Book Preview – The Modern Spirit of Asia, by Peter van der Veer

Book (P)reviews, In the Author's Own Words

This is a book about India and China. It is about the ways in which these nation-forms, and the nationalist understandings of religion that have thereby developed, have been transformed by Western imperial modernity.

[Peter van der Veer (Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, Göttingen) previews his new book, The Modern Spirit of Asia: The Spiritual and the Secular in China and India (Princeton University Press 2014).]

This is a book about India and China. It is about the ways in which these nation-forms, and the nationalist understandings of religion that have thereby developed, have been transformed by Western imperial modernity.

In my understanding, the onset of modernity is located in the nineteenth century and is characterized politically by the emergence of the nation-state, economically by industrialization, and ideologically by an emphasis on progress and liberation. What I call ‘imperial modernity’ is the formation of modernity under the conditions of imperialism. What I present in this book is an essay in comparative historical sociology, informed by anthropological theory.

Comparative historical sociology of culture is a field that was founded by Max Weber and practiced by his followers, of whom Robert Bellah and the late S.N. Eisenstadt are among the best known. It has been connected to interpretive anthropological theory and to insights gained in ethnography, especially in the work of Clifford Geertz. The great increase of specialist historical work has led scholars to limit themselves, however, to the nation-state as unit of analysis. Moreover, the emphasis on national economics and politics has made it hard to pursue this line of comparative interpretive analysis. Further, the complexities of Indian and Chinese societies and their modern transformation are huge and our knowledge of them has increased greatly since Weber wrote his studies, making  it even more difficult to do a comparative project. And yet I am convinced that, in an era of increasing specialization, it is important to do comparative work if it succeeds in highlighting issues that are neglected or ignored because of the specialist’s focus on a singular national society.

The nation-form itself is a global form that emerges in the nineteenth century and cannot be understood as the product of one particular society. It is the dominant societal form today, with India and China being among the countries that have been gradually developed into nation-states – making it is possible to compare India and China at the level of nation-states. However, these societies are internally immensely differentiated and the particular nation-form they have taken is historically contingent. This means that, while India and China are taking a globally available form that is characteristic of modernity, they also follow pathways that are quite different – ones that can be highlighted and better understood through comparison. These nation-forms are comparable, because they are based on huge societies with deep cultural histories that have united large numbers of people over vast territories and long periods of time and have both been formed in interaction with Western imperialism. The comparative analysis that is introduced here takes the nation-form not as something natural or already preconditioned by deep civilizational or ethnic histories, but as something historically contingent and fragmented. In its focus on the comparative analysis of the different pathways of two nation-states in a global (imperial) context, the argument therefore goes beyond methodological nationalism.

My main interest in this book is to understand the differences between nationalist understandings of religion in India and those in China. In other words, this is a study of the relation between nationalism and religion from a comparative perspective. Both nationalisms hold common ideas about progress, rationality, equality and anti-imperialism, but the location of religion in Indian and Chinese nationalist imaginings is very different. In short, religion is a valued aspect of Indian nationalism, whereas it is seen as an obstacle in Chinese nationalism. I argue that such a difference in the location of religion in modernity can be understood by comparing the ways in which India and China have been transformed by imperial modernity. As I have argued in an earlier book on the case of Britain and India (Imperial Encounters, Princeton University Press, 2001), imperial interactions have been crucial to the formation of imperial modernities. In this book, I write of Western or Euro-American imperialism with an emphasis on British imperialism, which was the global hegemonic force until the Second World War. The relation between religion and nationalism is therefore constitutive of Indian and Chinese modernities, which is why it forms the general problematic of this book.

In its current phase, globalization has forced us to go beyond nationalist histories, but world history more often than not emphasizes economics and politics and, in an established secularist fashion, underplays the formative role of religion. What I present here is a history that emphasizes interactions between Euro-America (also known as ‘the West’), on the one hand, and India and China, on the other, with an emphasis on what I would like to call a ‘syntagmatic’ chain of ‘religion-magic-secularity-spirituality`. I adopt the term ‘syntagmatic’ from Saussurean linguistics to suggest that these terms are connected, belonging to each other, but that they cannot, however, replace each other, in the narrativization of modernity. This syntagmatic chain occupies a key position in nationalist imaginings of modernity, meaning that this book, then, is about religion, nation, and empire in India and China. It is about the effects of universalizing categories like spirituality, magic, and secularity on ideas of the nation in India and China.

After a theoretical introduction that discusses concepts of modernity and civilization, the second chapter shows how, in the nineteenth century, the category of spirituality receives a global modern meaning. It becomes part of an alternative modernity in different places around the globe. In India and China, indigenous forms of spirituality are invoked as alternatives to Western imperialism and materialism. Spiritual superiority becomes part of Panasianism in the writings of some Indian and Chinese intellectuals. At the same time, state-centered religious ideologies, as well as nation-centered ideologies, focus on spirituality as part of national character. These ideologies are crucial even today in China, India, Taiwan, and Singapore.

The third chapter concerns the making of oriental religion. It explores the emerging field of oriental studies and comparative religion, especially the project of Sacred Books of the East, headed by Friedrich Max Muller. It builds on recent reappraisals of the indologist Muller, as well as of the sinologist James Legge. It goes beyond the study of orientalist scholarship by examining the role of the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. The major analytical issue is to what extent these products of Western scholarship and imagination have produced forms of religious categorization that have had an actual impact on religious belief and practice in India and China.

In the fourth chapter, conversion to Christianity and the impact of missionary movements in India and China is discussed. Christian missionaries have played a major role in the creation of modern vocabularies and modern attitudes in India and China. Reform movements, but also popular resistance movements, derive much of their discourse from Christianity. The chapter analyzes, therefore, the different trajectories of Christianity in India and China. In particular, it examines the concept of conversion in relation to the discourse of modernity.

Chapter Five engages the question of ‘popular religion’ and the relation between religion and magic in India and China. The categories of ‘popular belief’, ‘superstition’ and magic have been used by modernizers in India and China to intervene in people’s daily practices and remove obstacles to the total transformation of their communities.  These attempts have developed in different ways in India and China, but they have not been entirely successful in either case. After a historical discussion of heterodoxy, messianic movements, and political protest, the chapter delineates the transformation of popular religion in India and China under the influence of liberalization of the economy and globalization.

In the sixth chapter, the discussion of anti-superstition movements in the previous chapter is taken up in a broader discussion of secularism as a political project with its own utopian elements. The great differences in the nature of that project in India and China are used to illustrate the historical specificity of the secular in relation to religion within different historical trajectories.

In Chapter Seven, yoga (a system of bodily exercise and spiritual awakening) is compared with taiji (shadow boxing) and qigong (bodily skills to connect to qi or primordial force). The argument here is that these forms of movement, while connected to notions of health, have strong political and social implications and can be important in nationalism. The chapter discusses, among others, the Falun Gong and the Ravi Ravi Shankar movements.

In the penultimate chapter, the construction of minority and majority ethnicities, cultures, and religions is discussed. In the case of India, this involves the construction of a Hindu majority versus Muslim, Christian, and Sikh minorities, while, in the case of China, it is the construction of a Han majority versus a variety of recognized ethnic minorities, among whom the Hui Muslims are the most significant. The most important comparative case of a minority religion in India and China is Islam. The chapter looks at the position of Muslim minorities in India and China in relation to the nation-state and the ways in which the majority population feels the existence of these minorities as a threat. This involves a discussion of the relation between central authority and regional minorities.

In the conclusion, some of the threads woven in the book are recapitulated and put in the context of current anthropological understanding of Indian and Chinese society. Importantly, this book is unique in its comparison of modern religious formations in India and China, offering a theoretical contribution to the discussion of secularism by taking it outside of the narrow confines of Euro-American history.

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