In these times of cultural and ideological tensions across the world, the coexistence between followers of different faiths is a burning issue. I-SHARE aims to explore these religious interactions by studying sites that offer a privileged entry point into the politics of coexistence: shared sacred sites. By “sacred sites”, we mean any place where rituals and other religious acts are performed: saints’ tombs, temples, churches, street shrines as well as natural or topographical features serving as places of worship.
Three important edited books have so far addressed the issue of shared sacred sites (Albera & Couroucli 2012, Barkan & Barkey 2014, Bowman 2012). However, they mainly concentrate on the Mediterranean region, the Balkans and the Middle-East. I-SHARE intends to focus instead on South Asia (or the Indian Subcontinent) for several reasons. First of all, this region is home to communities that belong to very different religious traditions, whether in terms of beliefs or practices. While so-called Semitic “monotheisms” (including a non-Western Christianity and a non-Middle-Eastern Islam) are well represented, the region also offers a wide array of “non-monotheistic” religions (be they “theisms”, “enotheisms”, “polytheisms” – such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism – or “tribal” and “animist” religions). Second, the relation of the majority vs minorities varies across countries, regions and even cities: Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism are each the majority religion in at least one country, and the minority in others, a situation that offers interesting mirror effects. Third, historically, South Asia has been a region of intense cultural interactions, where different religions and civilizations have coexisted. The most well-known examples include a dialogic venture between Indic and Islamicate cultures epitomized by various figures: Sufis and Sadhus, whose encounters engendered a spirituality that could not be associated with either Islam or Hinduism (Digby 1970); saints-cum-poets, like Kabir (1440-1518), who could not be identified with any religion; emperors such as Akbar (1542-1605), whose Din-i-Ilahi was a “syncretic” attempt at merging the different religions of his Empire, primarily Islam and Hinduism, but also Christianity, Jainism and Zoroastrianism. Similarly, Hindu rulers would patronize Muslim sacred sites, while Muslim rulers would reciprocate the gesture in the territories they controlled. These intersections cutting across religious identities have continued to this day, particularly in the domains of art and popular culture (Bollywood is a good case in point). Such types of encounters are not limited to (un)partitioned India but largely extend to other regions of South Asia. In Nepal, for example, the Newars of the Katmandu Valley epitomize the interpenetration between Hindus and Buddhists. In Sri Lanka, during the pre-colonial period, both royal courts and popular classes would practice Buddhism along with Hindu cults.
However, the influence of fundamentalisms of all kinds, often accompanied by violence, has been undermining this “composite culture” (to borrow from a terminology of the Indian State after Independence) over the past few decades, with the effect of largely polarizing the various communities. India, in particular, has witnessed the rise of Hindu nationalism, which goes hand in hand with the political use of religion (Jaffrelot and Mohammad-Arif 2012). Since 2014, Hindu nationalist organizations have been galvanized by the victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in national elections, leading to a spectacular rise of hate speech and crimes against religious minorities and intellectuals. In Pakistan, where Islamic revivalism has been meeting with increasing success, religious minorities (Hindus and Christians in particular) are being targeted by both Islamists (through terrorist attacks) and the state (through anti-blasphemy laws). In Bangladesh, which has also witnessed the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, Hindus are now in a precarious situation, forcing them to migrate to neighboring India. In Nepal, the 1990 revolution led to a strong rejection of the Hinduism of “Aryan invaders” by the ethnic population of Nepal (30% of the population) and the development or reinvention of tribal religions, a development which was in turn challenged by the growth of evangelical Christianity and reformed Buddhism. As for Sri Lanka, the “Buddhicization” of the political discourse and public institutions has taken place in a context of turmoil and violence, which has weakened the social fabric of the country.
These developments have made the issue of religious interaction particularly sensitive. This also implies that the heuristic value of studying South Asia’s sacred places not only lies in its great internal diversity, but also in a history marked by the ambivalent combination of “composite culture”, on the one hand, and conflicts in the name of religion, on the other. As such, it offers rich perspectives of comparison both within the region itself and beyond, which could contribute to a more general understanding of the phenomenon.
In such a context, shared sacred sites – which carry all the multivalence of the notion of sharing (ranging in significance from indifferent co-presence to deeper interpenetration, not to mention the notion of division the term also includes) – provide rich insights into the analysis of religious interaction. Particularly representative of such holy places in South Asia, in both numbers and fame, are the dargahs. These shrines dedicated to Muslim saints are traditionally visited by followers of different religions – mainly Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs but also Christians and Parsis (or Zoroastrians). Our study will not be limited to dargahs, but will also include places dedicated to holy figures from other religions. Besides, shared sacred sites may not necessarily be shrines: there are indeed places which by their natural environment (caves, rivers, mountains, lakes or other natural features) or their association with a particular mythical event (birthplace or place of residence of a deity) are deemed to be imbued with power. Other sacred sites can also comprise places of ordinary worship (churches, temples, mosques, small altars, trees, roadside shrines, even houses), which further widens the spectrum. Bearing this diversity in mind, shared sacred places will thus be at the heart of our field research. How does the sharing of these sites between different religions occur in practice? Who owns these sites? How are they managed? However, this study will not be restricted to observations within sacred sites. Indeed, a major originality of I-SHARE lies in its ambition to broaden the scope of analysis beyond these sites so as to gauge the extent to which interaction in these sites is reflective of coexistence in society at large. In order to study these sacred sites, both in their inward and outward dimensions, investigation will be constructed around two series of questions:
- What does the possibility of sharing sites of worship reveal? Is the very notion of “sharing” in these sites endowed with one particular meaning over the other? Do these sites promote a different perception, a better knowledge of the “Other”? Do they participate in the development of mutual tolerance? Are they epiphenomena or do they reflect wider trends in the larger society?
- What do they reveal about devotees’ perceptions of their own religion and of religion in general – since this conception may differ from the discourses of some proponents of the so-called orthodoxy, who denounces these mixed cults as sources of confusion? Do the members of different religions who coexist in a shared sacred space necessarily represent their communities? In which occasions do people define themselves according to their religious affiliations and when do other affiliations tend to prevail?
To answer these questions, our project – which is resolutely multidisciplinary as it will involve anthropologists, political scientists and geographers – will revolve around two main inter-related themes: 1) the dynamics and limits of coexistence; 2) the variable geometry of belonging.