Tuesday, January 27, 2009

An excerpt from The Heathen....

An excerpt from "The Heathen in His Blindness..."

Reconsider Spiro’s claim (1966: 91):

Since ‘religion’ is a term with historically rooted meanings, a definition
must satisfy not only the criterion of cross-cultural applicability but also
the criterion of intra-cultural intuitivity; at the least it should not be counter-
intuitive. For me, therefore, any definition of ‘religion’ which does not
include, as a key variable, the belief in superhuman…beings who have
power to help or harm men is counter-intuitive.

Now it is a matter of established consensus that the Hindus worship
trees, serpents, various animals (cow, monkey, and condor), images and
idols. Are we to consider these people religious? It all depends, one may
want to retort, whether or not Hindus consider the animals as “superhuman
beings that have the power to help or harm men”. In non-trivial
ways, animals can help or harm human beings, but Spiro does not probably
have this in mind. The problem might well be about the beliefstates
of the Hindus: do they believe that animals are ‘superhuman’ beings?
This is a question about the hierarchy of life on earth. Humans are
at the summit of ‘creation’ and animals are well below them in the ladder
of life constituting the ‘infra’ or ‘sub-human’ species. Consequently,
and only because of it, can gods be ‘super-human’. Cultures do exist
which recognise the differences between species, but do not recognise
any hierarchy of life on earth. Even if human life is a desirable form of
life, or even as a privileged form of existence, this does not imply that
either goal or direction is attributed to the emergence and ‘evolution’ of
life. One such culture is India and, in fact, one of the problems of the
Christian missionaries with the Brahmins had to do precisely with this
issue, as Rogerius (1651: 110) records it:

Hier toe an zijn sy niet te brenghen datse souden toe-staen dat een Mensch,
de Beesten overtreffe, end dat den Mensch een edelder Creatuere zy, dan
de Beesten, om dat hy met een voortreffelijcker Ziele zy begaeft. VVant soo
ghy dat haer voor hout, sy sullen segghen, dat oock dierghelijcke Zielen
de Beesten hebben. Indien ghy dit wilt betuygen door de werckingen
van de redelijcke Ziele, die in den Mensch, ende niet in de Beesten, haer
vertoont: soo heb je tot antwoort te verwachten…dat de reden, waerom
de Beesten niet soo wel reden, ende verstant, voor den dagh en brengen,
ende soo wel als de Menschen, en spreken, zijn, om datse gheen Lichaem
en hebben ghekregen, dat bequaem is, om de qualiteyten van haer Ziele
te voorschijn te brengen…
[You cannot make them admit that Man outstrips the beasts and that
he is a nobler creature than the animals because he has a superior soul.
If you try to remonstrate with them on this, they would say, animals also
have a similar kind of Soul. If you try to demonstrate this by the workings
of the rational soul, which is evident in Man and not in the beasts: you
may expect an answer…that the reason why the animals do not exhibit
the kind of rationality and understanding that human beings can show,
why they cannot speak as man does, is because they are not given a body
capable of exhibiting the qualities of their soul…]

In other words, to the Christians, Man was/is at the summit of creation.
To the Hindus, it was/is not so. Where does this take us with respect to
Spiro’s definition? His definition cannot be ‘useful’ to us unless we presuppose
at least some amount of (suitably diluted) Christian theology:
gods are superhuman, which is why they are worshipped; humans are
at the top of the hierarchy of life with animals well below them, and so

This ‘minimal’ definition, which appears reasonable, merely expresses
a linguistic and historical intuition of a religious culture: how could
a religion not acknowledge the existence of ‘superhuman’ powers? This
is a secularised theology, as far from ‘science’ as anything could possibly

1 comment:

banerjee said...


You might find the following paper of interest.

Prehistory of colonialism by Will Sweetman.