Indian Religious Landscape Survey

This is a very simple poll. I posted a couple of these questions on Twitter (@omarali50) and want to do the same here. The idea is to test a hypothesis (not about what will happen to the Indian religious landscape, but what do readers of this blog THINK will happen to it, and why) which will be part of a later blog post I plan. For now, please take this very simple 3 question survey by scrolling down within the survey below.. and comment on the post as you see fit.. We may learn something, or at least have some interesting discussions..

Create your own user feedback survey

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Bangladeshi freethinker shot dead

Freethinking writer and politician shot dead in Bangladesh:

Shahzahan Bachchu was known locally and within the secular Bangladeshi movement as an outspoken, sometimes fiery activist for secularism. He printed poetry and books related to humanism and freethought via his publishing house Bishaka Prakashani (Star Publishers). He was also a political activist, serving as former general secretary of Munshiganj district unit of the Communist Party.

He was reportedly shot and killed this evening near his village home at Kakaldi in Munshiganj district near the capital Dhaka.

The fool hath said in his heart, There is a God.

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On the rectification of names and religion

A major influence on my thinking about human social phenomenon is Scott Atran’s In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. Atran, along with other scholars such as Dan Sperber and younger researchers such as Harvey Whitehouse, work within a “naturalistic” paradigm, as opposed to the more interpretative framework currently ascendant within American anthropology.

The interpretive framework emphasizes “thick description,” and avoids generalities (unless they are convenient ones!), as well as exhibiting a suspicion of synthesis with the natural sciences. Ways of thinking such as post-colonialism are part of the umbrella of paradigms which are consonant with interpretive anthropology’s premises.

Both naturalistic and interpretive frameworks are useful. But I believe in modern discourse the latter is given almost monopolistic power to adjudicate on factual matters, even though in other contexts those who engage in interpretation are wont to say that facts are fictions!

Let’s start with the idea that the idea of religion qua religion is Protestant, Christian, or Abrahamic. I’ve seen all three flavors of the argument using a narrow definition of religion. It’s hard to deny that Christianity, and often in particular Protestantism, have resulted in a reorganization and reimagining of non-Christian religions. For example, the “confessionalization” of South Korea after World War II, and the transformation of Won Buddhism into an institution which resembles Protestantism would be a case in point. Or the emergence of Arya Samaj in the 19th century, and its relationship to the stimulative effect of evangelical Protestantism.

It is hard to deny confessional Protestantism is a very particular form of religion, and a clear and distinct one. The emphasis on individual volition in this view of religion makes it such that identity is clear and distinct through adherence to a precise formula and community. Practitioners are self-conscious in their identity. They come to it, it is not given to them.

But is it fair to say that religion by necessity must follow the outlines of confessional Protestantism? Or that it has to be a congregational faith with exclusive boundaries, as the Abrahamic faiths tend to be?

Not necessarily. A Ju/’hoansi tribesman in the Kalahari does not follow any of the organized world religions. He or she surely does not have the word for religion in their language, unless he or she is in extensive contact with missionaries. But the Ju/’hoansi have a rich supernatural world in which they believe, and which is seamlessly woven into their lives.

Do the Ju/’hoansi  have a religion or not? If you asked them they might not know what you are talking about. The Ju/’hoansi lack many of the institutions which modern societies have, so they don’t need all the labels of modern societies. Do the Ju/’hoansi have “daycare”? Again, they would look at you in a very confused manner. But the do have  Ju/’hoansi some alloparenting. It’s just something implicit, tacit, and taken for granted. It might not be labelled daycare, but that’s what it is. Functionally they have daycare, even it’s not institutionalized.

To bring it back to the central focus of this weblog, there has been some assertion that Hinduism as such was invented/defined by the British. That Hinduism as a coherent ideology is a very distinct and novel thing from the welter of beliefs and practiced of Indians more generally.

It is clear there is some truth in this. The Hinduism of a Brahmin expositor of Sanatana Dharma is distinct from the local spirituality of a adivasi group, and both differ from something like Gaudiya Vaishnavism.

But the reality is that Hinduism is not particularly unique. American Presbyterians exhibit self-conscious identity and adherence to elite-mediated belief and practice. This sort of individualistic confessional Christianity is arguably the apotheosis of a modernist conception of religion. But this is a relatively new development in the West among Christians.

The vast majority of the European peasantry did not exhibit this sort of Christian self-consciousness before the later medieval centuries, and much of it did not become self-conscious until after the Reformation period. This is one reason that some Reformed Protestants argue that Europe was not Christianized until after the Reformation. Peasants may have had a sense that they were Christians, and others were heathens, but the full liturgy and deep catechism were not necessarily a part of their lives (in contrast to the elite).

And yet it seems ridiculous to assert in the context of the Crusades, the rise of Gothic cathedrals, and the conversion of Northern and Eastern Europe by missionaries, that Europe was not Christian before the late medieval period. Individual Europeans may not have been self-conscious confessional Christians, but everyone around them was at least nominally a Christian. Additionally, the Christian Church, whether West or East, saw itself as bringing salvation to everyone within the society, high or low, poor or rich, and devout or ignorant. Many Europeans were not Christian in the individual way modern evangelical Protestants would understand, but European civilization was Christian.

I think this is the best way to understand what Hinduism was, and what it became. Indian civilization was long seen to be distinct by the ancients. It was not a random and disparate collection of peoples, but a civilization with various centers, and jostling competition between aspirant elites.

It is well known in the pre-modern period “Hindu” seems to have bracketed people who lived in India. From the Muslim perspective all non-Muslims who lived in the subcontinent. It was a geographical designation more than a religious one as such. But it is clear that already by the time of the arrival of Muslims in the Sindh in the 8th century, and definitely by the era when Al-Biruni wrote his well known ethnography of South Asia around 1000 AD, that Indian religion had taken on some distinctive forms and outlines, even if it was not self-consciously termed Hinduism. It is clear because outsiders describe normative Indian religious practices and beliefs that we would recognize today (e.g., reincarnation).

There are two other elements to this broader issue. First, it curious that the British had to define Hinduism, when it seems Muslims had been doing so for the whole period after the initial incursions. Al-Biruni made the most thorough early attempt, and his writings on India would make an Orientalist proud. And I say that not as a dismissal, but a description. Al-Biruni seemed rather clear-eyed that Indian hostility to Muslim was due to the predatory character of the warlords who also patronized his scholarship. The focus on the British reflects the recency-bias in post-colonial studies, where the only colonialism and conquest of interest is tht which is executed by Europeans.

Additionally, I am  convinced by the arguments in Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, and Warriors of the Cloisters: The Central Asian Origins of Science in the Medieval World, that Turanian Buddhism was essential and instrumental in shaping Islam as we understand it from the Abbassid period onward (in particular, the emergence of madrassa and the hadith traditions). Though Turanian Buddhism is clearly not Hindu, connections to India to the south and China to the east were part of a broader “Buddhist international” which flourished in the 4th to 7th century.

This is not to deny the distinctiveness of the Islam Al-Biruni used as a contrast to Indian religious thought. But, by his life Central Asian Buddhism was extirpated, and he would not have been able to see the influence of that Indian-influenced tradition on Islam because it had become thoroughly integrated.

Second, Indian religious civilization was successfully exported to the east so it was not constitutively associated with being Indian. The Balinese of Indonesia and the Cham of Vietnam are recognizably Hindu. It would be curious to tell them that the British defined Hinduism in the early modern period…when they were practicing Hinduism 1,000 years ago. The Ankgor temple complex was built in the 12th century, when Hinduism was Cambodia’s dominant elite religion.

Finally, an addendum to my post on caste and genetics. I read Castes of Mind many years ago. I think many of the arguments in that book aren’t necessarily invalidated by the genetic data. But, we need to think hard about whether we really expected the genetic data given the thesis that British colonialism was highly determinative in shaping the hierarchy and structure of South Asian society.

In fact, the genetic data makes it clear that most South Asian communities have been distinct and endogamous for several thousand years. That the genetic differences between castes groupings and jati within regions are closer to what you could expect of from differences between antipodes of a continent. And, within a given region ancestry which is closer to West/Central Eurasian tends to be enriched in groups “higher” up the modern caste ladder, across the subcontinent (at least if there is a correlation).

Additionally, this is not well known, but the genetic structure seems to exist even if you remove Indo-Aryans from the picture. Groups such as the Reddys and Nadars in South India who do not have any northern/western affinity at all are still genetically quite distinct from adivasis and scheduled castes in the local region. They also tend to have more West/Central Eurasian ancestry than adivasis and scheduled castes in the local region.

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American Caste

Our featured post modernist scholar Daria Roithmayr appears to believes that America has four castes: caucasions, latinos, blacks, asians; and emphasizes the importance of caste (which she calls “race”) over class in understanding how the world works and changing societal socio-economic outcomes. And our featured hero, leader of the intellectual dark web, global respected elder, and leading global intellectual Glenn Loury believes in emphasizing class over caste. I am 200% with my hero Glenn Loury on emphasizing class over caste.

Discussions at Brown Pundits seem to be overrun with discussions on caste that I don’t fully understand. The parallels of caste in the muslim world (various different sects of Islam), Arya societies (Iran, Hindu Jain Buddhist influenced societies) and America are uncannily similar. Perhaps a discussion of American caste might help lower extreme passions and facilitate a more productive discussion of caste in muslim societies and Arya influenced societies.

Start watching 35 minutes in if interested.

Daria Roithmayr believes that due to a series of historical events humans are not born with the same social capital. This inequality in social capital is inherited across generations and she believes drives differences in average socio-economic outcomes between America’s four castes. The way she believes social capital in inherited across generations is:

  1. Inter-generational wealth transfer from parents to children [I think this is easily overcome]
  2. Rich kids go to better public schools funded by high property tax revenues [I don’t think school funding matters as much as she does. Expensive versus cheaper public schools matter far less than the power of “good company”, or the effect of kids being surrounded by other amazing kids.]
  3. Social networks [this or the power of “good company” is even more important and valuable than she thinks]
  4. Leadership of or influence on social networks [I don’t think I understand this point]

Daria Roithmayr is right that social capital advantage is inherited across generations. My belief is the way social capital transfers across generations is through affecting four types of privilege:

  1. Physical health [Sharira Siddhi in Sanskrit]
  2. Mental health [Chitta Shuddhi in Sanskrit]
  3. Intelligence [Buddhi in Sanskrit] {Intelligence is affected by physical and mental health as well as by meditation in eastern philosophy}
  4. Good company [This is the least important of the four and primarily works via the influence good company has on physical and mental health and intelligence. There is an eastern saying: “tell me your company and I will tell you who you are”. Social networks or what Glenn Loury calls “relations over transactions” is part of “good company”.]

The other issues Daria is discussing has a far smaller effect on inter-generational social capital transfer than these four.

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Intellectual Dark Web

I would define the “intellectual dark web” as the confluence and convergence of leaders from classical European enlightenment, hard sciences, technology (including neuroscience, bio-engineering, genetics, artificial intelligence), and east philosophy streams. Among the intellectual dark web’s many members are Dr. Richard Haier, Jordan Peterson, Jonathan Haidt, Ben Shapiro, Weinstein brothers, Sam Harris, Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Yuval Noah Harari, Thomas Friedman, Maajid Nawaz, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michio Kaku , Dr. VS Ramachandran, Steven Pinker, Armin Navabi, Ali Rizvi, Farhan Qureshi, Peter Beinart, Gad Saad, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Dave Rubin, Joe Rogan, Russell Brand.  If Steve Jobs were still alive, I would include him among them. They defy easy labels and are high on openness. I hesitate to label others without their permission, but our very own Razib Khan strikes me as a potential leader of the “intellectual dark web”; although I will withdraw this nomination if he wishes. 😉

Some see the intellectual dark web as the primary global resistance to post modernism. I don’t agree. Rather I see them as ideation and intuition leaders thinking different:

Continue reading “Intellectual Dark Web”

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Welcome back Mahathir Mohamad, Hero of Asia!

Welcome back Mahathir Mohamad, our favorite 92 year old PM of Malaysia! Malaysia was one of the centers of the great Arya civilization for thousands of years; now enriched by Confucianism, Taoism, Chinese Buddhism, Islam, and expats the world over. One of the most diverse and immigration friendly countries in the world. One of the most pro business, pro capitalist, pro globalization, pro neo-liberal, pro enlightenment values, and pro moderate Islam countries in the world. A country that fought against the full might of the Soviet Union, China and the global communist block and won. A shining city on a hill. A self assured, self confident Asian Tiger without inferiority complex. One of last great bastions resisting the global post modernist wave.

Continue reading “Welcome back Mahathir Mohamad, Hero of Asia!”

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Why do nonmuslims treat atheist muslims so badly?

This is a continuation of a series:

Please see from 1 hour, 3 minutes in. Nonmuslims treat atheist muslims horrendously; calling them Islamaphobes, racist, sectarian, bigoted, xenophobic, angry, intolerant, emotional. Atheist muslims are also accused by nonmuslims of generalizing their anecdotal experience and not knowing Islam–even if they have heavily studied the Koran, six Hadiths, Sura, Islamic jurisprudence and Islamic theology. Almost always the nonmuslims attacking atheist muslims know almost nothing about Islam.

Continue reading “Why do nonmuslims treat atheist muslims so badly?”

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Homoeroticism, Blasphemy, and Classical Muslim Society

The following stray thoughts on Islamicate homo-eroticism were penned by Irfan Muzammil on Twitter and I am posting them here for the sake of generating more discussion. My own “off the top of my head” comments are at the end in Italics.

A thread on homoeroticism, blasphemy, and classical Muslim society
By Irfan Muzammil 

In my class on Arabic literature today, we read an anecdote about one of the earliest and greatest of Arab poets, Abu Nuwas. Abu Nuwas lived during the height of Islamic civilization in the early Abbasid period, and rose to such esteem that he taught the sons of caliph Harun al-Rasheed. One of those sons al-Amin became the next caliph and Abu Nawas’ greatest patron. What’s most interesting is that his poetry is filled with eroticism of both homo and hetero kind, and with love for wine and for young boys. The anecdote we read was written by Abu Faraj, who was himself one of the descendants of Umayyad caliphs, and wrote one of the classics of Arab literature, Kitab al-Aghani (Book of Songs), a 20 volume collection of anecdotes on Arabs poets, singers, and musicians.

One of his anecdotes on Abu Nuwas, which we read in class, is about Abu Nuwas seducing a young boy but the conversation between Abu Nuwas and the boy is entirely in Quranic verses. I was frankly shocked, and told my professor that I’d be killed or jailed for even  posting this, much less writing it out in a book or teaching it in a class. But according to the professor, who is an Arab himself and an expert in Arabic and Islamic studies, this anecdote has often been quoted even in religious texts as a great example of Arab literature.  And it was only in 2001 that the Egyptian Ministry of Culture burned 6000 copies of Abu Nuwas’ books. The amount of homo-eroticism in both classical Persian and Arabic poetry is just staggering.

By the way, yesterday in my class on early Islamicate societies, we saw the naked women painted on the palaces of Umayyad caliphs. I wonder if the classical Muslim civilization was far more liberal than the modern one -unless you were a slave, or a non-elite woman, or a young boy or girl. But it does trash all those silly theories of Iqbal and Sayyid Qutb etc. about the downfall of Muslim civilization because of its moral lassitude. We were far more liberal, at least in terms of sexual mores and wine drinking, when we were at our mightiest, and our downfall began as our society became more severe and intolerant.

(I would be cautious about interpreting this in terms of liberal (then) vs intolerant (now). Times were different all round. And the elites frequently lived lives that did not concern themselves with the moral standards regarded as ideal for commoners or spouted by priests and theologians. Augustus promoted strict Roman virtue without feeling too closely bound by its strictures in his own private life. The Catholic church had a slew of libertine popes without any discernible change in the morality the church was trying to teach their followers. Every Ummayad caliph except Umar Bin Abdul Aziz was supposedly an alcoholic. As were most of the Delhi Sultans and Mughal Kings, but the religious texts in their times all had the same prohibitions they have today. And last but not the least, classical Islam developed within the womb of the Arab empire, it was not present fully formed when that empire rose to power. There is much more interesting stuff to be said about this, but perhaps another day.. meanwhile, I expect commentators will add value)

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