Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Book Review: "Colors of the Robe" by Ananda Abeysekara

Central to this book is a “study of the formations and deformations of contingent relations between ‘religious’ identity and difference" [1, p. 4]. Here Abeysekara seeks to demonstrate how the relation between what comes to count as religion or difference alters in varying “minute contingent conjunctures” in which diverse persons, practices, discourses, and institutions conjoin to form competing definitions of self/other identities within a period of a few years, months, or days. In order to do so, one needs to “locate the central visibility of the emergence and submergence, authorization and unauthorization [sic] of specific knowledges [sic] about what does and does not count as [identity] in conjunctures of debates" [1, p. 4]. Disciplinary deconstructions of colonial knowledge of Indian religion, culture, and difference result in a static conception of Indian identity and therefore propagate colonial assumptions. It is only “the examination of such contingent conjunctures that should form the basis for disciplinary works seeking to understand religion, identity, and difference as historically varying ideas" [1, p. 16]. In fact Abeysekara wants to demonstrate that “if we can have no a priori epistemological guarantee of, a privileged access to, the altering relation between religious identity and difference, we must explore those conjunctions of debates in which authoritative persons, practices, and institutions that counted as religious identity yesterday become vulnerable to being thwarted, deauthorized [sic], as difference today" [1, p. 25].

By exploring the volatile political landscape of Sri Lanka and the prominence of Theravada Buddhism centered there, Abeysekara explores his thesis. First he demonstrates that authoritative narratives that contend to represent Buddhism should not be used as “readily available ethnographic examples” of the relation between religion and society as they are part of “altering ideological conjunctures” by investigating competing narratives about Dhammananda. Next by using the debate surrounding the construction of the BPU he demonstrates how “different conceptions of Buddhism and politics, the religious and the secular, religious identity and difference, become authorized and deauthorized [sic], come into central sight and disappear from sight, in contingent conjuctures of debates" [1, p. 107]. Next by examining Sri Lanka’s economic relationship with Japan and the ensuing construction of a ‘new economy’ that authorized a particular image of Buddhism and monkhood, Abeysekara locates the “dynamics of a particular epistemic space" [1, p. 27] in which debate as to the relations of self (Theravada) and other (Mahayana) “came into central view and faded from view” through competing discourses. He affirms this phenomenon in his explorations of religion and violence and how these categories are “discursively produced, and hence shift within the conjunctures of different debates" [1, p. 234].

I found his argument to be compelling in that categories I had held to be, more or less, static, such as ‘Buddhism’ or more specifically ‘Theravada Buddhism’, are not self-evident but continually being contested in “specific conjunctures of debates” that define and recast these terms. His insightful use of Foucault in defining identity as not only an effect but also as an instrument of discourse/power helps in establishing the notion of movement and shifting in the meanings of identity in religion and society.

-Safari Bob

[1] Abeysekara, A. (2002). Colors of the Robe: Religion, Identity, and Difference. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press. ISBN: 1-57003-467-2

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