ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


Anthropologies of Buddhism and Hinduism

Location Quincentenary Building, Wolfson Hall A
Date and Start Time 21 June, 2014 at 09:00


David Gellner (University of Oxford) email
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Do traditions of scholarship continue to determine how Buddhism and Hinduism are studied and represented? Are the anthropology of Buddhism and the anthropology of Hinduism coherent sub-fields? Is the category 'Asian religions' a viable sub-division of 'natural religion' (opposed to the 'Abrahamic')?

Long Abstract

Recent anthropological discussions have posited a new sub-field, the anthropology of Christianity, to go alongside supposedly flourishing sub-fields of the anthropology of Buddhism and Islam. This panel proposes to bring together papers that address, on the basis of new ethnographic material, as well as new analyses of the existing anthropological corpus, (a) whether there is, or should be, an anthropology of Hinduism, (b) whether the anthropology of Buddhism continues to be a coherent sub-field, and/or (c) whether there is any overlap or mutual influence between traditions of scholarship on these two (and other) Asian religions. Papers may also consider whether there are particular modernist, secularist, or Abrahamic presuppositions that continue to structure the ways in which Asian religions are studied and represented.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The Mariyamman cult in Puducherry, south India: an anthropological perspective on the social heterogeneity of Hinduism

Author: Javier Gonzalez Diez (University of Turin)  email


Goddess Mariyamman is one of the most popular deities among non-Brahmin castes in south India. Neglected by scholars and scorned by religious elites, the cult offers some insights on the internal heterogeneity of Hinduism and on the connections between beliefs and social structure.

Long Abstract

The purpose of my paper is to explore the social meaning of the Mariyamman cult in Tamil-speaking South India and its connections with Vedic and Brahmanic Hinduism. The paper presents results of fieldwork in progress in the Puducherry urban area, using data obtained by mapping Goddess Temples in the city and observing her yearly festivals.

Mariyamman has long been neglected by most researchers, who considered her a survival of Dravidian culture, a "folk deity" or a "village goddess" opposed to Brahmanic Hinduism. In spite of this, the cult of Mariyamman is today practiced by the majority of Tamils not only in villages but also in urban peripheries. The population of non-Brahmin castes considers her a powerful goddess, closer to daily life than the principal deities of Hinduism. She is a non-vegetarian deity and both priests and worshippers come from middle and lower castes. Despite Brahmins' contempt, Mariyamman is also integrated by her followers in Hindu cosmology, through identifying her to Parvathi and Kali and connecting her cult to core Hindu cults, such as Ganesha and Shiva.

In this paper I argue that the cult of Mariyamman is not just a simple folk cult: rather, it questions a monolithic view of Hinduism and represents a religious expression of middle and lower castes. The current strength, adaptation and diffusion of the cult in South-Indian urban contexts suggests, moreover, many interesting research perspectives on the connections between religious beliefs and social structure in Hinduism.

Beyond conversion: a comparative study of political experiences of Dalits in India and Burakumin in Japan

Author: Aya Ikegame  email


Discrimination based on the idea of untouchability is found both amongst Hindus in India and Buddhists in Japan. This paper compares the experiences of Indian Dalits and Japanese Burakumin by looking at how discrimination was perceived within their liberation movements.

Long Abstract

Just as thousands of followers of B. R. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism in order to escape the discrimination against them nurtured within Hindu culture, Japanese Burakumins have tried to tackle similar discrimination within their Buddhist traditions. This paper is an attempt to compare the experiences of ex-untouchable communities: Dalits in India and Burakumins in Japan. One of the difficulties of liberation movements in both communities has been how to maintain assertive self-identity and at the same time deny the untouchability attached to their identity. Religious conversion, especially into Buddhism and Christianity in the case of Dalits, did not entirely solve this dilemma. In the case of Burakumins in Japan, they did not opt for identity politics but concentrated on achieving material benefits from the state. Liberation movements in both countries are now facing the challenge of how to redefine themselves whilst maintaining an autonomous voice within society. This paper looks at two movements: a new Dalit spiritual movement let by activist M. C. Raj and community building in a former Burakumin area of Kyoto, Japan.

An anthropology of Buddhisms? The case of Japan

Author: Dolores Martinez (SOAS)  email


What happens if we consider the political and economic conjunctures that frame Buddhism and make it local? This is a valid question to ask of Japanese Buddhism, which has in the last 150 years been subject to a number of political and economic changes ending in the decline of Institutional Buddhism.

Long Abstract

What problems does the category 'world religion' raise when, as in the case of Buddhism, these religions are affected by the societies in which they are found? What happens if we consider the political and economic conjunctures that frame and make it local? These are particularly valid questions to ask of Japanese Buddhism, which has, in the last century and a half, been subject to a number of profound political and economic transformations.

For more than a thousand years Buddhism was practised by Japanese elites and was increasingly incorporated into state structures, subsuming Shinto, Taoism and Confucianism (the latter two which had travelled to Japan from China along with Buddhist doctrine), under one administrative umbrella during the Tokugawa Era (1600-1868). The separation of Shinto and Buddhism (shinbutsu bunri) and the elevation of the former to THE nation's religion in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) saw the beginning of institutional Buddhism's decline; a decline aided by the complete separation of religion and state in the post-war constitution of 1947.

This paper will consider this decline through a series of ethnographic encounters beginning in 1984. From fieldwork in a village which was said to practise 'traditional' religion to encounters with Buddhist priests struggling to keep their temples economically viable, the question is: how and why do 72% of Japanese identify themselves as Buddhist, while institutional Buddhism is in terminal decay? Can anthropology add to the broader discussions on modernity, the nation-state and secularism, using Japanese Buddhism as a case study?

The denominationalisation and conglomeratisation of Chinese Buddhism

Author: Adam Yuet Chau (University of Cambridge)  email


This paper will examine factors contributing to two particular trends in the development of Buddhism in today’s Taiwan and China: denominationalisation and conglomeratisation. I will also make comparisons to religious developments in other Asian contexts to draw out broader theoretical lessons.

Long Abstract

The modern, reformed forms of Buddhism, much inspired by Protestant models of denominational congregationism and proselytising and social-service outreach (and often first re-worked in Japan in the late 19th century and early 20th century by Japanese Buddhist orders and Buddhist-inspired new religions), have become increasingly influential in today's Taiwan and mainland China. This paper will examine factors contributing to two particular trends: denominationalisation and conglomeratisation. Going against the traditional efficacy- and ritual-based model of 'doing Buddhism', many Buddhist organisations are actively promoting a denomination-like Buddhism that features the focalisation of symbolic attention upon a charismatic founder-leader; the mobilisation of an active lay devotee population (instituting membership and a sense of belonging); the subdivision of the lay devotee population into niche groups and task groups; the rationalisation and bureaucratisation of organisational structure and management; the expansion into various non-religious sectors even when the motivation is clothed in religious terms (e.g. building and running hospitals and schools, including universities; disaster relief; reuse and recycling; elderly care; medical research and supply, e.g. bone marrow and organ donation, human cadaver donation for medical research purposes; entertainment; publishing; etc.). I will explore the broader socio-political factors as well as the religious groups' institutional logics that have led to such developments. One enabling factor is the religious groups' ability to develop ever elaborate institutional and epistemological apparatuses to accommodate the participation of an increasingly wider variety of people. I will also make comparisons to religious developments in other Asian contexts to draw out broader theoretical lessons.

The horned skull and the incombustible heart: the cult of relics in contemporary Eastern Tibet

Author: Magdalena Maria Turek (Institute of Oriental and Asian Studies, University of Bonn)  email


The hermitic movement in contemporary Eastern Tibet utilizes a number of strategies to harness the charisma of its leaders. The paper will look into this economy of charisma, illustrated by the veneration of relics of modern saints.

Long Abstract

The transformation of the body into an embodiment of Tantric tradition is one of the most crucial elements triggering the Buddhist revival in Eastern Tibet today. It is important for reaffirming the authority of the religious elite after a 25-year gap in the continuity of Buddhist practice and for activating the support of the laity. Especially the hermitic movement, spreading across Eastern Tibet (Kham) relies on charismatic leadership, legitimized through the leaders' ability to embody tradition. The movement utilizes a number of strategies to skillfully harness the charisma of its leaders. I will especially focus on the veneration of relics of modern saints: icons miraculously appearing in/on their bodies, funerary relics and other signs of saintly death, often displayed in form of public spectacles. 

The paper will look into this specific economy of charisma; i.e. ways of its articulation, structuring and popularization, as well as the typology of social and ritual roles engaged in the transactions. The consideration of the entire market of charisma in Kham will also enable us to ask questions on the broader purposes of the movement and its place in the ethno-religious revival.

The paper is meant to reopen the discussion on the economies of charisma, the flexibility of the classical Weberian prophetic paradigm, as well as on the role of religion in subaltern societies. In order to trace dis/continuities in the representations of Buddhist relic veneration, I will bring up examples of recent scholarship from other regions of Asia.

From the anthropology of Buddhism to a Buddhist anthropology

Author: Will Tuladhar-Douglas (University of Aberdeen)  email


On the basis of fieldwork with Buddhist scholars, I propose a Buddhist anthropology and ask: who are its participants, what are its presuppositions and methods, and what are its goals?

Long Abstract

The term 'anthropology' has a revealing double disciplinary life: it refers both to a colonial/post-colonial social science and to the Christian theological investigation of human nature. The critical exposure of anthropology-the-social-science's European and Christian genealogy by Asad and others can lead in two directions: either anthropology as a discipline cannot escape the embrace of its theological double and is doomed to parochiality, or there are many possible anthropologies strung on differing philosophical and cultural armatures.

In this paper I take the optimistic approach. I will outline the differences that emerge when one undertakes a Buddhist social anthropology—an anthropology with wholly different assumptions about persons, nature and the social; a distinct allergy to essences; an epistemology that never founders on the problem of belief; a profound respect for the performance and materiality of texts that does not fetishise their meaning; a nonlinear sense of history that dislocates Hegel; and a very different understanding of the moral obligations of scholars.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.