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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Looking At Eastern Religion From the West




As someone who has studied and continues to study religion, I find myself getting trapped in the same patterns that the discipline started from, which are decidedly Western and Christian, only one of which I remotely consider myself. The tendency I refer to is considering more Asian or Eastern religions according to the European or Western standard. Buddhism, Confucianism, Shinto, Hinduism, Daoism, Sikhism, Jainism and others all fall under something of an umbrella of systems classified as Dharmic; that is, following a path or adhering to a natural law, which is one common translation of the term dharma in Sanskrit. At least two of the faiths I listed are commonly not even considered religions in academic study: Confucianism and Jainism, mostly because they are centered on human activity instead of the supernatural related to the human. This creates an ambiguity about classification and what you include amongst common lists of 12 for most people involved in the study as a whole. Sometimes Buddhism isn’t even considered, since it’s almost as ambiguous about the relevance of the supernatural. There is also a huge swath of diversity within these religions due to the lack of specificity about a sacred or otherwise central text for the religion itself. There are many examples of relatively important historical texts for a background on any of these faiths: Tripitaka (Three Baskets) for Buddhism, along with the Pali Canon in general, the Vedas for Hinduism, the Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi for Daoism, and the list goes on. But none of those texts are considered absolutely essential for all people associated with those belief systems. All in all, one has to make at least some distinctions between Western and Eastern religion, even though the term is decidedly Western in origin, meaning another term would be required for the kind of precision that would take away the ambiguity that exists in this conversation. But what term would be best?

They very idea of religious studies as an academic discipline originated in Western culture, from a desire to understand religion in more scientific terms. But the basis of what was understood as a religion came from the Abrahamic traditions, which were the most studied at the time, especially Christianity. To believe was to make specific affirmations and to orient to the supernatural. But even with religions that believed explicitly in the supernatural, such as Shinto and Hinduism, there wasn’t the specificity of Christian creeds and so their exotic nature was simplified so as to be more palatable to Western minds. Fundamentally, this created a difficulty with Confucianism, Jainism and Buddhism, since they were more like philosophies and worldviews without the supernatural. So thankfully this exposure to a different manifestation of what we could call the religious impulse of humanity resulted in Western scholars partly recognizing that religion wasn’t limited to a definition that required the supernatural or a sacred text held to be inerrant or infallible. While not everyone has the nuance to see this, it’s at least possible to consider Buddhism and Confucianism as religions in a nominal sense, even though many scholars would contest this on the grounds that you’re stretching the credibility of the term religion to include things that may be better classified outside of that. The term religion itself is subject to some debate in its etymology. On the one hand we have the analysis by Cicero of re-ligare, to re-read or re-examine. This doesn’t possess the more creed based idea of another popular interpretation that religion is derived from the Latin religare, to bind fast. The former suggests a philosophical aspect, whereas the latter has a mystical element in communion with the divine. That aside, the question remains as to the nature of Eastern religion and whether there’s another term that could work in describing it apart from Western religion’s preconceptions and the partly loaded ideas that result.

Since we’ve partly established that religions in the East are either philosophical in nature and thus don’t qualify as well for the Western definition, or are more syncretic and/or eclectic in their approach to the supernatural, the Western ideas about religion are either barely applicable, such as with Hinduism or Sikhism in the connection to the divine, or virtually irrelevant, such as with Buddhism and Jainism that regard the gods as inconsequential to one’s spiritual development. With this in mind, the recognition that there is both a Western and Eastern religion in taking the two popular etymologies into account could complicate things more than if we simplify the discussion to worldviews and approach the subject with the idea that worldviews can have qualities of either side and not require the term religion to describe either of them. The term worldview admittedly creates some difficulties, since it doesn’t preclude the inclusion of various other beliefs that are more non-philosophical in nature, such as politics and the like. But overall it would enable us to present the differences side by side and also admit that there is some overlap. Some worldviews of Western origin might fit Eastern qualities better, such as Wicca. There are also religions that skim the boundary, such as Zoroastrianism, possessing some aspects of Western religion, such as a sacred text, the Avesta, but also reflecting a dualism that isn’t as present in Christianity with God as sovereign, whereas Ahura Mazda is in conflict with Angra Mainyu in a battle of good versus evil. The category overlaps could continue on for a while, but for the moment, we should admit that the classification is imperfect, but effective nonetheless.

There will necessarily be differences between these two forms of “religion” Western religion is more a matter of affiliation to one specific system or institution (Christianity, Judaism, etc), while Eastern religion is more associated with cultural practices and can be eclectic and syncretic in nature. Western faiths have more commonly associated official texts and creeds, whereas Eastern faiths have a lot of overlap and aren’t so strict in your identification with one and another, since they can harmonize with each other very easily in a sense, as Japan did with Shinto, its native belief system and Buddhism as it came from China, which also did the same thing with its own folk beliefs and Buddhism as it came from India. Even with traditions like Confucianism, Buddhism and Shinto to an extent, the behavior of believers is not the same and neither is the regard of the believers to the supernatural itself as opposed to society in relation to one’s beliefs. The Western idea of religion that we take for granted is derived primarily from an Abrahamic perspective that saw other belief systems as religions according to a very narrow idea of what constitutes religion in terms of beliefs related to the supernatural, which would’ve excluded Confucianism in the strictest sense, but also consider Chinese folk beliefs a religion of sorts unto itself. The more fluid and dynamic nature of Asian religion necessitates that you consider it within its own cultural sphere instead of under the Western lens that can push out many otherwise compelling and important Asian religions, even minority ones like Jainism and folk religions like Bon. The world religions class you take in college may give you a starting point for discussion, but it won’t necessarily present the belief systems as very different from those that many students were raised in. This will mean many of them have presuppositions about what a religion is supposed to be which will subsequently be shattered with the sheer diversity of Hinduism alone, along with Daoism and Shinto. The differences shouldn’t be cause for alarm, but an opportunity to broaden one’s horizons and see that religion is not always how we identify our beliefs, strictly speaking. Until next time, Namaste and aloha.

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