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Joan-Pau Rubiés, Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance: South India through European Eyes, 1250–1625 Travel

and Ethnology in the Renaissance: South India through European Eyes, 1250–1625 by Joan-Pau  Rubiés Review by: Phillip B. Wagoner History of Religions, Vol. 43, No. 1 (August 2003), pp. 78-80 Published by: The University of Chicago Press Stable URL: . Accessed: 22/03/2012 10:46
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the Roman aristocrat Pietro della Valle recorded an important observation on the significance of cow dung in its use as a plaster for floors. Following these self-imposed limitations. enabling him to arrive at a number of important conclusions regarding the development of this ethnographic literature and the analytical discourse on human diversity it embodies. So “massive” is the body of extant Renaissance travel literature that Rubiés has little choice but to restrict his study in some way. 12 plates. in particular. 2000. or at greater length for purposes of comparison. the state that dominated the Indian peninsula between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. In thus drawing a critical distinction between the tenets of non-Christian religions (which could only be false) and the exotic.” this travel literature created an empirical ground that “imposed itself in the thinking of seventeenth-century theologians and philosophers” (p. 1). della Valle would himself adopt it upon his return to Italy. and that this led to far-reaching intellectual changes. By Joan-Pau Rubiés. At the risk of oversimplifying his subtly nuanced argument of some four hundred pages.” namely. Rubiés charts the course of this intellectual development by analyzing the changing conventions and concerns of travel literature in Renaissance Europe. 1531). Pp. He contends that “by its sheer massive presence. Ludovico de Varthema (1510). 1600). He creates virtue from necessity by choosing to focus on accounts dealing with South India and.95. non-European “other. the passage is emblematic of what Joan-Pao Rubiés describes as “a key distinction [in] early modern ethnology. Writing from India in the 1620s. 2 maps. $74. p. the more they were able to ONE LINE LONG . Duarte Barbosa (1516– 18). Rubiés provides a viable and compelling alternative to the now-tired “orientalism” paradigm.” Rubiés is concerned instead with the “genuine interaction” (p. moreover. Rubiés has produced a case study that is as coherent as it is revealing. xiv) that unfolded between Europeans and the peoples they encountered. 1250–1625. and Pietro della Valle (1620s and earlier)—as well as literally scores of other figures who are discussed either in passing.” he emphasizes that he has now come to realize it is used “only for elegance and ornament ( per pulitezza e per ornamento)” (quoted by Rubiés. Domingos Paes (1520–22). xxii+ 443. Not only have the Portuguese in Goa also adopted this custom— said to be effective in protecting against the plague—but. Fernao Nunes (ca.78 Book Reviews Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance: South India through European Eyes. Vasco de Gama (the Diario of 1497–99). By delimiting his field in this manner. Roberto de Nobili (and other Jesuits writing ca. with the Vijayanagara empire. In stressing the very centrality of this cross-cultural experience and emphasizing its impact on the subsequent unfolding of cultural and intellectual changes in Europe itself. 377). Nicolo Conti (1437 and 1441). I would summarize Rubiés’s central thesis as follows: The more Europeans succeeded in mastering foreign languages. Noting that he had earlier assumed this practice to be a “superstitious rite of religion. xi). In this ambitiously conceived study. Rubiés is still able to provide extended analysis of the works of some nine key figures—Marco Polo (1298). yet coherent and efficacious sets of social customs of these Gentiles. Where Edward Said and his followers would see the production of “orientalist” images of a passive. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. “a sophisticated understanding of the differences between the analysis of religious diversity and the analysis of diversity in forms of civilization” (p.

military power. What they portrayed was “not an image of ‘otherness. Of particular significance for Rubiés’s larger thesis is his suggestion that religion was the sole category that remained resistant to this kind of analysis. Nonetheless. and Nunes probably learnt Kannada” [p. instead. the local forms of “Gentilism” (Hinduism. yet this did not stop him from discarding his customary dress as a European Jesuit and presenting himself instead in the garb of an Indian holy man (sannyasi ) so his audience might better recognize him as belonging to the category of “itinerant religious teacher. these men had acquired a proficiency in local languages (“Barbosa was a specialist in Malayalam. and the political and economic interests of the earlier lay authors had been made largely irrelevant by the eclipse of Vijayanagara as a political center (the city was sacked in 1565 and never successfully revived). 162). which could only lead to the conclusion that these were the idolatrous practices of devil worshippers. so that what is most remarkable about sixteenth-century texts (and in stark contrast to the fascination for the wisdom of the brahmins in ancient Greek accounts) is an almost complete lack of interest in the beliefs and faith of those peoples whose material resources. Turkish. and Persian” [p. Like Marco Polo. he could change his dress confident in the knowledge that he would in no way be compromising his orthodoxy (pp. in today’s terms) were inevitably viewed from the perspective of Christianity’s universalistic claims. the heyday was in the sixteenth century. it simply “shifted the weight of interpretation away from religion. 207]). and. as lay Christians. but unlike him they were more thoroughly integrated into the new lands as settled merchants and crown officials. since that discourse properly belonged to the authorities of the Church” (p. 51]). the Jesuits continued to observe the critical distinction between civil and religious diversity. and some of them. 338). Thus. Independent accounts focusing primarily on the analysis of South Indian religion would not appear until the first decade of the seventeenth century. 219). This critical distinction between religious beliefs and civil customs would have far-reaching consequences in subsequent European intellectual history. Although Marco Polo effectively marks the beginnings of this development (he “surely spoke and read Mongol. proved adept at using this distinction to further their missionary ends. 325. Thus. he was following the same critical procedure of disaggregating customary practices from essential religious beliefs. thus leading to their perception of these cultures as valid and rationally coherent systems of social practice. accordingly. What is of real interest here is that Rubiés shows this new missionary genre to have been the intellectual heir to the lay accounts of the sixteenth century. on the one hand opening . such a discrepancy between a positive evaluation of civil society and a negative judgment of this society’s religion did not create any “global problem of interpretation”.’ but rather a complex set of social rules which happen to be different” (p. like Roberto de Nobili. dress and ritual customs attracted such attention” (p. In any case. and thus produced even more extended and systematic ethnographic accounts. these Portuguese ethnographers “did not have a proper cultural space in which to discuss religion.History of Religions 79 participate effectively in local cultures. 222). when Jesuit missionaries began working the courts and coastal territories of Vijayanagara’s successor states. The fundamental falseness of Hindu religious teachings was simply assumed by Nobili.” In adopting such a strategy of cultural translation. when a new generation of Portuguese casados established themselves in Goa and elsewhere along the coasts.

Early on. contributing to the increasingly sharp differentiation between religion and secular society as analytical categories. and. New York: Oxford University Press. It must be conceded. If there is indeed any possibility of eventual escape from this problem. Rubiés suggests that this vicious circle can be escaped by considering archaeological evidence. Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance is a work of exceptional importance and far-reaching implications. Pp.00 (cloth). and that it in no way vitiates Rubiés’s larger argument. Her translations of Kabir. had he additionally considered the more direct representations of contemporary inscriptions—made accessible through such analyses as Noboru Karashima’s Towards a New Formation: South Indian Society under Vijayanagar Rule (Delhi: Oxford University Press. now available in abundance thanks to the ongoing publishing efforts of the Karnataka Directorate of Archaeology and Museums and the Vijayanagara Research Project Monograph Series. the historical analysis of travel literature. on the other. or post-Vijayanagara historiographic writings like the Rayavacakamu. It should be mandatory reading not only for scholars of comparative religion. it must properly begin with a more direct and systematic reading of the European travel literature against the background of the “raw” archaeological data. . Rubiés rightly calls attention to the problem that “current historical interpretations of the empire of Vijayanagara rely heavily on the very same sources that we need to read critically in order to distinguish a historical reality from a western view of it” (p. $45. but also for anyone interested in the dynamics of crosscultural encounter. few have the poetic sensibilities of Linda Hess. the historiography of medieval South India and Vijayanagara. that this remains only a minor problem. or the intellectual history of Renaissance Europe—a broad audience indeed. it has to do with a nagging epistemological issue that remains largely unresolved.80 Book Reviews up the possibility of a more self-reflexive understanding of Christianity. 29). 1992)—and not just the more problematic representations of normative and poetic texts like the Ramayana and Amuktamalyada. Similarly. however. I believe. themselves similarly determined by a consideration of the Portuguese accounts. prepared in collaboration with the well-known Hindi scholar Shukdeo Singh. Scholarly translations of religious poetry too often disappoint because they are either scholarship that is too diligent or poetry that does not work. essays and notes by Linda Hess. Phillip B. Although several Western students of Indian languages have a nice sense of assonance and rhythm. yet his discussion of this “evidence” is in fact largely restricted to a review of some of the higher-order interpretations that have been offered of it. If there is one criticism that can be made of this profoundly erudite work. $17. Wagoner Wesleyan University The Bijak of Kabir. Rubiés’s efforts to compare European accounts with indigenous literary representations would have been more profitable. xiv+200.95 (paper). Translated by Linda Hess and Shukdeo Singh.