Monday, November 01, 2010


So about the workshop. It was the first big meeting of an ongoing research project called "Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalaya," proposed by the New School's India China Institute (ICI) and funded by the Luce Foundation. Over the next three years, it will rally scholars from India, China, Himalayan nations and the US in shared research and meetings, sponsor smaller-scale research projects, and hire a post-doc to develop and teach courses at the intersection of religion, environmental studies and the Himalaya at New School. Sounds great, yes? Well, yes and no.

Where to begin, explaining this? My sense of the emergence of the project is that AG, the director of the India China Institute and a Nepali, had been trying for some time to interest foundations in a project on Himalayas and the environment. Why Himalayas for an institute devoted to fostering dialogue between scholars in India and China? That's the easy part: the threatened glaciers of the "third pole" are the source of the major rivers of China and India, on which 2.1 billion people depend. Wouldn't you want something like ICI on board for such a project? But foundations weren't giving, perhaps because New School has none of the science departments you'd need to do new environmental research; nor do we have actual Asian studies departments. But then one day AG bumped into a program officer of the Luce Foundation, who told him of a new program supporting research on religion, environment and policy, and it was a new day. AG called New School's religious studies program - that would be me. When I protested that I had neither competence nor even demonstrable interest in environment or Himalaya, he said it was no problem. And, somewhat unnervingly, he was right: the Luce Foundation evidently bought his gambit that, because we lack the resources to do the project on our own, we have no preconceived notions or agendas on these questions. That was certainly true of me, to an embarrassing extent.

And so it was that scholars and policy makers - five each from China and India, seven from Nepal, nine from the US, and one from Bhutan - met to raise broad research questions about ERSEH: "Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalaya." (Couldn't someone find a better acronym? SEERH? HERSE?)

I should explain that I bear some responsibility for the vague notion of "everyday religion." I had told AG that I was interested in a movement in the study of Western religions which calls itself "lived religion," and that reference to that work might conceivably help a study of the often syncretistic religious practices of South Asia contribute to broader efforts to decolonize the study of religion.

I'm not sure why AG picked "everyday" over "lived." In any case, the concept of "everyday religion" freed conference participants otherwise disinclined by principle or training to engage with religion to explore... a bit. Most were social scientists, secular in method if not conviction. Many had in fact been trained at Marxist universities. But you wouldn't have guessed. Never defined, "everyday religion" turned out to be the part of religion anyone could love, and, more importantly, everyone should revere and promote. For it contained precious ecological knowledge, which could be translated straightforwardly into the language of science for policy-makers, but should be allowed to stay in the language of myth and ritual for "ordinary people" as it's perfectly on target - and besides, religion motivates better than science.

There were so many leaps of logic here that it took me a while to realize what was going on - and then another two days to figure out what was really going on. What was going on, I think, was that people were thinking fondly of their grandmothers or nursemaids, and of the local and indigenous practices, threatened by modernization, globalization and climate change, which are part of the very landscape of a vaguely remembered premodern past. In any case, people who should have known better blithely equated "ER" with "SE." It was a Himalayan holiday resort version of "nice religion." It went without saying that the rest of religion was a menace, as also, curiously, that "ER" could somehow easily be disentangled from its dangerous non-everyday namesake. As a religious studies person I was miffed that religion was getting too much and too little credit. There's little reason to think religion correlates with any regularity at all with ecological consciousness - that's a modern myth. And could it be that its value lies not in its pretended protoscientific awareness but in something, well, religious? I tried to bring this up once or twice, but found no takers.

As for what was really going on, besides a display of the blind spots of social science's hegemonic secularism, it took a discussion on the dynamics of local knowledge to open my eyes. Where can the kind of knowledge of environment and ecosystem we're supposedly after be found? What forms does it take? Well, not written down and perhaps rarely discussed in the abstract. It's lived knowledge, and learned through living - harvesting, building, maintaining wells, treating human and animal ailments, etc. Much of this is connected to livelihoods, and much is what's sometimes known as women's knowledge.

Before I quite knew it, "everyday religion" was exposed: not the benign folkloric sustainer of environments our discussions presupposed, but the familiar ideological sustainer of oppression and inequality. In celebrating the practices of the often disprivileged members of endangered communities as bulwarks against ecological disaster we were rationalizing the social structures that locked generations into drudgery, and, indeed, arguing that they must not be changed - for the sake of all our future! It took me longer than it should have to awaken from the pleasant stupor of secular tributes, however shallow and patronizing, to "everyday religion," but my eyes are wide open now. A kinder gentler secular class system knows that religion - at least one localized enough to pose no political or intellectual threat - is valuable for those whose care work sustains our world, and may be even more valuable for the rest of us: it's the best way of keeping them at that work. "Sustainable Himalayan Environments and Everyday Religion" - a SHEER drop.

I'm overreacting, a little. The feelings of moral vertigo came as much from witnessing Nepali poverty out the window as we bounced from cushy hotel to pretty religious site to peaceful resort conference center with view of Himalayan peaks and farmers, and from the discovery that Nepali society has until the 1960s been legally bound to the caste system. Maybe it's not an overreaction but a discovery. My next contribution for the project will be a review of the literature of "lived religion" in its Western context, flagging questions for its extension to - or complication by - Himalayan and environmental considerations.

(The fabulous beasties are from temples in Patan and Changu Narayan.)

1 comment:

chivacollection said...

nice photos of beast from Patan i like your photgrafy style