- Spirituality, Transcendence, and the Circulatory History of Modern Asian Religion
The past decade has seen an explosion in research and theorization of transnational circulations. In the field of Asian studies, scholars are increasingly aware of the limitations of the methodological nationalism that has turned “Asian studies” into a placeholder term for what is, in practice, a collection of nationally defined academic fields that specialize on China, Japan, India, and so on, often with only a very basic awareness of the history, culture, and scholarship on other Asian societies than that of one’s own specialty. The boundaries of the nation-state have shaped academic area studies and the scholarly gaze as much as they have molded societies in their engineering of self-contained, bounded political units. This influence is especially the case for scholars of China and India, who generally completely ignore each other. Inter-Asian connections are now a growing field of research, as scholars increasingly discover the webs of commercial, migratory, religious, [End Page 171] cultural, and political circulations that have never ceased to weave the different regions of Asia together. But, even though the influence and awareness of this agenda grows, few scholars have a sufficient breadth of knowledge about multiple Asian societies to develop and reflect on the implications of this emerging big picture of Asian studies.
Two notable exceptions to this state of affairs are Peter van der Veer and Prasenjit Duara, whose recent books The Spirit of Modern Asia (hereafter The Spirit) and The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future (hereafter The Crisis) lay the foundations for a postnational, postconfessional, and postsecular paradigm for Asian studies. Van der Veer, an anthropologist of Indian religion and nationalism, has for the past fifteen years become increasingly involved in the academic networks and debates of China studies, while Duara, a historian of modern nation-building in China, has during the same period extended his interests to Japan, India, and Southeast Asia. Both scholars pay especial attention in their works to how religion has been constructed, occulted, or incorporated in the process of modern nation-building. The Spirit and The Crisis can be seen as summations of the authors’ previous oeuvres, extending their insights to much broader methodological, geographic, and theoretical implications.
The books are very different in their methodological focus and scope. The Spirit is a comparative study of the mutual construction of the categories of the nation, religion, spirituality, magic, and secularity in India and China under conditions of interaction with European imperialism. The Crisis, far more ambitious in its historical, geographic, and theoretical range, builds on a circulatory history of Asia and its traditions of “dialogical transcendence” to reflect on the causes of the nation-state’s inability to address the crisis of global sustainability; it seeks to uncover the narratives and civil society networks that could imagine a new form of dialogical transcendence, connecting the local and the global.
In spite of their differences, both works question the basic frame-works and narratives that undergird much of the discourse and scholarship on Asian societies; point to new methodological and conceptual agendas for Asian studies that are largely complementary and overlapping with each other; and raise questions about the ontological and normative foundations of our scholarship. Since these are synthetic works that focus on the big picture and cover an enormous amount of [End Page 172] terrain and numerous academic fields, there is plenty of fodder for specialists to criticize hasty generalizations and missing details. At times, some sections of each book seem to be loosely assembled. But my purpose here is not to quibble but to engage with what I consider to be some of the authors’ key insights. They cover too many topics for me to...