Contemporary Issues in South Asian Religions

This panel will explore ways in which different religious discourses in South Asian settings deal with a number of contemporary issues and attempt to respond to a variety of social concerns.

Current literature has brought much attention on how, by providing answers, formulating discourses and developing practices, religious traditions have historically dealt with a variety of social, medical and political issues emerging in both rural and urban settings. In South Asia, in the complexified current local landscape of globalization and transnational migrations of persons and ideas, religious leaders and movements have to deal with a large spectrum of “old and new” issues. Some of these issues, such as secularism and caste discrimination, do not have a recent origin. Nevertheless, they remain at the centre of contemporary religious discourse which keeps struggling to address them, often in ambiguous and complex ways.

Alongside these more “traditional” ones, new concerns have recently started to emerge together with the expansion of urban contexts and growingly modern lifestyles. The increase of poverty, advancements in technology, the emergence of new conflicts, environmental issues, the strengthening of wealth disparities, the laicization of society and the loss of faith all represent new challenges which need to be addressed by religious discourse.

We invite contributions which may adopt historical, anthropological, sociological and textual approaches to address the ways in which religious leaders and traditions come to be under strain in diverse urban and rural contexts in order to produce discourses which deal with old as well as emerging issues.

Daniela Bevilacqua

Do not ask about caste. If you love God, you belong to God. (Attributed to Ramananda)

This speech wants to briefly introduce the main feature of the Ramanandi sampradaya, a Vaishnava group established by Ramananda in the 13th-14th century. Indeed Ramananda is said to have opened the bhakti to all people without considering their castes and their religious affiliation.
Considering the importance of caste system and the relevance of varnashrama dharma in Indian tradition, my purpose is to delineate the historical background in which this idea of an “open bhakti” spread in North India through the Ramanandi sampradaya, its meaning and consequences on a social level. Afterwards, I’ll compare this information to some ethnographical data, results of my first fieldwork, to describe the contemporary situation. Nevertheless, these data are only a first attempt to analyze a more complex reality, which will be subject of my second fieldwork.
Hence, I will consider these main points:

  • The origin of the sampradaya with Ramananda and his perspective of the relation between caste and bhakti
  • The systematization of the sampradaya during the 18th century
  • The 20th century with Bhagavadacarya and the new emphasis on the social opening of the sampradaya
  • Few considerations about the present situation

Serena Bindi

Skepticism, Loss of Faith and Ritual’s Failures in the Garhwal Region of Uttarakhand

Based on the observation and analysis of different kinds of healing rituals in the Central Himalayan Region of Garhwal (Uttarakhand), this talk examines the discourses and practices which social actors bring into play to justify and explain the occasional failure of ritual performances.

The main aim of the paper is tocall attention to the fact that this way of reflecting and talking about ritual failures is a powerful means to protect the legitimacy of the local healing system. Moreover, by suggesting an “easy” solution against ritual failure (which consists in increasing one’s belief in Gods) this reasoning offers a potent instrument to control the widespread cultural anxieties linked to the many uncertainties of a fast-changing context.

Massimo Bon

Pakistan, Secularism and Religion: a Semantic Dilemma

In the recent history of Pakistan, the category of secularism has been assumed as in analogy with the concept of “ilhad“, and then with that of “ladiniyyat“; meaning, the first, deviation from the right path, while the second literally irreligiousness, although its semantic spectrum appears as being even much wider.

Based on both an analysis of some peculiar semantic implications of the Urdu homologue of the word “secularism” and on a series of vis-à-vis interviews conducted in Pakistan, the paper will focus on how different scholars, belonging to a variety of muslim schools of thought, perceive the concept of secularism often in distinct and even contrastive ways.

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