Methods and Religious Studies

More than two years ago, I presented a paper on the medicine Buddha in pre-Republican era China at my liberal arts college. Without the adequate tools, I could not present the significance of the combination of ritual and medicine beyond the realm of superstition. I read this following passage and had an a-ha moment about religious studies--
A second approach to the question of cultural difference starts from a different assumption, namely, that “real,” substantive, and “immiscible” cultural differences constitute an actually existing dimension of human experience that needs to be dealt with in our analyses. While some analysts have argued that rendering “untranslatable” cultural practices transparent within the hegemonic languages of Western academia amounts to an act of “epistemological violence,” others have argued for the ethical necessity of doing just that. While keenly sensitive to processes of historical transformation in the constitution of modern subjectivities, historian Dipesh Chakrabarty, for one, is unwilling to dismiss the existence of (and constitutive role played by) radically different life-worlds within modernity. Self-critically reflecting on his own previous research into the history of factory labor in Bengal, where laborers commonly invoked the agency of Hindu gods to facilitate a range of tasks at hand, Chakrabarty writes that “a secular subject like history faces certain problems in handling practices in which gods, spirits or the supernatural have agency in the world.” Chakrabarty’s solution to these problems is not to cease and desist from writing history, however; nor is it to abandon altogether the task of “rough translation” required to make differences intelligible in academic writing. The latter choice Chakrabarty refuses largely on ethical grounds: “It may be legitimately argued that the administration of justice by modern institutions requires us to imagine the world through the languages of the social sciences,” he reasons, since “one cannot argue with modern bureaucracies and other instruments of governmentality without recourse to the secular time and narratives of history and sociology” (72, 86). At the same time, Chakrabarty urges historians to acknowledge both the “finitude” of history’s secular outlook and the “scandalous” nature of “rough translations” required to render radical forms of cultural difference intelligible in social-scientific discourse (90).
This theoretical analysis by William Glover from Making Lahore Modern’s Introduction (p xvi-xvii) explains precisely the difficulty I faced when writing about Buddhism and medicinal practices in history. It is very difficult to comprehend the development of medicine (and technology) other than a road of teleological progress. Without a broader understanding of medicinal practices at large at the period I was looking at, one can only compare to then-Buddhist practices of medicine and now. This would undermine the credibility of Buddhist tradition of that particular time. If a doctoral and above level work in social science can only amount to “rough translation,” I had an even coarser translation at the time. Is writing religious studies academic papers from a historical viewpoint at the liberal arts level ever possible? (This question is a reflection of my frustration towards historical methods at present; I do not want to question the wonderful aptitudes that religious studies introduced to me two years ago.)

Another question, If one uses history and historicizes religion, how can religion occupy a distinct theoretical space than from culture? I had a conversation with a Buddhist monk recently at JNU. He has completed his MPhil and will start his doctorate soon. He has read extensively and is well-learned in Sanskrit; he plans to tackle Tibetan next. His English conversation skills were limited and we talked in Mandarin. He was easygoing but still assumed more authority in the conversation. We talked about Buddhism both as an academic subject as well as a subject that carries inherent truth that we accept while others may not accept (I am a Buddhist, but for length-sake I will not get into whether or not we should call it a “religion” in this post). I tread lightly when we started historicizing Buddhism, since it was my first time meeting him and he was senior to me--I had no idea if he would at one point abruptly object to the secular social science assumptions which I might impose on the discussion. He never did, but the testing-waters feeling of having social science discussions with people of a religious identity remained.

tomb of Jahangir in Lahore

Another similar challenge that faced Islamic historical writing in the 19th century, also presented by William Glover (p187-188)--
One of the earliest was Sayyid Ahmed Khan’s Asar-us-Sanadid (Manifestations of the Noblemen), an account of the city of Delhi composed in the Urdu language. Sayyid Khan first published his history in 1846, illustrating the book’s six hundred pages of text with more than a hundred lithograph prints. The book described Delhi’s historical palaces, shrines, and religious buildings and included a 250-page account of “cultural life” in the city that described the city’s fairs and festivals, bazaars, and places for community gathering. Shortly after the book’s initial publication, Sayyid Khan presented a copy to A. A. Roberts, Delhi’s district magistrate and collector. Roberts, in turn, presented the book to the Royal Asiatic Society in London. On the suggestion of a member of the society, Roberts undertook an English translation of the book that for unknown reasons was never completed. In the preface to a later edition, however, Sayyid Khan claimed that the process of translating the work into English brought out “defects” in the original.
Put another way, the broader significance of the details recorded by Sayyid Khan—a significance that his British readership found missing— needed little elaboration for an Indian readership, since the mode of description he used established the context automatically. That context drew on an earlier tradition of IndoIslamic historical writing, in particular a mode Christopher Bayly has described as “genealogical.” This historiographic tradition assumed that certain known families and individuals embodied innate moral and spiritual qualities and that these qualities could be invoked for a reader simply by reciting lines of descent. More importantly, perhaps, the qualities did not need to be specified: Listing the names was enough to invoke them.