Review of Engaging South Asian Religions: Boundaries, Appropriations, and Resistances edited by Matthew N. Schmalz and Peter Gottschalk State University of New York Press

Engaging South Asian Religions: Boundaries, Appropriations, and Resistances. Edited by Matthew N. Schmalz and Peter Gottschalk. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2011. ISBN: 9781438433233

Critical study of any subject requires an equally critical examination of the lenses we use to interpret the world. Engaging South Asian Religions; Boundaries, Appropriations, and Resistances, edited by  Matthew N. Schmalz and Peter Gottschalk, understands this fact well and provides a discerning look at how religions in South Asia have been approached within Western frameworks, as well as the effects this engagement has had on the paradigms of South Asian thought itself. This volume consists of nine essays held together by theme: boundaries, appropriations, and resistances, and uses these themes to provide a more comprehensive picture of how different epistemologies have interacted in the subcontinent, meanwhile raising important questions about the sometimes very dangerous social, religious and intellectual consequences.

The introductory chapter is a profoundly important aspect of the book where the editors offer a road map to the content ahead and offer their own synthesis. Schmalz and Gottschalk guide us by making the observation that historically, much of Western inquiry into South Asia has centered on religion, subsequently creating dialogue independent of native terms and grounded in foreign concepts that do not accurately depict the true social climate of the time.  This is demonstrated in the first section of Engaging South Asian Religions, based on the theme of “Boundaries,” and beginning with Gottschalk’s own essay on British census-taking. The author points out that taxonomic sciences developing in the West affected how colonial administrators approached accounting for populations in their overseas jurisdictions. Due to the position religious affiliations held in Europe, religion and caste were used as primary identifiers even though their traditional impact on  Indian enumerations may have carried less weight. How colonizers left their mark upon the colonized is further expanded upon in Arvind Mandair’s substantial piece about “The Repetitions of Past Imperialisms,” which focuses on the exclusion of Indic religions from the larger field of critical theory, with the works of Hegel being an underlying factor. Stemming out from the German philosopher’s work, the religions of South Asia have always been seen as an “other,” and Mandair argues that post-colonial scholarship has perpetuated this otherness.

The third essay of the “Boundaries” section by Sufia Uddin is in itself a test of limits, discussing the nature of Bonbibi as both a Muslim and Hindu sacred figure. It is a fascinating read about how her story became a focal point for two different religious groups in West Bengal and Bangladesh, yet the essay feels like it is treading a fine line that could be also considered appropriation (though Uddin does state that Bonbibi is not a case of “syncretism,” which carries a negative connotation). Regardless, this makes the essay a good segue to the second section, on “Appropriations,” beginning with Schmalz’s narrative of charismatic Catholicism in Northern India. In order to attract Hindu faithful in their shared community, this Catholic movement appropriates dress and custom where it can, but sets boundaries to maintain its authority. This is demonstrated at the prayer service Schmalz centers his essay on, where charismatic speakers cry out that those untouched by the saving aspect of Jesus will “burn in hell,” and unbaptized Hindu congregants are screened out of areas where the Eucharist is being given. William Pinch’s account of “The Corpse and Cult of Francis Xavier” is a logical follow up piece in this section, exploring the ways in which this notable Catholic saint positioned himself in Indian tradition on account of his miracles and involvement with the lower castes. “Appropriations” is wrapped up in turn by Liz Wilson’s essay on Gotami’s parinirvana as seen through feminist lenses. Wilson’s thoughtful relation of the “interpretive dilemmas” that Gotami’s death brings up gives consideration to a time period where man had a certain cultural power over woman that would encourage her to partake in the practice of sati, and argues that it may be impossible for a modern feminism to try and appropriate her story without taking this into account.

The final section, “Resistances,” is where we encounter firsthand how our interpretive lenses are in turn reflected by those we are viewing. Several instances of powerful reactions to scholarship in the area of South Asian religions are described, starting with James W. Laine’s “Resisting My Attackers; Resisting My Defenders.” The figure in question is Shivaji, hero of Maharashtra, whom Laine wrote extensively about only to be strongly attacked for passages in his work that question aspects of Shivaji’s life, and position in an Islamic framework.  Shahzad Bashir’s research into an Islamic sect in Pakistan, the Nurbakhshi, also faced some skepticism from within the community itself. Considering how the Nurbakhshi are a small group, they were concerned with the way that Bashir might paint their medieval founder and how the account would reflect on them in turn. A very appropriate final essay in this section is by Paul B. Courtright, aptly titled “Climbing Through Paradigms,” which is about the author’s own work surrounding Ganesh that raised the question of “Why are you here?” from festival goers in Maharashtra. Courtright’s account addresses that it is crucial to look inward and ask “why” you are engaging in a field that calls for cultural sensitivity, yet you must uphold the position that your works are meant to be “exercises in appreciation and understanding” (p 202) rather than attacks themselves.

Engaging South Asian Religions gives room in the afterword for reflection by Saurabh Dube on the essays in the book, as well as responses to it by the authors themselves, which serves as an excellent section to bring the content together in a lively way. Overall, this book (or excerpts from it) would be suitable for collegiate coursework in religious study, South Asian and world history, and even sociology. The rich subject matter would be excellent for debate and discussion in any of those classrooms with the guidance of a professor to give it proper context. The merit of Engaging South Asian Religions is that it gives a better-defined stage to discuss the complexities of religious studies in the region, and highlights that it is not just a field of dead men and ancient ideas. Instead of giving up as futile the deconstructing of epistemological frameworks by assuming there is no way to get past our personal intellectual predispositions, Schmalz and Gottschalk and their contributing authors are brave in exploring how scholars influence, and are affected by, their own critical lenses. Sufia Uddin’s article offers particular insight on the matter: “In our attempts at defining religious traditions, we need to be mindful of how our scholarship will be employed by those within the religious communities we examine” (p 65).  It is wise advice for any student considering a future in the field to heed, and applicable to other disciplines as well.


Reviewed by Theresa Gaffney, Queens College CUNY Flushing
Edited by Andrae M. Marak

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 6, Spring, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]