Prasenjit Duara is one of the most original thinkers on culture and religion in Asia.
A 66-year-old historian of China, he was born in Assam, India, and educated at the University of Delhi, the University of Chicago and Harvard. He later taught at the University of Chicago, Stanford and the National University of Singapore and now teaches at Duke.
Professor Duara began his career with a pioneering study of Chinese religion: “Culture, Power, and the State: Rural North China, 1900-1942.” This work, published in 1988, helped redefine how many people thought of Chinese religion, showing it to be one of the most powerful forces in traditional Chinese society. His subsequent books reflect a broadening of interests to include topics such as nationalism and imperialism. His latest work, “The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future,” brings many of these strands together, along with issues such as climate change.
In a recent interview in Beijing, Professor Duara discussed Buddhist environmentalism, what aspect of religion most alarms the Chinese government and the South Manchuria Railway Company.
Most people would have no problem accepting the first two premises of your new book: that we have an environmental crisis and that it is due to recklessly fast economic growth. But more counterintuitive is your argument that there’s a solution beyond nongovernmental organizations and international frameworks like the United Nations. You think faith has a role, too.
We need the NGOs and the U.N., and we also need bioengineering and market mechanisms. But one of the most important factors that has emerged in the past 10 or 20 years — slowly, but catching on — is that the most effective communities are in some ways the most traditional, too. They have integrated ideas about nature and community that are faith-based.
In Taiwan, for example, I’ve been very interested in “fojiao huanbao” — Buddhist environmentalism. I was there this summer, and there are large-scale Buddhist groups that have taken to saving the environment.
Can this apply to China, too? Can the return to traditions help motivate people?
China is more difficult in some ways. But there are efforts at Taoist environmentalism, like at Maoshan [a sacred mountain in Jiangsu Province]. They depict Laozi as a green god. Some villagers seek to protect their local ecology through revived temple communities.
One of your strengths is your ability to cross borders and describe the situation in East, South and Southeast Asia. I was struck by your new book’s cover. What does it show?
The painted faces are of people who live in the Prey Lang forest in Cambodia. The forest faces destruction by massive logging. These people hold demonstrations, painting themselves and staging ritual dramas using traditional ideas of avatars as well as from the movie “Avatar” to publicize their cause. They have organized surveillance systems of the forest and links to NGOs.
And in India?
It is a little more hopeful because it is a functioning democracy. While India has a hierarchical society, democracy is good for allowing differences. You had movements like the Chipko women tree-hugging movement of the early 1970s. This then bloomed into a huge environmental movement.
But India now faces the problem of the strong man that we have in other states with the rise of leaders like [Russian President Vladimir V.] Putin and [Chinese President] Xi Jinping. It’s interesting what they’re going after: environmental movements. They are banning foreign NGOs and closing these groups down.
Your contention is that local faiths inspire some of these movements. When I look at China, I wonder how much of faith is about social goals. Much of it seems to be only about personal salvation.
In fact, it’s the social element of religion that most scares the Chinese government. Although it starts with personal salvation, it’s about social relationships. Religions in China have been the basis of social communities — temple-centered communities. The state has tried but hasn’t been able to prevent groups that challenge injustice. The Chinese state sees the social organizational impact of religion much more clearly than any other state.
You make this case forcefully in your first book on religion in north China. Until it came out in 1988, most researchers believed that Chinese villages were primarily linked by market days and economic ties. But you coined the term “cultural nexus of power” to describe how villages were linked by something else: religion and culture.
I intended to write a book on revolution in north China. Instead I stumbled on how religion held society together. My research showed a network between people and villages linked by temple fairs and rituals that brought people into contact with each other. This was the beginning of my interest in this topic.
I was always interested in your sources for this work. In the bibliography to this work you primarily cite archives of the South Manchuria Railway Company, a Japanese colonial organization. What was it doing looking at Chinese religion?
It was as much of a railway company as the British East India Company was a shipping company. The South Manchuria Railway Company — Mantetsu — was a vast colonial enterprise spread across the Japanese Empire with a research wing staffed by many people who fled Japan during the rise of the militarists and wanted to do something for China. They employed researchers to survey this new territory. It was the biggest modern research organization in the world at the time. I also used the archives in Tokyo for a year.
You also coined another important term in understanding Chinese folk religion: “redemptive societies.” In the West, people often use the term “secret societies” for these groups.
They had millions of members, so they were hardly secret. Instead, I thought it better to find a term that describes what they were doing. They were trying to save Chinese society in the early part of the 20th century. Some people said “redemptive” sounded too Christian, but Buddhism has this idea, too.
This brings up an important idea in your current work: the idea of “transcendence.” You argue that religions try to effect more than personal salvation. They try to save the world as well.
The idea originated with Karl Jaspers’s theory of the Axial Age, which refers to the rise of key religions or thinkers among Jews, Hindus, Chinese and Greeks in the sixth century B.C. Before that, religion was mainly based on worldly exchanges with ancestors or gods. They might be apart from the physical world, but they played a role in your everyday life: I will sacrifice, so you will give me a son, or I’ll say this prayer 1,000 times and you give me a first class in the exam.
The transcendent idea says there’s something beyond that in another realm. It might not help you immediately in the here and now, but it gives you moral authority to do what is right. This was a time when big states and empires were forming and you needed a view that is larger than your own community. Transcendence is an idea of something beyond the here and now.
This idea spread around the world, but in Asia you see a unique development. You use the adjective “dialogical” to describe it. What does this mean?
It refers to the idea of a dialogue. It is the idea that you can accept other notions of how to achieve that transcendental state. So there are transcendental ideas, but not just one path to get there.
So it is more inclusive.
Yes. The problem with the Abrahamic faiths is they come to be formed like nation-states: us versus them. We believe this, they believe that. We have to convert them. It doesn’t easily allow for a dialogue.
Of course, some have moved away from this, but under certain conditions, these ideas pushed the formation of the nation-state and colonialism. We celebrate the nation-state in large part because it is the engine of competitive capitalist success and modernity.
As the nation gradually dropped the religious dimension, it also removed the barrier to the conquest of nature and global resources. It does not know where and how to stop. It’s bringing about the dystopia of modernity.
So you see traditional faiths in Asia as being more suitable for solving today’s problems?
The problem with the Abrahamic faiths is their idea of an absolute truth. Buddhism or these other pluralistic religions don’t have as much confidence in a substantive, transcendental truth, which comes with the idea of an absolute god. An absolute truth brings about reform movements that are very radical because they always want to get back to the pure and the true — such as in fundamentalist Islam, or early Protestantism. This leads to the idea of expanding your nation, or your prosperity, even if at the expense of others.
So is your contention that these faiths are important because Asia is a big part of the world, so we should look to them as appropriate for this part of the world? Or because they can provide alternative modes for the rest of the world?
I do tend to the idea that these concepts, be they in India or China, were dialogical. They repressed others, of course, but ultimately they didn’t have that doctrinaire dimension of excluding other truths. They linked ideas of personal cultivation with universal goals. To the extent they survive, they could be transported to other places.
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