Category Archives: State of the art

State of the art

The construction of our project around one object (shared sacred sites) and two intertwined issues (the labors of coexistence and the politics of belonging) will require the participants to explore the literature devoted to three themes: shared sacred sites in South Asia and elsewhere; key-concepts for the study of religious plurality; practices of coexistence in South Asia.

·         Shared sacred sites in South Asia and elsewhere.

Most of the studies dealing with shared sacred sites have so far focused on the interactions between three Semitic religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. As a result, these studies have mainly focused on Mediterranean countries. The comparative research of Dionigi Albera, Maria Couroucli and Manoël Pénicaud across the region is a case in point (Dionigi 2011, Dionigi and Couroucli 2012), and so is the volume edited by Karen Barkey and Elazar Barkan (Barkan and Barkey 2014). Karen Barkey and Dimitris Papadopoulos have also compared the interactions of these three religions, but by focusing on only two

countries, Turkey and Greece. The anthropological work of Benoît Fliche is also devoted to specific sites, such as the Saint Anthony Church in Istanbul (Fliche 2014). Whether the approach is monographic or comparative in scope, these works analyze the degree of convergence of members belonging to different religious communities, and the forms of their coexistence and interaction (if any) in some sacred sites. Pilgrimages or more individualistic practices are the framework of these studies.

The participants of I-SHARE are already engaged in a dialogue with the authors mentioned above. The team of researchers behind this proposal has interacted with them during two workshops, one in Paris in 2015 and one in New York in 2016. These exchanges have enabled us to further elaborate our initial hypothesis. While in the Mediterranean context, Muslims may go to churches and Christians to mosques, in South Asia, Hindus may go to this “ambiguously Islamic place” that is the dargah (to quote from Carla Bellamy) (Bellamy 2011). Compared to the Mediterranean contexts studied by the authors mentioned above, however, pilgrimages do not seem to be such a key moment for South Asian inter-communal encounters. Moreover, the contrast between Semitic “monotheisms” on the one hand (such as Islam and Christianity, with their own differences) and Hinduism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism and Buddhism on the other hand may be of particular heuristic value (see below).

Within South Asia itself, dargahs and other shared shrines have been the subject of several important and useful studies but most of these works tend to be isolated case-studies (Assayag 2004, Bastin 2002, Bellamy 2011, Bigelow 2010, Boivin 2012, Buffetrille 1994, Henn 2008, Pfaffenberger 1979, Sila-Khan 2004). Scholars who have engaged in a comparative perspective have generally done so within a single country (Sikand 2003, Troll 1989) or from a quite different angle than the one privileged here (Basu and Werbner 1998, Boivin and Delage 2016, Kent and Kassam 2013). I-SHARE will help to fill these gaps by extending the spectrum of comparison not only to a wide range of religions but also to various locations across South Asia.

·         Key concepts for the study of religious plurality

There is a certain amount of research on the interactions between religions in South Asia and elsewhere. This topic has been much debated among theologians, who have produced insightful analyses, including on South Asia (Premawardhana 2011). Among social scientists, some authors have addressed the issue by adopting a state-centric approach and by focusing on public policies towards the management of religious diversity. These studies have often mobilized the notions of pluralism (Knitter 2005, Eck 2007, Pinault 2008, Srinivas 2010) and secularism (Bhargava 1998, Gilmartin and Iqtidar 2011, Jaffrelot and Mohammad-Arif 2012). While these studies are useful for understanding the judicial and political systems of the countries under study, the public management of religious diversity is not addressed as such in this project, which instead focuses on social practices. Plurality rather than pluralism will thus be at the heart of our proposal. However, this does not mean that the state and its regulating power will be neglected.

The conceptual vocabulary used for approaching religious interaction is fairly developed, but there is no consensus on which notions should be mobilized for describing phenomena that are sometimes similar. Clearly, because of an implicit hierarchical organization between these religions, the vocabulary is not the same when used to describe the interactions between “great” religious traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, etc.) or between “great” and “little” ones (tribal and popular religions), to paraphrase Robert Redfield (1956). As far as Buddhism is concerned, since it tends to oversee local cults instead of transforming them, relationships between Buddhism and “little” religions tend to be viewed in terms of dialogue and interaction (Mumford 1990). While these terms are less unidirectional, they are not, however, specific to religion. By contrast, interactions between Hinduism and “little” religions are more often  analyzed in terms of Sanskritization (Srinivas 1952, Jones 1976). This notion, like that of Islamization or Christianization suggest a one-way process of gradual imposition of one religion – but also of one culture and/or civilization – upon another. It is related to the concept of acculturation, which was coined by Herkovitz (1958) and then used by several scholars of South Asia (Assayag and Tarabout 1997) to describe the way a culture is partly or totally transformed into another. When describing such processes, religion and identity are thought together, and several authors approach seemingly blurred religious practices through identity (Gilmartin and Lawrence 2000, Mayaram 2004, Sila Khan 2004, Gottschalk 2001).

Interactions between “great” religions that do not lead to a change of religious affiliation (such as in cases of conversions) but to a combination within a single religion of elements borrowed from other religions are usually described as syncretic. This term has been used for describing interactions such as those between Buddhism and Hinduism (Gellner 1997), as well as between Hinduism and Islam (Roy 1983). This concept of syncretism has been discussed thoroughly. In France, this issue has been addressed – sometimes in very critical terms – by historians (Motte and Pirenne-Delforge 1994) as well as anthropologists (Mary 1999, 2001). Elsewhere, the concept also gave rise to several debates (Shaw and Stewart 1994) over a number of issues: over the internal coherence of the “new” religion born out of the “blending”, over the origins of the labeling of a religion as syncretic (emic or etic); whether syncretism describes a process or an outcome; whether it qualifies only a part of or an entire religion, etc. Alternative but related notions have been suggested, such as hybridity, créolité, and métissage (Benoist 1998).

In order to go beyond the questionable notion of syncretism, researchers on South Asia have put forward other concepts that are more adapted to the situations they describe. Gombrich (1971) talks of accretism to describe the way mundane religions and soteriological religions (Buddhism, in Gombrich’s case) can combine in order to satisfy both mundane as well as supra-mundane objectives. Hacker (1957), followed by Halbfass (1988), proposes the concept, borrowed from theological vocabulary, of inclusivism, to characterize the way a religious tradition (here Hinduism) can incorporate aspects of other religions that it comes in contact with. This concept provides an alternative to the more morally loaded concept of tolerance, which has also been mobilized to qualify the Indian situation of religious plurality. Tolerance has mainly been addressed in two ways: an implicit one, with a positive value attached to it, in which situations of religious plurality are associated with peaceful coexistence (Ahmad 1981); a critical one, which deconstructs any automatic link between religious plurality – as observed in shared sacred sites for instance – and tolerance (Van der Veer 1994, Hayden 2002). Carrithers (2000), for his part, has coined the concept of polytropy to qualify the eclecticism and fluidity of South Asian religious life, which make people turn toward several sources for their spiritual sustenance. To date, this original concept has only been used by a few researchers but it has inspired studies on particular deities that cannot fit into specific religions (Tuladhar- Douglas 2005).

In sum, while this literature will be useful to analyze the kind of religious interactions that take place in shared sacred places, we should be careful when employing notions that carry an implicit moral value, such as syncretism or tolerance. From our point of view, none of the terms listed above are fully satisfactory and each of them needs to be precisely defined and contextualized. The ethnographic data that we will collect in the course of this project should help us to re-evaluate the concepts mentioned above, and hopefully to shed new light on them.

·         The practice of coexistence: evidence from South Asia

Although studies of religious violence, sometimes labeled as “communal” (in India) or “sectarian” (in Pakistan), have long overshadowed South Asian practices of coexistence, this field of research has produced major historical, sociological and anthropological works over the years. Prominent historians of South Asian Islam, in particular, have documented the fruitful encounters between “Hindus” and “Muslims” over the centuries, while questioning the significations of these labels and their variations across time and space (Alam 1996; Eaton 2002). Meanwhile, historians of medieval India have shown that even those rulers remembered as proponents of Hindu revivalism – such as the kings of Vijayanagara in the fourteenth and fifteenth century – heavily borrowed from Islamic material culture and repertoires of legitimation (Wagoner 1996). Even incidents of violence and profanation – such as the desecration of Hindu temples and the capture of their idols by Muslim sovereigns – could provide the ground for a rapprochement across denominational divides, as exemplified by the Tulukka Nacciyar’s story – the story of a romance between the daughter of the Delhi Sultan and a statue of Vishnu looted by her father, which circulated in the late medieval period in the present state of Tamil Nadu, and contributed to create a space for Muslims within local Hindu temples (Davis 2004).

Collective identities underwent significant transformations under the influence of the socio-religious movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, which redefined the significations of religious identity and hardened the boundaries between denominational groups. However, mutual exchanges and

other non-violent interactions between these groups have endured. Devotional and healing practices (e.g. Assayag 1995; Flueckiger 2009), as well as aesthetic networks (e.g. Hyder 2006; Bhaskar and Allen 2009), continued to provide terrains of rapprochement between South Asians of various castes and creeds. And while Indian cases tend to be over-represented in this literature, there is no dearth of evidence to suggest that non-violent intercommunal relations and polytropy are also a fact of life in other countries of the region, from Nepal (Gellner 2005; Tuladhar-Douglas 2005) to Sri Lanka (Bastin 2002).

In recent years, scholars of South Asia have shown a renewed interest for past and present instances of coexistence across the region – a development which reflects the concerns of these scholars about the rising tide of religious intolerance in the region (and beyond) but which also attests to the widespread and enduring character of these interactions across denominational divides. This new momentum was reflected in a series of monographs (Gottschalk 2000; Bigelow 2010; Bellamy 2011; Taneja 2013; Williams 2015; Amin 2015) and edited volumes (Gilmartin and Lawrence 2000; Hasan and Roy 2005; Kent and Kassam 2013; Dalmia and Faruqi 2015), which significantly expanded the scope of enquiry of this literature. So much so that South Asia has become one of the major sites of enquiry – both empirically and theoretically – for the study of the labors of coexistence, in their everyday forms as well as in their more institutional dimensions. To date, however, this South Asia-centric literature remains largely unknown to specialists of other regions. As reflected in our research objectives, I-SHARE aims to break down these barriers while broadening the scope of comparison between shared sacred sites, our ultimate goal being to sharpen the analysis of religious plurality.