from each other in different ways but only in the way the West imagines it to be the case. However, if the West is but one culture in the universe of cultures; if it is typical to the way in which the former has looked at itself and the others; then it is not a dilemma at all. In fact, that is how I have tried to make sense of the western culture: why does the otherness disappear from the western descriptions of other cultures? Why does everyone shine in the splendour of monochromatic dullness? I have answered these problems partially but not by blaming the big bad wolf, viz. religion. After all, it is my argument that religion has produced both western culture and science. What I have tried to do is something other than apportion blame. I have argued that the otherness of the western culture, when viewed against the background of mine, lies in its transformation of the other into another. There are two independent tasks here. First, there is the task of providing a description of the mechanism of transforming the other into another. Subsequent to this, one has to argue that this constitutes the otherness of the western culture. With respect to the former, my description is subject to multiple constraints: accessibility, intelligibility, and objectivity (see #12.2). Because I am describing the western culture, my description must be accessible to the members of this culture; it must make their experience of the world intelligible. However, in order to prevent the description from becoming ad hoc, it must be possible for me to bring together hitherto unconnected phenomena, pose new problems, be falsiable, etc. That is, my description must satisfy the multiple conditions of rationality and scienticity. Such a description is hypothetical as all our theories about fragments of the world are. This is no weakness but an epistemic strength. Regarding the second task, the situation is more complicated. With respect to the theme of the book, this is a meta-level question about my experience of the world. The description of the West is located within my experiential world. The object-level description



suggests that the West has the truth about the world and that it has the view of the world. From the meta-level (or from my experiential world), this description has the following import: this is typical of the western culture; it is the western way of going-about in the world and not mine. In other words, I have merely located my description of the western culture in an experiential context. However, the task involves an explication of the experiential context as well. Completion of this task requires further theorising. That is, one has to describe the Indian culture as that culture sees itself. This is a task for the future; the ag-waving with respect to ritual in the previous chapter hints in a possible direction. The choice for the title of the eleventh chapter is motivated on these grounds. What we need today is some kind of a theory about cultural differences. However, the prerequisite is that we break the shackles of a descriptive straightjacket, which is centuries old. In any case, what appeared as an epistemic dilemma is not destructive because it is actually a combination of two questions, each applicable only to one level. The rst is an object-level question: how can one describe the other? The second is a meta-level question: how to accommodate such descriptions in ones experiential world? The answer to the rst question is obvious. One describes the other in such a way that the other recognises the description of his own world. Ones description is constrained here by different notions of rationality, scienticity, and objectivity. This is theory generation under constraints and it is never a nished job. Such a description is hypothetical; it is partial; it merely describes one kind of difference and even that at a very high level of abstraction. In other words, it exhibits the dynamic of scientic theorising. All scientic theories face analogous problems. How could we ever falsify a theory, when the facts at our disposal are theory-laden? How could we ever generate an alternate theory, when imprisoned by the received theory? In the case of science of cultures, the job is easier and less mysterious. There are different cultures and, therefore, different partial descriptions of self and other are possible. Hence, one can generate different theories. Theories could compete with each other, whatever the epistemic status of the facts might be. Regarding the second question, the answer emphasises differences. As human beings, we have been living with all kinds of differences for centuries long. No culture imprisons anyone. A Note What have I done in this book then? I hope to have shown why the existence question of religion is cognitively interesting. It is not a denitional question. It requires developing a theory about religion, culture, and their mutual interrelationship. Conceiving it in this fashion has enabled



me to raise many interesting problems for enquiry. I do not know the extent to which I have persuaded you to take my ideas seriously; at least I hope to have made plausible why I think that a serious discussion about this issue will require a rethinking of the entire problematic. The ideas proposed in this essay could turn out to be wrong, but that is hardly the problem. There is wrong and there is wrong. It is better to be wrong in an interesting way than to recycle and peddle barren ideas that everyone wrongly believes to be right. With these remarks, I have reached the end of this essay. Even though the journey in which this particular book has the position of a resting place is far from complete, the feeling is that one has at least come some way. Perhaps, this is the best one could say about any essay, any journey, and not merely this particular one.