“Filing Religion” (Berti et al, eds.)

In June, the Oxford University Press released “Filing Religion: State, Hinduism, and Courts of Law,” edited by Daniela Berti (National Centre for Scientific Research), Gilles Tarabout (National Centre for Scientific Research), and Raphaël Voix (National Centre for Scientific Research). The publisher’s description follows:

The Indian Constitution posits a separation between a secular domain that the state can regulate and a religious one in which it should not interfere. However, defining the 9780199463794separation between the two has proved contentious: the state is involved in various ways in the direct administration of many religious institutions; and courts are regularly asked to decide on rights linked to religious functions and bodies. Such decisions contribute to (re)defining religious categories and practices.

This edited volume aims at exploring how apparently technical legalistic action taking place in courts of law significantly shapes the place Hinduism occupies in Indian and Nepalese societies, perhaps even more so than the ideology of any political party. Thus, this volume does not deal so much with politics of secularism in general, but with how courts deal in practice with Hinduism. The approach developed in this volume is resolutely historical and anthropological. It considers law as part of social, religious, and political dynamics while relying on in-depth ethnography and archival research.

Olivelle, “A Dharma Reader”

In October, Columbia University Press will release A Dharma Reader: Classical Indian Law, translated and edited by Patrick Olivelle (University of Texas at Austin). The publisher’s description follows:

A Dharma ReaderWhether defined by family, lineage, caste, professional or religious association, village, or region, India’s diverse groups did settle on an abstract concept of law in classical times. How did they reach this consensus? Was it based on religious grounds or a transcendent source of knowledge? Did it depend on time and place? And what apparatus did communities develop to ensure justice was done, verdicts were fair, and the guilty were punished?

Addressing these questions and more, A Dharma Reader traces the definition, epistemology, procedure, and process of Indian law from the third century B.C.E. to the middle ages. Its breadth captures the centuries-long struggle by Indian thinkers to theorize law in a multiethnic and pluralist society. The volume includes new and accessible translations of key texts, notes that explain the significance and chronology of selections, and a comprehensive introduction that summarizes the development of various disciplines in intellectual-historical terms. It reconstructs the principal disputes of a given discipline, which not only clarifies the arguments but also relays the dynamism of the fight. For those seeking a richer understanding of the political and intellectual origins of a major twenty-first-century power, along with unique insight into the legal interactions among its many groups, this book offers conceptual detail, historical precision, and expository illumination unlike any other volume.

Scott, “Spiritual Despots”

Spiritual DespotsIn July, the University of Chicago Press will release Spiritual Despots: Modern Hinduism and the Genealogies of Self-Rule by J. Barton Scott (University of Toronto). The publisher’s description follows:

Historians of religion have examined at length the Protestant Reformation and the liberal idea of the self-governing individual that arose from it. In Spiritual Despots, J. Barton Scott reveals an unexamined piece of this story: how Protestant technologies of asceticism became entangled with Hindu spiritual practices to create an ideal of the “self-ruling subject” crucial to both nineteenth-century reform culture and early twentieth-century anticolonialism in India. Scott uses the quaint term “priestcraft” to track anticlerical polemics that vilified religious hierarchy, celebrated the individual, and endeavored to reform human subjects by freeing them from external religious influence. By drawing on English, Hindi, and Gujarati reformist writings, Scott provides a panoramic view of precisely how the specter of the crafty priest transformed religion and politics in India.

Through this alternative genealogy of the self-ruling subject, Spiritual Despots demonstrates that Hindu reform movements cannot be understood solely Continue reading

Yoga and the University

Not into Yoga

Not into Yoga (Photo: Ottawa Magazine)

Earlier this month, controversy broke out when a Canadian university canceled a beginners’ yoga class it had offered for years. The reason for the class cancellation at the University of Ottawa is a bit murky, but a student government representative evidently told the instructor that the class showed insufficient sensitivity to foreign cultures. Yoga, after all, comes from India—a country, the concerned student explained, that had suffered oppression and “cultural genocide” as a result of “colonialism and Western supremacy.” The yoga class could be perceived as a slight to Canadians of Indian ancestry and to Indian civilization, and had best be shut down.

Many conservative commentators expressed disbelief. Here’s another example, they complained, of political correctness gone crazy. What could possibly be wrong with a yoga class? It’s just stretching. Moreover, there’s nothing unusual about appropriating positive aspects of other cultures. Aren’t we all supposed to be multiculturalists now? A yoga class is a tribute to Indian culture. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Etc.

We have seen a number of silly episodes on college campuses this fall, and I appreciate that people have grown exasperated. But even a broken clock is right twice a day. In this case, it seems to me, the students who object to the University of Ottawa’s yoga class have a point – though perhaps not the one they think.

The problem is not that a yoga class wrongly appropriates a foreign culture. As critics of the university’s decision rightly point out, there’s nothing necessarily offensive in that. And there’s no indication that the teacher or students in this particular class did anything to mock Indian culture. I imagine most of the students didn’t think about yoga’s cultural roots at all. Probably some of them assumed yoga was a Western invention. American tourists in Italy frequently tell Italians that we invented pizza.

The problem is that yoga, in its essence, is a religious exercise. (In America, in fact, some groups have objected to public school yoga classes as violations of the Establishment Clause). For pious Hindus, yoga is not simply mindful stretching, but a form of worship, as much so as Christian prayer. It’s understandable, then, that many Hindus find it deeply offensive to treat yoga merely as part of a good exercise regime. Indeed, an organization called the Hindu American Foundation has started a campaign, “Take Back Yoga,” which seeks to end the commercialization of yoga and restore the tradition “as a lifelong practice dedicated to achieving moksha, or liberation/union with God.” Think of it as akin to keeping Christ in Christmas.

Of course, the fact that Hindus see yoga as a spiritual practice doesn’t mean that others must do so as well. In a pluralistic society, believers must learn to tolerate many things. Perhaps a Hindu has no more right to object to secular yoga classes than a Christian has to object to SantaCon. (Word to the wise: avoid New York City bars on December 12). To each his own. Still, to my mind, there is something very admirable about fighting to preserve an ancient religious tradition from commercialization, misappropriation and dilution – something very conservative, in fact. Maybe the University of Ottawa should just offer a calisthenics class.

Mocko, “Demoting Vishnu: Ritual, Politics, and the Unraveling of Nepal’s Hindu Monarchy”

In November, Oxford University Press will release “Demoting Vishnu: Ritual, Politics, and the Unraveling of Nepal’s Hindu Monarchy” by Anne T. Mocko (Concordia College). The publisher’s description follows:

At the turn of the millennium, Nepal was the world’s last remaining Hindu kingdom. Even the most skeptical of observers could hardly imagine that the institution of the monarchy could soon be in jeopardy. In 2001, however, Nepal’s popular King Birendra was killed in the royal palace. Though the crown passed to his brother Gyanendra, the monarchy would never fully recover. Nepal witnessed an anti-king uprising in April 2006 and over the course of two years, an interim administration systematically took over all the king’s duties and privileges. Most decisively, beginning in the summer of 2007 the government began blocking the king from participating in his many public rituals, sending the prime minister in his place instead.

Demoting Vishnu argues that Nepal’s dramatic political transformation from monarchy to republic was contested-and in key ways accomplished-through ritual performance. Mocko theorizes the role of public ritual in producing Nepal’s state ideology. She examines how royal ritual once authorized kings to serve as the privileged apex of national governance and shows how in the twenty-first century those rituals stopped serving the king and began instead to authorize rule by a party-based “head of state.” By co-opting state ritual, the king’s opponents were able to attack the monarchy’s social identity at its foundations, enabling the final legal dissolution of kingship in 2008 to take place without physically harming the king himself. All once-royal rituals continue to be performed, but now they are handled by the country’s president-a position created in 2008 to take over state ceremonial functions. Demoting Vishnu illustrates how upheaval in ritual contexts undermined the institutional logic of the monarchy by demonstrating in very public ways that kingship was contingent, opposable, and ultimately dispensable.

Mukherji, “Gandhi and Tagore: Politics, Truth and Conscience”

In November, Routledge will release “Gandhi and Tagore: Politics, Truth and Conscience” by Gangeya Mukherji (Mahamati Prannath Mahavidyalaya, India). The publisher’s description follows:

This book brings together the political thought of Gandhi and Tagore to examine the relationship between politics, truth and conscience. It explores truth and conscience as viable public virtues with regard to two exemplars of ethical politics, addressing in turn the concerns of an evolving modern Indian political community.

The comprehensive and textually argued discussion frames the subject of the validity of ethical politics in inhospitable contexts such as the fanatically despotic state and energised nationalism. The book studies in nuanced detail Tagore’s opposition to political violence in colonial Bengal, the scope of non-violence and satyagraha as recommended by Gandhi to Jews in Nazi Germany, his response to the complexity of protest against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and the differently constituted nationalism of Gandhi and Tagore. It presents their famous debate in a new light, embedded within the dynamics of cultural identification, political praxis and the capacity of a community to imbibe the principles of ethical politics.

Comprehensive and perceptive in analysis, this book will be a valuable addition for scholars and researchers of political science with specialisation in Indian political thought, philosophy and history.

Kumar, “Radical Equality”

Stanford University Press has released Radical Equality: Ambedkar, Gandhi, gandjhiand the Risk of Democracy, by Aishwary Kumar (Stanford). The publisher’s description follows:

B.R. Ambedkar, the architect of India’s constitution, and M.K. Gandhi, the Indian nationalist, two figures whose thought and legacies have most strongly shaped the contours of Indian democracy, are typically considered antagonists who held irreconcilable views on empire, politics, and society. As such, they are rarely studied together. This book reassesses their complex relationship, focusing on their shared commitment to equality and justice, which for them was inseparable from anticolonial struggles for sovereignty.

Both men inherited the concept of equality from Western humanism, but their ideas mark a radical turn in humanist conceptions of politics. This study recovers the philosophical foundations of their thought in Indian and Western traditions, religious and secular alike. Attending to moments of difficulty in their conceptions of justice and their language of nonviolence, it probes the nature of risk that radical democracy’s desire for inclusion opens within modern political thought. In excavating Ambedkar and Gandhi’s intellectual kinship, Radical Equality allows them to shed light on each other, even as it places them within a global constellation of moral and political visions. The story of their struggle against inequality, violence, and empire thus transcends national boundaries and unfolds within a universal history of citizenship and dissent.

“Religious Transformation in Modern Asia” (Kim, ed.)

This March, Brill Publishing will release “Religious Transformation in Modern Asia: A Transitional Movement” edited by David W. Kim (Australian National University).  The publisher’s description follows:

Religious TransformationThis volume explores the religious transformation of each nation in modern Asia. When the Asian people, who were not only diverse in culture and history, but also active in performing local traditions and religions, experienced a socio-political change under the wave of Western colonialism, the religious climate was also altered from a transnational perspective. Part One explores the nationals of China (Taiwan), Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan, focusing on the manifestations of Japanese religion, Chinese foreign policy, the British educational system in Hong Kong in relation to Tibetan Buddhism, the Korean women of Catholicism, and the Scottish impact in late nineteenth century Korea. Part Two approaches South Asia through the topics of astrology, the works of a Gujarātī saint, and Himalayan Buddhism. The third part is focused on the conflicts between ‘indigenous religions and colonialism,’ ‘Buddhism and Christianity,’ ‘Islam and imperialism,’ and ‘Hinduism and Christianity’ in Southeast Asia.

Barua, “Debating ‘Conversion’ in Hinduism and Christianity”

In April, Routledge will release “Debating ‘Conversion’ in Hinduism and Christianity” by Ankur Barua (University of Cambridge, UK). The publisher’s description follows:

Hindu and Christian debates over the meanings, motivations, and modalities of ‘conversion’ provide the central connecting theme running through this book. It focuses on the reasons offered by both sides to defend or oppose the possibility of these cross-border movements, and shows how these reasons form part of a wider constellation of ideas, concepts, and practices of the Christian and the Hindu worlds.

The book draws upon several historical case-studies of Christian missionaries and of Hindus who encountered these missionaries. By analyzing some of the complex negotiations, intersections, and conflicts between Hindus and Christians over the question of ‘conversion’, it demonstrates that these encounters revolve around three main contested themes. Firstly, who can properly ‘speak for the convert’? Secondly, how is ‘tolerating’ the religious other connected to an appraisal of the other’s viewpoints which may be held to be incorrect, inadequate, or incomplete? Finally, what is, in fact, the ‘true Religion’? The book demonstrates that it is necessary to wrestle with these questions for an adequate understanding of the Hindu and Christian debates over ‘conversion.’

Questioning what ‘conversion’ precisely is, and why it has been such a volatile issue on India’s political-legal landscape, the book will be a useful contribution to studies of Hinduism, Christianity and Asian Religion and Philosophy.

Walzer, “The Paradox of Liberation”

In March, Yale University Press will release “The Paradox of Liberation: Secular Revolutions and Religious Counterrevolutions” by Michael Walzer (Emeritus Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study).  The publisher’s description follows:

Paradox of LiberationMany of the successful campaigns for national liberation in the years following World War II were initially based on democratic and secular ideals. Once established, however, the newly independent nations had to deal with entirely unexpected religious fierceness. Michael Walzer, one of America’s foremost political thinkers, examines this perplexing trend by studying India, Israel, and Algeria, three nations whose founding principles and institutions have been sharply attacked by three completely different groups of religious revivalists: Hindu militants, ultra-Orthodox Jews and messianic Zionists, and Islamic radicals.

In his provocative, well-reasoned discussion, Walzer asks why these secular democratic movements have failed to sustain their hegemony: Why have they been unable to reproduce their political culture beyond one or two generations? In a postscript, he compares the difficulties of contemporary secularism to the successful establishment of secular politics in the early American republic—thereby making an argument for American exceptionalism but gravely noting that we may be less exceptional today.

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