Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religionsby Bruce Lincoln
Bruce Lincoln is one of the most prominent advocates within religious studies for an uncompromisingly critical approach to the phenomenon of religionhistorians of religions, he believes, should resist the preferred narratives and self-understanding of religions themselves, especially when their stories are endowed with sacred origins and authority. In Gods
Bruce Lincoln is one of the most prominent advocates within religious studies for an uncompromisingly critical approach to the phenomenon of religionhistorians of religions, he believes, should resist the preferred narratives and self-understanding of religions themselves, especially when their stories are endowed with sacred origins and authority. In Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars, Lincoln assembles a collection of essays that both illustrates and reveals the benefits of his methodology, making a case for a critical religious studies that starts with skepticism but is neither cynical nor crude.
The book begins with Lincoln’s “Theses on Method” and ends with “The (Un)discipline of Religious Studies,” in which he unsparingly considers the failings of uncritical and nonhistorical approaches to the study of religions. In between, Lincoln presents new examinations of problems in ancient religions and relates these cases to larger comparative themes. While bringing to light important features of the formation of pantheons and the constructions of demons, chaos, and the dead, Lincoln demonstrates that historians of religions should take religious thingsinspired scriptures, sacred centers, salvific rites, communities graced by divine favoras the theories of interested humans that shape perception, community, and experiences. As he shows, it is for their terrestrial influence, and not their sacred origins, that religious phenomena merit consideration by the historian.
Tackling many questions central to religious study, Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars will be a touchstone for the history of religions in the twenty-first century.
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GODS AND DEMONS, PRIESTS AND SCHOLARSCritical Explorations in the History of Religions
By BRUCE LINCOLN
THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESSCopyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHESES ON METHOD
(1) The conjunction of that joins the two nouns in the disciplinary ethnonym "History of Religions" is not neutral filler. Rather, it announces a proprietary claim and a relation of encompassment: History is the method and Religion the object of study.
(2) The relation between the two nouns is also tense, as becomes clear if one takes the trouble to specify their meaning. Religion, I submit, is that discourse whose defining characteristic is its desire to speak of things eternal and transcendent with an authority equally transcendent and eternal. History, in the sharpest possible contrast, is that discourse which speaks of things temporal and terrestrial in a human and fallible voice while staking its claim to authority on rigorous critical practice.
(3) History of religions is thus a discourse that resists and reverses the orientation of that discourse with which it concerns itself. To practice history of religions in a fashion consistent with the discipline's claim of title is to insist on discussing the temporal, contextual, situated, interested, human, and material dimensions of those discourses, practices, communities, and institutions that characteristically represent themselves as eternal, transcendent, spiritual, and divine.
(4) The same destabilizing and irreverent questions one might ask of any speech act ought to be posed of religious discourse. The first of these is Who speaks here?—that is, what person, group, or institution is responsible for a text, whatever its putative or apparent author. Beyond that, To what audience? In what immediate and broader context? Through what system of mediations? With what interests? And further, Of what would the speaker(s) persuade the audience? What are the consequences if this project of persuasion should happen to succeed? Who wins what, and how much? Who, conversely, loses?
(5) Reverence is a religious and not a scholarly virtue. When good manners and good conscience cannot be reconciled, the demands of the latter ought to prevail.
(6) Many who would not think of insulating their own or their parents' religion against critical inquiry still afford such protection to other people's faiths, via a stance of cultural relativism. One can appreciate their good intentions while recognizing a certain displaced defensiveness, as well as the guilty conscience of Western imperialism.
(7) Beyond the question of motives and intentions, cultural relativism is predicated on the dubious—not to say fetishistic—construction of "cultures" as if they were stable and discrete groups of people defined by the stable and discrete values, symbols, and practices they share. Insofar as this model stresses the continuity and integration of timeless groups, whose internal tensions and conflicts, turbulence and incoherence, permeability and malleability are largely erased, it risks becoming a religious and not a historic narrative: the story of a transcendent ideal threatened by debasing forces of change.
(8) Those who sustain this idealized image of culture do so, inter alia, by mistaking the dominant fraction (sex, age group, class, and/or caste) of a given group for the group or "culture" itself. At the same time, they mistake the ideological positions favored and propagated by the dominant fraction for those of the group as a whole (e.g. when texts authored by Brahmins define "Hinduism," or when the statements of male elders constitute "Nuer religion"). Scholarly misrecognitions of this sort replicate the misrecognitions and misrepresentations of those the scholars privilege as their informants.
(9) Critical inquiry need assume neither cynicism nor dissimulation to justify probing beneath the surface, and ought to probe scholarly discourse and practice as much as any other.
(10) Understanding the system of ideology that operates in one's own society is made difficult by two factors: (a) one's consciousness is itself a product of that system, and (b) the system's very success renders its operations invisible, since one is so consistently immersed in and bombarded by its products that one comes to mistake them (and the apparatus through which they are produced and disseminated) for nothing other than "nature."
(11) The ideological products and operations of other societies afford invaluable opportunities to the would-be student of ideology. Being initially unfamiliar, they do not need to be denaturalized before they can be examined. Rather, they invite and reward critical study, yielding lessons one can put to good use at home.
(12) Although critical inquiry has become commonplace in other disciplines, it still offends many students of religion, who denounce it as "reductionism." This charge is meant to silence critique. The failure to treat religion "as religion"—that is, the refusal to ratify its claim of transcendent nature and sacrosanct status—may be regarded as heresy and sacrilege by those who construct themselves as religious, but it is the starting point for those who construct themselves as historians.
(13) When one permits those whom one studies to define the terms in which they will be understood, suspends one's interest in the temporal and contingent, or fails to distinguish between "truths," "truth claims," and "regimes of truth," one has ceased to function as historian or scholar. In that moment, a variety of roles are available: some perfectly respectable (amanuensis, collector, friend and advocate), and some less appealing (cheerleader, voyeur, retailer of imported goods). None, however, should be confused with scholarship.
Chapter TwoHOW TO READ A RELIGIOUS TEXT
As a first principle, noncontroversial in itself (I hope) but far reaching in its implications, let me advance the observation that, like all other texts, those which constitute themselves as religious are human products. Yet pursuing this quickly leads us to identify the chief way religious texts are unlike all others: the claims they advance for their more-than-human origin, status, and authority. For characteristically, they connect themselves—either explicitly or in some indirect fashion—to a sphere and a knowledge of transcendent or metaphysical nature, which they purportedly mediate to mortal beings through processes such as revelation, inspiration, and unbroken primordial tradition. Such claims condition the way devotees regard these texts and receive their contents: indeed, that is their very raison d'être. Scholars, however, ought not to replicate the stance of the faithful or adopt a fetishism at second hand. Intellectual independence, integrity, and critical spirit require that we treat the "truths" of these texts more cautiously (and more properly) as "truth claims." Such a stance obliges us, moreover, to inquire about the human agencies responsible for the texts' production, reproduction, dissemination, consumption, and interpretation. As with secular exercises in persuasion, we need to ask, Who is trying to persuade whom of what in this text? In what context is the attempt situated, and what are the consequences should it succeed?
As a case in point, I would like to consider a brief passage from the Chandogya Upanisad, one of the longest, oldest, and most prestigious texts of this category: a crowning accomplishment of Vedic religion. Like the other principal Upanisads, the Chandogya is hard to date with certainty, but probably took shape in Northern India sometime in the middle of the first millennium BCE. Assembled from preexisting materials and participating in the tradition of the Sama Veda, it is a work of vast scope and intellectual daring, marked by both rigor and imagination. Along with the Brhadaranyaka Upanisad (itself in the tradition of the White Yajur Veda), the Chandogya establishes the great themes of Upanisadic thought, attempting to identify esoteric patterns in the arcane details of sacrificial practice and to forge from these a unified understanding of the cosmos, the self, and the nature of being.
Some years ago, I contributed a brief study of the sixth chapter (adhyaya) of the Chandogya, a text that works out one such pattern. There, all existence is said to be composed of three basic qualities or elements. Most often, these include—in ranked order—(1) Brilliance (tejas), (2) Water (apas), and (3) Food (annam). At times, however, variant forms of the set appear, including (1) Speech (vac), (2) Breath (prana), and (3) Mind (manas), which are understood as the essences of the basic categories. Thus, Speech is the essence of Brilliance (i.e. the loftiest, most rarefied, most brilliant of all things); Breath, the essence of Water (being the loftiest and most rarefied of life-sustaining fluids); and Mind, the essence of Food (being the loftiest and most rarefied of life-sustaining solid matter). A system of three colors—(1) Red, (2) White, (3) Black—provides another means to describe this system; and to demonstrate the system's universal applicability, the text treats several concrete examples. Thus, for instance, it describes how Fire is properly understood as consisting of Brilliance (= the red portion, flame), Water (= the white portion, smoke, conflated with clouds and steam), and Food (= the dark wood that fire "eats" and the ashes it produces [= the fire's excrement]).
This analysis further connects fire—and the givens of the system—to the three levels of the cosmos, homologizing Heaven, home of the red sun, to Brilliance; Atmosphere, home of the white clouds, to Water; and Earth, home of the dark soil and the plants that grow from it, to Food. Similarly, it can account for the social order as a set of hierarchized strata: (1) Priests (Brahmanas), associated with the heavens, the flame of the sacrificial fire, and Brilliance; (2) Warriors (Ksatriyas), with the atmosphere, lightning bolt, storm clouds, and Water; and (3) Commoners (Vaisyas), with the dark earth, agricultural labor, dirt, excrement, and Food.
Such an analysis helped sustain the social order by naturalizing its categories and the rankings among them. Rather than understanding the tripartite varna ("caste," but more literally "color") system of Priests, Warriors, Commoners as the product of human institutions, conventions, and practices—or, alternatively, as the residue of past history and struggles—the Chandogya represents it as one more instance of the same pattern that determines the cosmos and everything in it. When arguments of this sort are advanced, accepted, and invested with sacred status, the stabilizing effects are enormous.
There are, however, other possibilities. If religious texts can help reinforce and reproduce the social order, they can also be used to modify it, either by agitating openly against its sustaining logic or, more modestly and more subtly, by using that same logic to recalibrate the positions assigned to given groups, shifting advantage from some to others. The passage I will cite, Chandogya Upanisad 1.3.6–7, provides a convenient example. Briefly, it adopts a variant on the system of three ranked categories—its version is (1) Breath, (2) Speech, (3) Food—and it aims its intervention not at the varna system but at a lower level of social classification: that which ranks different categories of priests in roughly parallel fashion.
To appreciate the skill of this maneuver, one must set it against the normative order, in which the Hotr ("Invoker") priests responsible for the hymns of the Rg Veda are accorded the paramount position. Udgatr ("Chanter") priests, responsible for the Sama Veda, rank second, since their texts quote verses from—that is, are dependent on—the fuller compositions of the Rg Veda. Finally, there are the Adhvaryu priests, responsible for the Yajur Veda. In contrast to the other two collections, this text is in prose, from which the Adhvaryus—who are responsible for the physical actions involved in sacrifice (building the altar, pouring libations, killing and dismembering animal victims, etc.)—quote the formulae deemed appropriate to accompany each discrete step of the process (table 2.1).
Making matters more complicated still, the Saman chants have multiple parts, which can be performed in more- and less-elaborate fashion, with different sections assigned to various assistants of the Udgatr. At the center of each performance, however, is the "Loud Chant" or "High Chant" known as the Udgitha, which is introduced by the most sacred of all syllables (om) and is sung by the Udgatr himself. The Chandogya Upanisad—which, as I noted earlier, is a text connected to the Sama Veda and, as such, a possession of the Udgatr priests—is particularly concerned to assess the profound significance and esoteric power of the Udgitha chant. Whence the following passage.
One should homologize the syllables of [the name] "Udgitha" in this fashion: ud-is really Breath. Truly, one stands up [ud-tisthati] by the breath. gi-is Speech. Truly, speeches are regarded as words [giras]. tha is Food. Truly, all this [= the body] is established [sthitam] on food. Heaven is really ud, the atmosphere gi, the earth tha. The sun is really ud, the wind gi, the fire tha. The Sama Veda is really ud, the Yajur Veda gi, the Rg Veda tha.
In a tour de force of Upanisadic argumentation, this brief passage treats the word Udgitha as if each of its syllables had its own profound inner essence, and it uses a pseudophilological analysis to show that these are the three basic qualities of existence. The word as a whole—and thus, a fortiori, the "Udgitha" chant—is consequently seen to contain everything necessary to sustain the cosmos. And before it is finished, the text homologizes the syllables ud, gi, tha to the elemental qualities, the levels of the cosmos, the core entity of each cosmic level, and the three Vedas (table 2.2).
Excerpted from GODS AND DEMONS, PRIESTS AND SCHOLARS by BRUCE LINCOLN Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Bruce Lincoln is the Caroline E. Haskell Professor of the History of Religions, Middle Eastern Studies, and Medieval Studies at the University of Chicago, where he is also an associate in the Departments of Anthropology and Classics. He is the author of nine books, most recently of Religion, Empire, and Torture: The Case of Achaemenian Persia, also published by the University of Chicago Press.
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