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The early 20th century formulations of Indian identity involved using the constructions of specific understandings of religion, and gender. Critical Religion (CR) has provided a crucial methodology to understand the workings of these ideological operators in identity formation within such colonial contexts. In this line, CR has rightly shown that constructions of religion/secular, sacred/profane dichotomies enabled the legitimisation of hegemonic colonial discourses. It is crucial for us to look at the question of ‘how’ these appropriations were carried out by the colonised.

Historical archives show conflicting and complex narratives on the indigenous understandings and usage of religion both as an ideological category and as a term. For instance, the archives show that South Indian nationalists often used the terms religion, sacred, secular, science, and profane in their discourses on Hindu/Indian identity. Much as these terms were appropriated, they were not necessarily used as the colonial narratives intended. Thus, whilst secular was criticised as modern, modern here meant materialistic — that is pertaining to materiality such as corporeality (sex), objects (wealth), etc., and therefore, profane). Science was often seen as a ‘Western value’ that potentially contributed to materiality when it was not thoroughly grounded in spirituality as Hindu philosophy was. Sometimes, science was cast aside as ‘not Indian’ . This understanding shifted when science was used to define Hinduism as superior to Western society. Science when grounded in Hindu philosophy was understood as a body of knowledge. Other times nationalists quoted medical knowledge from the ancient texts (for example, Ayurveda and the Vedas) to show that science was embedded in Hindu philosophy.

Thus, Indian nationalistic discourses used the language (terms and categories) of the colonisers to beat them at their own game, as it were. For CR, semantics are important for our understandings of these discourses, but nationalists’ mere use of these terms should not be seen as their adoption of a colonial, Christian understanding of these categories. The nationalists indeed used these terms religion, secular, science, and materialism in some instances that pointed to a colonial understanding of these categories. However, there were other complex ways in which these terms were used. As we can see from the examples give above, these terms had multiple meanings depending on the contexts within which they were used. These also transformed depending on who the discourses were aimed at, whether the colonisers or the subaltern groups. For instance, the regional linguistic nationalism that was a subaltern counter-movement to the hegemonic Indian nationalist movements in South India often advocated the importance of rejection of religion, and embracing science as the objective method of understanding human nature. Strongly grounded in Enlightenment values, these movements, whilst rejecting ‘Hinduism’ as a brahmanical religion, did not reject other faiths because their primarily objective was to hoist a counter-argument to what they saw as brahmanical hegemony. Arguably, the agenda of these movements swayed the way these ideological terms and categories were used.

This emphasizes the fact that we cannot assume that appropriation of the colonial categories were homogenous. We must delve deeper into these movements to provide a contextualized understanding of identity formations. Deconstructing ideological categories and to do away with them might clear the discourses of modernity clouding our understandings of historical, colonial developments. But it does not fully provide a postcolonial subaltern understanding of historical indigenous discourses. To put it simply, the question should not only be whether the term religion was used, and where they learned the term, it is to also ask how the term was used. To not take that into account is to make the mistake of succumbing to the orientalist discourse of a pre-Christian indigenous era when religion and secular were one and the same, and a Christian/colonial indigenous era where these distinctions were introduced, which the nationalists appropriated. This, then, would be a good example of Aditya Nigam argues as a postcoloniality that is an echo of modernity. If we look at the regional anti-colonial discourses, it is obvious that the indigenous nationalists had more agency than that. Subaltern Studies stands as a testimony to it. Perhaps, I should make a point very clear: I am not suggesting that we should abandon Critical Religion (and given the space this blog post is published in, that would be rather ironic!). But, if we are to provide a historical postcolonial subaltern understanding of religion, then we must move beyond (as in, add to) the scope of Critical Religion to listen when the said subaltern speaks. We now have two issues at hand: a) how do we understand the heterogeneity of anti-colonial, and nationalistic discourses; b) how do we listen when the subaltern engages with these heterogenous anti-colonial, and nationalist discourses?

In an article soon to be published by Sikh Formations: Religion, Culture, Theory, I have attempted to answer the first question using Dipesh Chakrabarty’s now famous theorisation of histories. Chakrabarty theorises History 1 as the ‘universal history of capital’ that abstracts labor as a function that is removed from its contexts, and Histor(ies) 2(s) as ‘numerous other tendencies . . . intimately intertwined with History 1 . . . to arrest the thrust of capital’s universal history and help it find a local ground’. At the outset, History 1 and Histor(ies) 2(s) can be seen as polar opposites that History 1 is the secular capital and Histor(ies) 2(s) are the indigenous traditions, i.e., religion. However, as Chakrabarty has shown, Histor(ies) 2(s) are present in History 1 in order for the capital to function; rituals invoking the divine, such as worshipping tools for weaving, etc. Thus, within these indigenous contexts, religion/secular categories, with the emergence of capitalism, does not function dichotomously. Rather the ‘religious’ is embedded in the secular to prevent a total takeover of the secular. However, this theorisation provides tools to understand only certain nationalistic discourses. For example, it points to the phenomenological aspects of orthopraxy. There are such multitude of hegemonic nationalistic discourses that need to be acknowledged to understand how colonial categories were appropriated. Moreover, we must also look at how subaltern groups engaged with these hegemonic discourses – both of the nationalists and the colonisers. After all, it is rather evident that the methodological tools used to understand the hegemonic nationalist discourses cannot be used to understand the engagement between the hegemonic and subaltern groups.

Michael Marten’s theorising of ‘religious alterity’ helps us to provide a better understanding of these discourses.* Discussing the missionary narratives in the Middle East in the early 20th century, Marten argues that the Protestant missionaries’ understood the native practices and faiths as an Otherness, an ‘alterity’, that was somehow ‘religious’ in a way. In other words, Protestant missionaries encountered practices and faiths that they saw as definitely ‘religious’, but understood them as an alterity, by Othering these native practices. Christian missionaries in the colonies were by no means postcolonial or subaltern. Nor were their understandings of indigenous faiths and beliefs. But as Marten argues, it is important to understand moments of Othering ‘whilst . . . hearing and respecting the language used by the individuals being discussed’. How does this work pertaining to the discourses of South Indian nationalists, and the subaltern groups? In using the colonial categories, South Indian nationalists were involved in two forms of Othering – a) towards the colonisers through consistent differentiation between their ‘superior Hinduism’, and the colonial ‘Western values’; b) towards the subaltern groups that challenged their hegemony — here the distinction was drawn between their version of Hinduism and that of the ‘degenerative’ versions of the Others. Within these forms of alterity, the nationalists used ‘religious’ in multitudinous ways some of which have been describe above. I acknowledge the risk of arguing that the nationalist discourses involved Othering the colonisers. At a fundamental level, this would be akin to making a case for ‘occidentalism’. That is certainly not what I am trying to do here. Rather, I am pointing to the indigenous nationalistic discourses that used similar, if not the same, language of alterity used by the colonisers (and the missionaries) to assert their position and agency in the domain of colonial politics. In doing so, they certainly indulged in ‘religious alterity’ with the subaltern groups. Acknowledging this would enable us listen to the language of the nationalists, and accept that they had more agency than what we admitted that they did. Acknowledging this would also provide us with a new methodology to listen to the ways in which subaltern groups responded to such alterity.

* Marten, Michael. “Missionary Interaction as Implicit Religion”. Presented at Implicit Religion conference, Salisbury, 2016. The author kindly shared this with me; I understand it is being prepared for publication.