Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

9 Conclusion

I hope that this more extended study of religion in context has been interesting in itself and that you have glimpsed something of the richness of Hinduism. We have made this brief study of Hinduism also to put to work some of the principles in the study of religion that we met earlier in this course. I want finally to draw some threads together by considering more generally the problems and pitfalls of using the concept of ‘religion’ in a cross-cultural study.

Applying what we had discovered in Section 5 about the term ‘religion’, we tried to avoid plunging into our study of Hinduism assuming that we knew what a ‘religion’ should look like. We began by noting that the concept of ‘Hinduism’ is a European invention and that its use creates its own complications. Turning to what Hindus say about their own beliefs, we found that some Hindu thinkers have identified the Sanskrit concept of dharma as one sharing the general sense of the English use of ‘religion’. These thinkers have maintained, however, that dharma, due to its social and moral overtones, is the broader concept. This understanding of dharma would appear to imply that ‘religion’ is not a distinct compartment in the total package of an individual's beliefs and practices. We heard some Hindus say that Hinduism is not so much a ‘religion’ as ‘a way of life’.

We need to look more closely at the distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘way of life’ because few people who identify themselves as religious would be satisfied with the suggestion that religion was anything less than a whole way of life. In the video a Muslim speaking from the perspective of a faith very different from Hinduism, also rejected the label ‘religion’ as a satisfactory way of explaining the nature of Islam. He referred instead to the Arabic din, a ‘way of life’. No doubt Christians would also reject any suggestion that their religion was less than a ‘way of life’.

In drawing their distinctions between ‘religion’ and ‘way of life’, it is possible that those who reject ‘religion’ in favour of ‘way of life’ have in mind the manner in which religion in Europe (and in other parts of the world, for that matter) has become increasingly a matter of private belief and morality seen most obviously and distinctively in the public sphere only on set occasions. I think we would recognise this as an accurate description of the place of religion in mainstream, contemporary British society. When addressing Western audiences, Hindu thinkers who have spoken of Hinduism as a ‘way of life’ rather than as a ‘religion’ may also have in mind the Christian emphasis upon ‘right belief’ – orthodoxy – and the resulting tendency to see religion as a matter of belief. Even from our limited survey of Hinduism and its rich variety, we can appreciate that what has come to be known as Hinduism is characterised not by ‘orthodoxy’ in the details of belief, but rather by broadly shared assumptions and practices bound together in a distinctive social organisation.

Given the new notions that became progressively attached to the terms ‘religion’ and ‘the religions’ in European thought from the eighteenth century onwards, we can push our analysis of the problems encountered when using these terms a stage further. These new notions, you will remember, were themselves shaped under the influence of rationalist and secularising tendencies. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that we meet particular problems when applying these terms in cultural contexts where what we seek to define as ‘religion’ runs through all aspects of life and through social organisations and institutions, rather than standing apart as a separate, visible element as religion tends to do in surroundings that are more generally secular. It is true that India has a secular constitution but, to date, the obligations of Hindu dharma continue to be discharged on a daily basis by millions of individuals in all aspects of their lives – for example, in the way in which they wash and in their occupations.

So, should we abandon the term ‘religion’? I would not draw this conclusion, partly because this would probably signal the hunt for a concept to replace ‘religion’ which would lead us back to exactly the same problems. Terms like ‘faith’, ‘tradition’, ‘worldview’, ‘meaning-system’, ‘moral community’ and ‘symbolic community’ are all to be found in scholarly writing, but it is difficult to see how these will help us any better to achieve the right balance between being specific and yet flexible when dealing with different cultural contexts. As I tried to show you when we looked at Hindu worship, I think what we need to do is to find definitions and models of ‘religion’ that can pass the test of working in the study of different cultures. So, I would say, let's keep the term ‘religion’, but make sure that we use it with care and with particular sensitivity when studying societies that have not had a hand in shaping the definition of this peculiarly European concept. If you disagree with this conclusion, you might like to make out a case for using a different concept. You now have a grounding in the skills and knowledge you will need to do that – to do Religious Studies.

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