Mediating cultural pluralism

The Anthropology of Buddhism and Hinduism: Weberian Themes

by David Gellner

OUP, New Delhi, 2001

INR 645, pp 397

What first strikes one about this new book by David Gellner is the puzzling relationship of the title – The Anthropology of Buddhism and Hinduism – with its subtitle – Weberian Themes. Puzzling, because while Max Weber, the figure from whom the subtitle is derived, is regarded as one of the founding fathers of sociology and continues to have a following within the discipline, his contributions in anthropology remain contested. Though his emphasis on interpretation is well taken, his world-historical comparisons are viewed with scepticism. This is particularly true with regard to Weber's ideas on society and culture in South Asia as argued in his book Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, which is perceived as having generated stereotypes and harmed scholarship, particularly that which relies on fieldwork. The connection made between Max Weber and anthropology is deliberately provocative and warrants some justification. It should be noted, also, that the title of the book is presented as a caricature of Weber's subtitle to Religion of India.

David Gellner's first three chapters, in one way or the other, grapple with the place of Max Weber in the study of Buddhism and Hinduism. These may be read as the attempt by one anthropologist to rescue Weber's Religion of India from the many allegations that have been made by anthropologists studying Buddhist and Hindu societies.  If it is on this count alone that the work is to be judged, then the author can be regarded as having achieved his objective because he does convincingly refute the arguments against Weber, even underscoring the continuing relevance of his ideas. Motivated originally by the question of why capitalism emerged in Europe in a specific religious milieu, ie Protestantism, or Calvinism, Weber's seminal contributions were in exploring the relationship between a religion – articulated through its values and ethics – and the economic behaviour of its adherents. First through his study of Europe and subsequently of India and China, Weber showed how religious ethics and values influence economic behaviour and vice versa.

However, rescuing Max Weber and bringing him to the centre stage for a discussion on contemporary Buddhism and Hinduism is not the only contribution that David Gellner makes in this work. Another noteworthy contribution lies in bringing cases from Nepal to the forefront of discussions on Hinduism and Buddhism. Though there have been seminal contributions by anthropologists and sociologists – foreign and local – working on Nepal, seldom have these works affected either theory building in the two disciplines or in contributing to the understanding of contemporary Hinduism or Buddhism. (Scholars Sherry Ortner and Richard Burghart are notable exceptions, and there are a few others.)

Gellner has been carrying out fieldwork among the Newars of Kathmandu valley – primarily among Buddhists but also Hindus – for over 15 years, and has written numerous research articles on his study. These articles, besides being rich ethnographically, have contributed to theoretical debates, including on the relationship between priesthood and monkhood, caste and Buddhism. In a context where even seminal ethnographic work on different population groups in Nepal has remained marginal to South Asian scholarship, Gellner's The Anthropology of Buddhism and Hinduism: Weberian Themes makes a significant contribution by bringing these to bear on the larger South Asian readership. Gellner's work serves the important purpose of informing contemporary anthropological and sociological debates of developments in Nepal's communities.

David Gellner is one of the few scholars qualified to do this because, beginning with the Newars, he has keenly followed the politics of cultural identity among Nepal's various cultural and ethnic groups. His engagement with cultural and religious politics in Nepal has continued since Nationalism and Ethnicity in a Hindu Kingdom: The Politics of Culture in Contemporary Nepal (1997), which was co-edited by Gellner and includes an important introductory article by him titled 'Ethnicity and Nationalism in the World's Only Hindu State'. The Anthropology of Buddhism and Hinduism: Weberian Themes is a compilation of several Gellner articles published previously in journals, not readily available to the South Asian and Nepali scholar.

The first of the five parts of the book provides the general approaches to the subject discussing, among others, Max Weber and the study of Hinduism and Buddhism, the anthropology of Buddhism, and the relationship between religion, politics and ritual. Theoretically, this part is the strongest, with reviews of various works on the anthropology of religion in general and of Buddhism in particular. The second part, titled 'The Legitimation of Religious Specialists', discusses monkhood and priesthood in Newar Buddhism, examines the monastery, priesthood and possession, and focuses on the Mahayana text Pragyaparamita and its usages in a Newar monastery. While containing detailed ethnographic material, this section too, has substantive theoretical content, with its review of, among others, the relevance of the ideas of Weber and Louis Dumont for the study of Newar Buddhism.

Part three, 'From Soteriology to Worldly Benefits', continues the discussion on Newar Buddhism. One article (co-authored by Uttam Sagar Shrestha) delves into tantric healing, discussing priests, healers, mediums and witches, as well as lay perspectives on health and 'misfortune' in the valley. The following section focuses on Hinduism, considering the positions of women, the transformation of 'sacred' cities into communist strongholds, and also tribal societies. Gellner also picks up for analysis Robert Levy´s well-known work, Mesocosm, on the 'symbolic world' of the Kathmandu valley town of Bhaktapur.

The syncretistic Maharjans

The last part of the book discusses 'syncretism', comparing the positions of Buddhism in Nepal and Japan. Indeed, a significant contribution of this compilation lies in its discussion of the relevance and limitation of the concept of syncretism. Gellner makes useful arguments on the wider discussion of boundaries, margins and what has been called "in-between-ness', in a context where concepts such as 'hybridity', 'liminality' and 'bricolage' have more usually been employed to understand the phenomenon. He does so, for example, his discussion on the Maharjans of Kathmandu valley. While among the Newars of Kathmandu, some groups exclusively identify themselves as 'Hindu' and others as 'Buddhist', Maharjans, who are largely peasants, are have difficulty with identifying exclusively as either. While they employ Buddhist-Vajracharya priests, they accept Buddhism and Hinduism equally and practice rituals of both. While in the past, during census enumerations, they had identified themselves as Hindu, in recent years, for political reasons, they are increasingly identifying themselves as Buddhist.

There is an ongoing attempt at understanding 'mixed' cultural and religious traditions exemplified by communities such as the Maharjans. One concept that anthropology has supplied is 'liminality'. Introduced by the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep in his study of rites of passage, the concept was refined by the British anthropologist Victor Turner, who explained liminality as a state characterised by ambiguity, transformation and reflexivity. Scholars studying South Asia during the 1960s and 1970s used concepts such as 'folk' traditions or 'little' traditions to understand how local forms of religion diverge from the canonical versions and include other accretive traditions as well. Scholars, in grappling with similar phenomenon elsewhere on the globe, have also employed concepts such as 'hybridity' and 'bricolage'.

Gellner explains the syncretistic cultural and religious practice of the Maharjans (and there are many other communities in Nepal which can be so labelled) without resorting to concepts such as 'hybridity', 'liminality' or 'bricolage'. Drawing from the ideas of Emile Durkhiem, who was instrumental in the establishment of sociology and anthropology, he provides a framework that lists several purposes for which a religion may be employed: the legitimation and expression of the household; the legitimation and expression of the locality; the legitimation and expression of the ethnic group or nation; the sanctification of the stages of a lifecycle; the socialisation of the young and the provision of a moral code; the provision of psychological and practical help in case of illness and misfortune; the provision of a path to salvation, ie soteriology. Buddhism, unlike Christianity, has generally not covered all of these needs of adherents and neither has it exhibited exclusivism towards other religions.

For the Maharjans, Buddhism provides a framework for lifecycle rituals, ritual assistance in worldly problems, and for those who seek it, a soteriology. The cultural and religious practices of Maharjans appear to be 'syncretistic' simply because the community derives its other needs from other extant traditions. Drawing further upon this framework and making a comparison with Japanese society, Gellner argues that Buddhist monks and priests, through their involvement of the spheres of death and the afterlife, provide soteriology, and through worship of ancestors symbolise continuity of the household.

However, they have largely ceded other tasks, in the Japanese case, to Shinto cults, to Confusionism and to Taoism. It is this phenomenon, where a particular religion addresses some concerns and leaves to other traditions and belief-systems other concerns, that appears syncretistic. This insight of Gellner on syncretism could inform the wider contemporary debate on the permeability of boundaries and the mechanisms that mediate cultural and religious pluralities.

The Anthropology of Buddhism and Hinduism: Weberian Themes is not light reading, but for those interested in the issues it deals with, Gellner's work is engaging and enlightening and enriching. The continuity of the articles and their common underlying themes and perspectives manage to overcome the limitations that compendiums of articles tend to have. The impression of coherence and fullness of the text is further conveyed by the fact that the author has provided a consolidated reference section at the end of the book and a common index. With its insights, arguments and richly detailed ethnographies, this work is bound to make a significant impression on anthropological scholarship in Buddhism and Hinduism. In this respect, its contributions could rival those of Richard Burghart's The Conditions of Listening: Essays on Religion, History and Politics in South Asia (1996).

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