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SEHR, volume 5, issue 1: Contested Polities
Updated February 26, 1996

beyond orientalism

syncretism and the politics of knowledge

Gauri Viswanathan

Towards the end of Orientalism, Edward Said suggestively remarks that one of the great challenges to contemporary scholarship lies in developing non-coercive, non- manipulative ways of studying other cultures that will allow for an identification with human experience. In In an Antique Land, a recent work that defies classification in a specific genre, Amitav Ghosh confronts this challenge head-on while conducting his ethnographic study of kinship patterns in an Egyptian village. As an Indian anthropologist studying a fellow culture from the non-Western world (often with a self-irony that plays on the anomaly of his disciplinary affiliation), Ghosh attempts to break free of the conventions that install the West as a reference point for anthropological knowledge. In particular, he challenges the convention of the questioning, omniscient, and value-neutral ethnographer who can pry information from his subjects at will.[1]

Ironically for his project, however, the divisiveness of cultural difference proves too strong. The interrogator is interrogated for the bizarre practices of his own culture, and the frustration of being unable to explain either himself or his culture causes the narrator to veer off into another project, another narrative, this time of a twelfth-century Jewish merchant and his Indian slave. Onto this tale is displaced the impossibility of the ethnographic pursuit: tracing the genealogy of an anonymous slave restores the familiarity of an historical quest in which questions about origins, development, history, purpose, and teleology can be safely asked without the embarrassing dialectical intrusiveness of counter-questions posed by the very people who are being studied by the anthropologist. Reflecting an uneasy tension between history and anthropology, the interweaving of two radically different narratives--removed in time as well as space-- displaces the anxieties of participating in a potentially coercive anthropology onto the historical narrative of Ben Yiju, the Jewish merchant, and his slave. The archival search for documents establishing the slave's name, genealogy, and history, converts anthropology into history as the arena of displaced desire for empirical knowledge. Ghosh moves back and forth between anthropology and history to resolve a crisis of (anthropological) vision that is undoubtedly brought about by a crisis of (historical) perspectives.

But even as the twelfth-century history of Arab-Jewish trade routes to and from India becomes a site for the pursuit of a form of knowledge that is inaccessible--indeed, even politically retrograde--to ethnographic research, it functions simultaneously as a representation of an undivided community, not riven by ethnic, religious, or linguistic divisions. In the history of the Indian Ocean trade and the hybrid identities that it spawned, Ghosh finds a model of syncretism no longer available in the modern age, where religious and cultural differences so overwhelm the possibilities of all dialogue that solutions are weakly sought either in an overarching, totalizing brand of official secularism or in ethnic particularism. The tale of international commerce, mercantile exchange, and linguistic and religious syncretism that balances the contemporary narrative of ethnographic research is represented as characterizing a past age that is no longer tenable, as the narrator discovers when he seeks out material on a Muslim saint converted from Judaism, Sidi Abu-Hasira. The narrator looks under categories such as "religion" and "Judaism," only to find that such categories, which were largely shaped "to suit the patterns of the Western academy"(342), do not accommodate a more syncretic history that dissolves barriers between private and public domains, between local communities and concepts of the nation. The narrator's efforts are rewarded only when he looks under the headings of "anthropology" and "folklore."

The cultural and historical divisions are apparent even in the kinds of conflicts the narrator has with the Egyptian villagers:

The Imam and I had participated in our own final defeat, in the dissolution of the centuries of dialogue that had linked us: we had demonstrated the irreversible triumph of the language that has usurped all the others in which people once discussed their differences (236).

Only for one brief moment in the text does history intersect with anthropology: in the syncretism that the Jewish-Muslim saint represents, the narrator discovers that, "in defiance of the enforcers of History"--those who choose to demarcate themselves from outsiders--a "small remnant of Bomma's [the twelfth-century slave] world had survived, not far from where I had been living"(342).

Ghosh's turn to a culturally and religiously hybrid medieval past locates the failure of a non-coercive, non-manipulative anthropology in the fact of modernity itself. But at the same time its engagement with the romance of syncretism, as a solution to sectarianism, nationalism, ethnocentrism, and religious intolerance, evokes a nostalgia that is itself unsettling. Does syncretism offer truly global possibilities for a merging of religious difference, or is it a code word for the incorporation and assimilation of "minority" cultures into the culture of the dominant group? Is syncretism compatible with dogmas of "Truth," or is it closer to a form of cultural relativism that in fact dilutes truth? How has syncretism been represented, for instance, in the historiography and literature of rival religious groups, and to what extent is it associated with tolerance or with intolerance? Is syncretism indeed the language in which, as Ghosh claims, people "once discussed their differences," and can it be the language in which those differences are open to discussion now? Most important, is syncretism possible as a subjectively experienced idea, or can it be nothing more than the stance of the outside observer, the privilege of the dominant or majority group making incorporative gestures in the name of a harmonious integration of all faiths? These questions are posed in the spirit of negotiating the difficult and often perilous terrain between syncretism and separatism as vastly different cultural solutions to problems of religious difference.

a genealogy of syncretism

To consider the place of syncretism in the post-Orientalist project suggested by Said and taken up by Ghosh, it is useful to recognize that, apart from its general reference, the term "syncretism" has a particular Western history as well. In an important article, Peter Van der Veer has established that the historical roots of syncretism's semantic association with transdenominational universalism lie in the rise of Protestantism and the decline of the absolute authority of Catholicism; he further argues that syncretism's subsequent identification with cultural relativism accompanied the spread of colonialism and the vigorous, often aggressive, and politically charged contact with alien religious cultures that colonial expansion promoted.[2] Syncretism appears as a term used in Christian theology at least since the seventeenth century. Denoting an "attempt to sink differences and effect union between sects or philosophical schools" (OED), syncretism as a favorable term came into its own with the decline of the Catholic Church, which hitherto held complete authority to decide what was absolute truth and condemn all deviations from that truth as heresies (syncretism in a Catholic regime, suggests Van der Veer, was associated pejoratively with a "betrayal of attempt to secure unity at the expense of truth").[3]

Johannes Fabian has argued that the Christian scheme was more inclusive than the secular scheme that followed, since the imperative of saving souls encouraged Christian proselytizers to maintain that even primitive "savages" were within the orbit of the mission civilisatrice, while secular thought created new categories of division based on evolutionary time rather than a salvational plan.[4] The criteria for exclusion of heretics for deviating from Catholic truth were much more sharply marked, however, when ecclesiastical authority was indistinguishable from the state's, and when determination of standards of truth and falsehood was still very much within the church's jurisdiction. Wherever the church determined the truth, it also created concepts of insiders and outsiders, such as "believers" and "heretics." In the case of England, as long as church and state were conjoined, definitions of Englishness followed an unimpeachable simplicity: all believers were English, and all heretics--by which was generally meant all non- Anglicans, including Dissenters, Nonconformists, Catholics, and Jews--were foreigners. But when the liberal spirit of tolerance entered English public life by the mid- nineteenth century, such definitions were no longer so simple. The new tolerance offered the hope of enfranchisement to Dissenters, Roman Catholics, and Jews, among other excluded groups, whose incorporation into the structures of political governance showed an England moving towards a more open pluralism whereby a multiplicity of beliefs was seemingly acknowledged--what Robert Pattison in his work on John Henry Newman wryly calls the "deregulated market of religious belief."[5] Certainly the ascendancy of courts of appeal--with the state's refusal to pronounce judgment on the rightness or wrongness of dissenting opinion--appeared to rob the church of its spiritual authority. The Gorham judgment of 1850 marked the irrevocable break between church and state in England, when the determination of doctrinal meaning was declared outside the purview of a secular body like the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which, incidentally, was originally intended primarily to hear appeals from the colonies, even though later as a secular body it came to exercise jurisdiction as a court of final appeal in ecclesiastical cases. By desisting from determining standards of truth, as long as the legal rights of non-Anglicans were protected, the English state allowed a multiplicity of opinions to flourish, none more truthful or absolute than the other.

This new syncretism, transferred to the secular plane of plural opinions and identities, allowed for the creation of a homogeneous national identity, mediated by law, in which differences of belief were effaced; at the same time, by the very fact that different religious communities were recognized under the law, the new tolerance preserved the distinctive outlines of these communities, representing dissenting religious views. While individual rights were protected--and the rectitude of law upheld--the beliefs that individuals held, and the particularities of their self-definitions, were rendered irrelevant in the national incorporation of hitherto marginalized dissenting groups.

The role of dissenting groups in the formation of the English state, and the dissenters' subsequent resistance to assimilation by the state, sheds important light on how syncretism has split into two contradictory perceptions. On the one hand, the view that the state introduces categories and disrupts the way people "really" practice religion, reducing it to mere ideology, leads to a vigorous anti-statism, a manifestation of which is the alienation of the modern nation-state from the general populace, which is regarded as the true practitioner of syncretic forms of worship and belief existing prior to the state. At the same time, in a contrary perception, syncretism is viewed as a product of state formation itself, and more akin to culture in its supplantation of both religious belief and religious ideology and in its disinterested, universalizing aspect. The celebration of religious artifacts, festivals, and monuments as cultural symbols, affiliated with no particular group but belonging to the "national" heritage as a whole, is an example of the state's nonpartisanship expressed in a syncretic view of communities.

The paradox of such contradictory perceptions, of course, is that syncretism is taken to be a sign of revolt, persisting in the cultural practices of contiguous local communities, against the meretricious assertion of difference by the state (through census reports, for instance, which classify populations according to arbitrary criteria and create religious categories that conflict with the way groups perceive themselves), even as it also signifies the effacement of difference by the self-same state. Having created the categories in the first place, the state promptly denies that differences in religious doctrines exist, or reduces them all to a single equivalence in the name of a unifying national identity. It is not without significance that the examples of syncretism given by Ashis Nandy, one of the most vocal anti-statist intellectuals in modern India, are almost without exception drawn from official sources. For instance, Nandy points out that in the 1911 Census the Muslims of Gujarat identified themselves as "Mohammedan Hindus"; Nandy concludes from this example that there existed a prior state of harmony between Muslims and Hindus which was disrupted by the colonial state.[6] But the instrument through which this recognition of syncretism is made possible--the census--is very much part of the official apparatus of knowledge production and classification.

If, as Geoffrey Bennington suggests, the frontier can be described as the region which permits the greatest contact between heterogeneous communities,[7] it must also be said that the multifariousness of populations is funnelled through the frontier's center, whose authority is strengthened in proportion to both the compartmentalization of these fluid groups and their homogenization through, for instance, culture and education. It is equally true, however, that frontiers must exist to both define and protect the center. Thus the mix of peoples that characterizes the frontier is preserved in the national identity, but selectively reduced to a commonality of practice, belief, and custom. To advance syncretic solutions to divisiveness is therefore already to be caught in a contradictory position. The yearning for a condition of hybridity--the happy merging of discrete identities--that characterizes the "people" in general, and is presumed to exist before the boundaries established by nation-states, is itself a precondition of national identity, syncretism is as much an effect produced by an effacement of the hegemonic class interests of the state, whereby, not unlike the evaluations and discriminations that accompany Matthew Arnold's idea of culture, those religious sects that are exclusivist, intolerant, closed to change, doctrinally based, and ruled by a clerisy are qualitatively subordinate to those characterized by exactly opposite features--i.e., inclusivist, tolerant, open to change, and non-hierarchical, with the "people" being the direct repositories of faith (the Protestant emphasis of this valorization, which carries over into the foundations of the secular nation, is clearly marked). These positive features, which reappear across world religions and confer the same value on all religions, beliefs shorn of all doctrinal variation, are now labeled "syncretic." For example, Sufism in Islam and Bhakti in Hinduism have more positive valences attached to them than doctrinal or caste orthodoxies within these religions. Similarly, the tolerant Akbar, who sought to unify Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam, is represented as the ideal Muslim ruler, rather than, say, Aurangzeb, under whose rule religious exclusions were strictly enforced. That literary and historical narratives create a longing in their readers for the dense texture of community which their representations embody attests to the power of culture as the medium of quickening the will to nationhood. Indeed, if culture is an instrument of discrimination, then syncretism is its final goal.

Explicitly addressing the looming threat of working-class demands for political emancipation, Matthew Arnold clearly saw the crucial function of culture as a surrogate for religion, not just as spiritual force, but as holding the possibility of offering assimilation without necessarily implying political enfranchisement.[8] The state is the instrument for such incorporation: disinterestedness is the stance that invites the service of individuals, the merging of differences in one overarching social unity. Just as the state is for Matthew Arnold "culture's best self," syncretism similarly defines the state as religion's best self, transcending petty sectarian interests. As an embodiment of disinterestedness, syncretism creates conditions for a form of governance where class differences, allegiances, and interests vanish, with the state functioning as the sponge that absorbs difference. Syncretism is thus harmonization without disproportionate empowerment of any one element of the whole.

I have deliberately invoked Matthew Arnold not only to draw attention to the striking parallels between Arnoldian secular culture and religious syncretism in establishing themselves as the "best self" of the state. I also want to suggest the crucial importance of the nineteenth-century English cultural context in an analysis of postcolonial works, especially works that attempt to come to terms with the hegemony of centralized state authority and its impact on the identity of individuals and local communities as one of colonialism's chief legacies. If I move back and forth in time and traverse national boundaries and literary genres, speaking of Amitav Ghosh, Matthew Arnold, and John Henry Newman in the same breath, it is in order to stress the convulsive effects of the secularization of religious culture. These effects include, for example, the incorporation of hitherto excluded religious sects into the nation, the changed status of religious belief following the sharper divisions between private and public spheres, and the emergence of the discourses of tolerance and nationalism. They are also expressed through the social legislation of religious identity, not only in nineteenth-century England but also in its colonies, where "assimilation" into modes of secular governance always entailed at least two levels of meaning. These two levels are best captured by Peter Van der Veer in this pithy description: "The state wants to create a society in the image of enlightened England with a secular public culture, but a Christian private culture."[9] There were essentially two conflicting narratives of religious change in colonial India. The first, of conversion-as-syncretism, was officially sanctioned by British administrators as a desirable description of the process of cultural assimilation of natives to British rule. A potentially destabilizing force in culture through its radical displacements of meaning, conversion was instead neutralized to preserve original meanings and appear as if there were no change at all, with Hindus converting to Christianity often encouraged to call themselves "Hindu Christians." On the other hand, for some Indian converts, such as Keshub Chunder Sen and Narayan Viman Tilak, both Christian converts from Hinduism who were among the most strident nationalist figures, conversion was postulated as a means of syncretic possibility--of recovering a "national religion" in movements like the Brahmo Samaj that eliminated rather than preserved difference. Therefore, while British secular administrators and Christian missionaries may have sought to assimilate Indians to a more enlightened culture, Indians reinterpreted assimilation to mean syncretism, using that insight as the basis for their demand for national freedom.

Christophe Jaffrelot has recently advanced the concept of "strategic syncretism" as a sub-category of the invention of Hindu tradition and Hindu ideology. Such an ideology is syncretic, argues Jaffrelot, because its content is supplied by material taken from the cultural values of groups who are seen as hostile to the Hindu community.[10] Christ no longer is a threatening alien religious figure, but made into an Indian god who would deliver India from colonial oppression. Indeed, if the threatening force of Christian proselytism was muted by Hindu nationalist figures through acts of appropriation, even for native converts to Christianity conversion was less an assimilative than a syncretic practice, where the social practices of Hinduism were retained in Christian worship. Syncretism-as-strategy is often a component of reform movements, which, in suggesting the alignment of syncretism with change, raises the question of whether cultural change is ever possible without the kind of incorporative strategies marked by syncretic tendencies.

On the other hand, the potentially counterhegemonic status (to both colonial rule and native elite groups) of the second type of narrative--of conversion as a break with natal culture--invited a constant undermining by legislative processes. By disrupting established categories of social and religious identities, conversion problematized the British colonial administration's own classification of colonial subjects and challenged it to redefine its categorical premises in relation to the assertion of individual will, subjectivity, and belief. Indeed, the cooptation of oppositional, subaltern voices in conversion histories by prevailing norms of "national" definition presents a set of problems that can best be studied in relation to the formation of secular discourses of the state. Many native converts did not share either Keshub Chander Sen's or their rulers' eclectic formula for integrating old and new ways of life, and they fiercely repudiated officially sanctioned definitions of the self in the name of a private area of belief and conviction.

The legislation of religious identity in nineteenth-century culture suggests that the nostalgia for an undivided community, which is presumed to have historically preceded the emergence of the modern nation-state (a nostalgia that in turn begets a robust anti- statism), is itself based on a fiction produced by the state as it absorbs multiple religious and cultural identities into a unified national identity. That the syncretic urge is essentially a fictional impulse is apparent even in the tropes that are employed in narratives of religious identity, such as interracial romance, conversion, discovery of lost familial roots, travel, and the return to the point of origin. To place Bennington's concept in a different context, the notion of syncretism preserves the idea of the frontier as the site of exchange between communities, religions, and cultures. At the same time, the center is continuously reinforced by the selective appropriation of features constant over each entity, an activity which neutralizes the presence of religious differences and harmonizes them into a coherent whole.

For the hidden meaning of religious tolerance lies in the sense of a common, or even national, identity engendered by the mythos of the people as the real nation before the nation. In other words, national identity is constructed less on the idea of cultural homogeneity than on the fact of religious difference characterizing the people. The forging of national unity requires the submission to a politics of cultural identity whereby syncretism is the ideological expression of what is construed as innate. My illustration of this point draws on a reading of another crucial nineteenth-century figure, John Henry Newman. At one point in his career, Newman staunchly fought the English parliament's proposal to pass a Catholic emancipation bill. He later completely reversed his position and, subscribing to the course of national developments, supported the enfranchisement of religious minorities; he eventually converted to Roman Catholicism, partly as a gesture of recognition that narrow sectarian interests were no longer politically tenable. If Newman's conversion was deeply motivated by a fundamental urge to restore unity of religious opinion, his movement in this direction was substantially assisted by his gradual acceptance of the separation of church and state in order, as he claimed, to "fight the enemy on better ground and to more advantage."[11] Personally he believed that "the most natural and becoming state of things" was for the "aristocratical power" to be the upholder of the Church; yet he could not deny "the plain fact" that "in most ages the latter has been based on a popular power."[12] Newman's own dissent from the established church, while influenced by his increasing interest in "look[ing] to the people,"[13] nevertheless was based on an a priori reasoning that distinguished between centralization and democratization. In identifying himself with the people to restore the power of Christian belief to English society, Newman consciously separated the nation from the state. He associated the "state" with pernicious bureaucratizing, hierarchical, and classificatory tendencies and the "nation" with community-centered local experience. In October 1834, he wrote a long letter to the British Magazine locating the greatness of English life in its promotion of private activity and thought outside the sphere of government, which influenced even the spirit of private enterprise; after all, the East India empire, he argued, was the result of independent mercantile efforts, not a government enterprise.

Newman did acknowledge that centralization, while destroying local influences, also proceeded simultaneously with the Reform Bill. It appeared to him, however, that the democratization the Reform Bill represented, along with disestablishment and emancipatory legislation, expressed the autonomous power of the popular will, which "supersede[d] the necessity of a government,[d]e the House of Commons, and so the people, their own rulers."[14] Indeed, Newman's enthusiasm for a recentering of English politics in the people led him to see in a disestablished and popular Roman Catholicism the possibility of recovering the unified religious culture of the primitive church, lost since the time of the early church fathers. His syncretic vision, compounded by a nostalgia for an originary community disrupted by the equally sectarian forces of papism and protestantism, expressed a deep revulsion from government in favor of the people. It was, however, a vision blind to the state as the source of a series of orchestrated political and legal moves that gestured towards emancipation of religious minorities, but ultimately with the objective of forging a coherent English national identity out of the materials of pluralism and tolerance. Newman's nostalgic yearning for a unified religious culture, no longer subject to sectarian struggle, is at the same time an expression of the will to national unity emanating from the state. The populist dissent from establishment ideology to which Newman gave voice through his radical espousal of Roman Catholicism was in fact a precondition of the process of centralization set in motion in England following disestablishment--a process that Newman, for reasons having to do with his own earlier pronounced Tory stand against Catholic emancipation, rejected as having the potential to construct a syncretic identity out of the materials of emancipatory civil legislation. Such legislation, in effacing class interests, obscured for Newman the English parliament's continued investment in the absorption of religious minorities, and so he continued to read every parliamentary attempt to relax restrictions against excluded religious groups as an onslaught on truth itself.

syncretism, nostalgia, and privilege

The state's role in the production of an illusion, a seductive fiction, is one reason why so many literary works--like Amitav Ghosh's--that genuinely try to surmount problems of racial, religious, and cultural division by invoking a syncretic approach to cultural conflicts (creating what appear to be liberal, open, and tolerant solutions) are ultimately trapped by their inability to confront difference at the level of immediate, intersubjective encounters. Hence the psychological ambivalence to syncretism: the narrator of Ghosh's work wills himself to deny that differences exist, yet at the same time he is subliminally aware of their continuous presence, as is evident in his resentment of the Egyptian villagers' questions about cremation, cow worship, and circumcision in Hindu society. Their incredulous probings force him to deal with an archetypal past (of history, culture, in short, of difference) that insists on pushing itself into the present of the ethnographic moment, which the narrator would like to believe is associated with a timeless syncretism. While springing from a deep anger at the rise of state-sponsored violence and very humanist in its articulation, Ghosh's anti-nationalism cannot fully mask the fact that his desire for some prior syncretic condition supplants an originary, almost "primordial" fear.

In every instance where Ghosh's narrator is prodded with queries about the "three C's," he squirms in discomfort, precisely because he feels his Hindu-ness most acutely at these moments, even though the villagers remind him that they are only asking him questions, "just like you do"(204). It is not merely that the narrator begrudges having the tables turned and being the one investigated. "I sometimes wished I had told Nabeel [his Egyptian interlocutor] a story,"(204) the narrator says to himself, and, unsettled by the villagers' persistence, he proceeds to tell it--but only to his imagined audience of future readers, not to his present auditors, his Egyptian "tormentors." The story, told in the form of a flashback set in Dhaka during a Hindu-Muslim communal riot, reveals that the narrator's unease with questions of ritual customs like circumcision is explicitly due to the sectarian divisiveness associated with such practices in the Indian subcontinent. Almost as if against his will, Ghosh, alternatively fascinated and repulsed by his own memories of racial hatred, recalls a scene of near-communal carnage in Bangladesh, etched in surrealistic hues.

The stories of those riots are always the same: tales that grow out of an explosive barrier of symbols--of cities going up in flames because of a cow found dead in a temple or a pig in a mosque; of people killed for wearing a lungi or a dhoti, depending on where they find themselves; of women disembowelled for wearing veils or vermilion, of men dismembered for the state of their foreskins (210).

The visceral terror of witnessing the nightmarish communal flames encircling the narrator's childhood house overshadows the tame observation--indeed, afterthought--of solidarity between Hindus and Muslims that he appends without much conviction to the physical description:

But equally, in both cities--and this must be said, it must always be said, for it is the incantation that redeems our sanity--in both Dhaka and Calcutta, there were exactly mirrored stories of Hindus and Muslims coming to each others' rescue, so that many more people were saved than killed (209, emphasis added).

But if such communal harmony indeed existed, why can't the narrator now tell that childhood story to the Egyptian villagers? His somewhat patronizing explanation constructs another world of explication that reasserts the very polarity of worldviews that he contests as the object of his study: "Theirs was a world far gentler, far less violent, very much more humane and innocent than mine"(210). More to the point is the comment that immediately follows: "I could not have expected them to understand an Indian's terror of symbols." It is no accident that the most unsettling parts of the book are related to the narrator's attempt to explain away his fear of intrusive questions by seeking communal explanations for his reluctance to answer. But Ghosh even tries to rationalize the "Indian's terror of symbols" by imposing an order of syncretic harmony on the memories of communal carnage. Wherever Ghosh's narrator alludes to sectarian tension in the Indian subcontinent, he also invokes the power of syncretic worship and contrasts it to the monolithic will of the state. The combination of symbols and rituals is assumed to mark off the syncretic quality of religious practices, but such civilizational blending eschews dealing with the historical realities that make the acceptance of difference inevitable. In The Shadow Lines, Ghosh's earlier novel, the communal riots that the narrator witnesses in Dhaka as a child (and which reappear in In an Antique Land in the passages mentioned above) are sparked off by the theft of the Prophet's hair from the Hazratbal shrine in Srinagar. Ghosh makes it a point to remark that the outrage at the audacity of the event was shared by both Hindus and Muslims, and that both communities jointly participated in brotherly processions to protest against a sacrilege that went far beyond affront to only one religious group. Ghosh underscores the fact that the theft of the Prophet's hair was more a cultural than a religious violation, for the Hazratbal shrine in Kashmir (the frontier land?) received numerous pilgrims of all faiths (220). The ritual construction of identity takes place on the site of a hybrid experience. As in most archetypical situations of syncretic coexistence, certain aspects of religion are selectively marked out as its more positive features: members of rival communities helping each other out in times of stress and strife; worship of deities and saints by members of differing faiths; the universal outrage against violation of a monument, not simply because it is a religious relic but primarily because it has a cultural value. Ghosh writes that the solidarity shown by Hindus and Muslims was undercut by the manipulations of the state, which, by bringing out its troops, created a ripple effect whereby the two religious communities were now ranged against each other.

The violence unleashed lays open the horrifying reality of the divisions between Hindus and Muslims, which makes the task of restoring symbolic or cultural significance to a religious relic all the more pressing. The (by now) desperate recourse to a syncretic vision is complemented by the narrator's surreal perception of the false distance that official nationalism, with its accent on boundaries, divisions, and citizenship rights, places between oneself and "one's image in the mirror," Ghosh's phrase for a communal fraternity. For the narrator, the meaning of syncretism as shared historical experience makes borders unnecessary and meaningless. But at the same time his claim that national boundaries are contrived, anti-human, and unnatural can be read as an inability or even refusal to concede the reality of partition, however tragic its violent consequences might be, just as much as the same claim might appear to be an insistence on preserving an undivided community in the name of an eternal, immutable fraternity. Is this syncretism, or is it a privileged expression permitted only to either the Western-educated secular elite or members of a dominant community--an expression that may not necessarily be shared by those occupying minority positions? For the vision that prevails in In an Antique Land does not fully desist from making Muslims, both in the medieval world of the twelfth century and in the contemporary world, undifferentiated from a larger religious group marked off in the text as the dominant group (Jews in the former, Hindus in the latter).

The mercurial connotations of syncretism encode a set of relativized, partial, and often conflicting perspectives: what Hindus would call syncretic coexistence of religious faiths when they refer to the "Hindu way of life" might be termed "forced assimilation" by Muslims, in much the same way that the description of early Islam in India as a period of dynamic, commercial interchange in which Hindus cohabited amicably with Muslims might be rewritten by Hindu historians in terms of a narrative of religious conversion and conquest. The self-interested advocacy of syncretism is fairly transparent whenever, as in the case of the Hindu right or even in the case of the militant Protestant Association of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century England, the rhetoric of uniform civil codes and common heritage is accompanied by the systematic relegation of second-class citizenship to religious minorities. The use of the word syncretism effaces not only the aspect of domination but also the specific position from which certain interests are advanced, presumably in the name of a larger comity of universal brotherhood.

The insidious import of this discursive move is self-evident in the rhetoric of militantly charged religious groups. But even in writing that clearly distances itself from such extremist positions and is more evidently committed to secular ideals, the use of words like "composite culture" or "syncretic civilizations" obscures the differential, perspectival, and shifting connotations of syncretism. The broad humanity upon which intellectual arguments about intercommunity solidarity are based--and it is a humanity that draws its most inspired energy from a will to counter the murderous hatred of religious prejudice--is made possible largely by a conflation of the perspectives of the multiple communities that constitute society at any given time. André Wink, for instance, in his work on early modern Islam in India, observes: "[q]uite early a sacred geography developed which linked Hindu and Muslim sacred sites in a single network, and a common religious vocabulary was shared by Hindus, Muslims, and Christians alike."[15] The language of sharing, however, obscures the means by which competing groups have negotiated their differences, and it further removes the element of power relations leading to the moments of coexistence. If the meaning of syncretism is made interchangeable with cross-fertilization, whereby Hindus who patronize mosques or Muslims who worship at Hindu temples are deemed to be more syncretic in their practices than those who strictly align themselves to the customs of their own faiths, then the elasticity of identity entailed by this definition dissolves the perspectives from which these multiple identities are constructed in the first place. The attempt to recover the stories and viewpoints of the religious minorities in history, be they Catholics, Jews, Dissenters, and Nonconformists in nineteenth-century England or Muslims and Christians among other groups in India, is vitiated by the encompassing transhistorical framework of an earlier order of organic unity which, like Matthew Arnold's culture, effaces the particularities of creed, caste, and class, without which neither culture nor identity could have been formed. With its accent on the crossing of cultural borders and an ongoing activity of borrowing and adaptation, this order of unity ultimately cannot preserve the originality or uniqueness of individuals or individual communities. Where syncretism is not adequately historicized, the formative energy of identity and community gradually dissipates and is replaced by frozen icons of communal solidarity.

If I have been proposing that the syncretism of Ghosh's narrative voice is analogous to Matthew Arnold's culture, I have done so to suggest that the only way both culture and syncretism have been able to deal with difference is by amalgamating difference to a totalizing, homogeneous whole. As Arnold's ideal culture effaces class differences, so Ghosh's syncretism denies the historical reality of religious difference. That is why no matter how moving Ghosh's book might be, and no matter how appealing his humanist call for dissolving barriers between nations, peoples, and communities on the grounds that world civilizations were syncretic long before the divisions introduced by the territorial boundaries of nation-states, the work cannot get beyond nostalgia to offer ways of dealing with what is, after all, an intractable political problem.

If the idea of syncretism as existing in nature--innate to peoples everywhere, anterior to regulated definitions of selfhood, and recoverable by a will to see sameness in place of difference--is a purposeful fiction constitutive of the will to nationhood, as I have been arguing in this essay, the crucial question in the politics of knowledge remains constant, and one which perhaps anthropology, more than history, has tried to address: How do "the people" displace the state as the source of conferring meaning on syncretic activity? To pose such a question is also to ask whether syncretism, from the perspective of the lived reality of people, would mean something other than sameness, commonality, or unity of experience, and to ask what crisis of consciousness this other perspective would produce. In other words, can syncretism issuing as a fiction of the state (and, by extension, also of dominant, elite groups) bear the burden of people's perceptions of themselves?

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1. Amitav Ghosh, In an Antique Land (London: Granta, 1992). Future references cited in text.

2. Peter Van der Veer, "Syncretism, Multiculturalism, and the Discourse of Tolerance," Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism: The Politics of Religious Synthesis, eds. Charles Stewart and Rosalind Shaw (London: Routledge, 1994).

3. Van der Veer 197.

4. Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes Its Object (New York: Columbia UP, 1983).

5. Robert Pattison, The Great Dissent: John Henry Newman and the Liberal Heresy (New York: Oxford UP, 1991) 6.

6. Ashis Nandy, "The Politics of Secularism and the Recovery of Religious Tolerance," Mirrors of Violence, ed. Veena Das (Delhi: Oxford UP, 1990) 70.

7. Geoffrey Bennington, "Postal Politics and the Institution of the Nation," Nation and Narration, ed. Homi K. Bhabha (London: Routledge, 1990) 121.

8. Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, ed. J. Dover Wilson (1869; Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981).

9. Van der Veer, unpubl. paper.

10. Christophe Jaffrelot, "Hindu Nationalism: Strategic Syncretism in Ideology Building," Economic and Political Weekly 20-27 March 1993: 517-524.

11. The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, ed. Charles Stephen Dessain (Oxford: Clarendon, 1978) 2: 128; qtd. in Ian Ker, John Henry Newman: A Biography (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988) 34.

12. Dessain 103; qtd. in Ker 83.

13. John Henry Newman, Historical Sketches, 3 vols. (London: Pickering, 1889) 1: 340; qtd. in Ker 82.

14. Dessain 339; qtd. in Ker 109. Newman's novel Loss and Gain (1848; New York: Oxford UP, 1986) makes a trenchant critique of the English state's polarization from the people, who, in Newman's view, remain unaffected by the legislative reforms leading up to and following the Reform Bill of 1832.

15. André Wink, Al-Hind (Delhi: Oxford UP, 1990) 80.