Empire of Religion

Sepia image of a two people. Woman is reclining and man is leaning over her.

Syllabus Production Details

Developer: Sebastian Lecourt Contact

Peer Reviewer: Charles LaPorte

Syllabus Cluster Developers: Sebastian Lecourt Contact, Winter Jade Werner Contact

Syllabus Guide: Sophia Hsu Contact

Webpage Developer: Kristen Layne Figgins

Cluster Title: Religion, Secularism, Empire

Publication Date: 2024

Syllabus Overview

Download the peer-reviewed syllabus:  PDF  |  Word

The age of empire invented the idea of world religions. Whereas European intellectuals had long depicted non-Christian religions as various shades of error, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they began to describe Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism as freestanding “world religions” with variable contents but the same general form. As Tomoko Masuzawa and others have shown, picturing the world as populated by a series of formally equivalent religions had a complex yet important role in colonial rule. It not only gave imperial administrators a more detailed understanding of the peoples they governed, but also offered missionaries a metalanguage for contrasting native religions with Christianity. More subtly, it introduced into colonized societies a series of Western political norms such as the distinction between public law and private belief.

The Victorian invention of world religions has been chronicled by anthropologists, political philosophers, and scholars of religious studies (see, respectively, Asad; Brown; Chidester). But this graduate course, which takes its title after David Chidester’s influential book, ventures that we can learn something special by treating it as a literary project – that is, as a project that was implemented via the translation, circulation, and adaptation of texts. For, in fact, British readers first learned to view different religions as authentically religious through popular translations such as Frederika Richardsons Iliad of the East (1870), an abridgement of the Hindu epic Ramayana, and Edwin Arnoldæs The Light of Asia (1879), a Tennysonian Bildungsroman about the Buddha‘s life.

Such publications employed familiar literary genres in order to tell Western readers what kinds of books they were holding and how they should engage them. What is more, they showed colonial readers who had been shaped by British educations how their own sacred texts might fit into a Eurocentric world-canon. A young Mohandas Gandhi, for instance, first became interested in Hinduism as a moral and political resource when two of his London Theosophist friends gave him a copy of Arnold‘s verse translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, The Song Celestial (1885).

This course uses Victorian comparative religion to explore key questions of transnational literary history. But it also considers what literary scholars might learn from disciplines such as religious studies. Critics like Franco Moretti have argued that, when metropolitan literary forms are imposed upon colonial materials, they tend to bring Western ideologies and norms with them. Arnold‘s Light of Asia certainly seems to illustrate this thesis. The poem utilized the narrative conventions of the Bildungsroman to present the Buddha as an example of courageous self-cultivation, thus laying the groundwork for the modern Western view of Buddhism as an apolitical religion of self-discovery.

Recent scholars of Buddhism like Anne Blackburn, however, have shown how Buddhist readers in South and Southeast Asia interpreted the poem‘s reshaped Buddhism in quite different ways. The Ceylonese activist Anagarika Dharmapala, for instance, took Arnold‘s Buddhist Bildungsroman to present the Buddhist monk as a worldly activist who could seize control of his national heritage. In this way, texts like The Light of Asia complicate models of world literature that overly center Western ideologies of form and return our attention to the more complex debates over colonial texts and their meanings that unfolded in the imperial public sphere.

More broadly, by treating the early history of comparative religion as a literary one, this course seeks to defamiliarize the concept of world literature itself. Recent years have seen that phrase return to the fore in transnational literary studies. David Damrosch and others have argued that the idea of world literature offers a framework for thinking about global literary circulation that gets beyond the familiar binaries of colonizer and colony, metropole and periphery.

Postcolonial critics like Siraj Ahmed and Aamir Mufti, in turn, have countered that it simply reinstates an Orientalist world picture in which diverse global voices are described from a metropolitan perspective. “Empire of Religion” ventures that we can get productive distance on the idea of world literature by comparing it with “world religions” as a parallel attempt to map the globe as a canon of books. Both concepts were coined by nineteenth-century intellectuals, and both were shaped by a contradictory mix of imperialism, universalism, and pluralism. How did they offer alternative visions of global reading, and to what political and moral ends?

One final term that this course explores is race, which played a key role in underwriting each of these quixotic universalisms. Both “world literature” and “world religions” arguably depended on new ideas of race as an unmoved mover in world history. For if their expansive visions of global reading troubled traditional boundaries between cultures, this was because race offered a new map of hardwired, nonnegotiable differences. It was by dismissing the legalism and apocalypticism of the Bible as “Hebraic” inheritances, for example, that Matthew Arnold could ask his British readers to ignore them and instead read the Bible adventurously as a world text with both Asian and Classical affinities. Race did not birth the ideas of world religions and world literature, but it did create a context in which these readerly cosmopolitanisms were safe to emerge. Such is often the reality of pluralism: its seemingly playful language turns out to be an accomplice in the development of new forms of division and distinction-making.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Siraj. Archaeology of Babel: The Colonial Foundation of the Humanities. Stanford University Press, 2017.

Allan, Michael. In the Shadow of World Literature: Sites of Reading in Colonial Egypt. Princeton University Press, 2016.

Arnold, Edwin. The Light of Asia or the Great Renunciation (Mahabhinishkramana). Being the Life and Teaching of Guatama. Prince of India and Founder of Buddhism (As Told in Verse by an Indian Buddhist). Trübner & Co., 1879.

Arnold, Matthew. “Literature and Dogma.” The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold, vol. 6, University of Michigan Press, 1968.

Asad, Talal. Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Blackburn, Anne M. Locations of Buddhism: Colonialism and Modernity in Sri Lanka. University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Brown, Wendy. Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire. Princeton University Press, 2006.

Chidester, David. Empire of Religion: Imperialism and Comparative Religion. University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Damrosch, David. What Is World Literature? Princeton University Press, 2003.

Dharmapala, Anagarika. Return to Righteousness: A Collection of Speeches, Essays, and Letters of the Anagarika Dharmapala. Edited by Ananda Guruge, The Government Press, 1965.

Masuzawa, Tomoko. The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism. University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Moretti, Franco. “Conjectures on World Literature.” New Left Review, vol. 1, 2000.

Mufti, Aamir R. Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literatures. Harvard University Press, 2016.

Religion, Secularism, Empire Series

Taking a cue from Gauri Viswanathan’s observation that religion remains “the blind spot of literary studies” (Allan 2021), this syllabus cluster posits that understanding Victorian imperialism requires centering the category of religion. Too often we cast religion as the premodern background against which Victorian modernity unfolded. We describe the rearguard battles that Christian dogma fought against an advancing Darwinian science or how the traditional religions of Indians or Africans came into conflict with imperial rule.

The syllabi in this cluster, by contrast, treat religion as a dynamic and evolving set of ideas that were central to both imperialism and anti-imperialism. They explore how changes to the Western category of religion – specifically, the modern idea of religion as a matter of belief – structured how Victorians understood subjectivity, civilization, and cultural difference.

The syllabi also consider how reappraisals of Christianity, Buddhism, or Hinduism by colonial subjects drove anticolonial thought during the period. And they show how debates over the translation and meaning of religious texts helped birth the idea of “world literature.” By enriching our critical vocabulary for talking about religion and empire, these syllabi offer students new frameworks for understanding the religio-political dimensions of literature as well as the aesthetic interventions of religious texts and practices.

Developer Biography

Sebastian Lecourt is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Houston. His research focuses on Victorian literature and questions of secularization, colonialism, and comparativism. He is the author of Cultivating Belief: Victorian Anthropology, Liberal Aesthetics, and the Secular Imagination (Oxford, 2018) and his essays have appeared in PMLA, Representations, Victorian Studies, ELH, and Victorian Literature and Culture. He is currently working on a book entitled The Genres of Comparative Religion, 1783-1927.

Tile/Header Image Caption

Anonymous. Seeta Devi and Himanshu Rai. 22 Jan. 1925. This is a still from Prem Sanyas (1925), a Indian-German silent film adaptation of Edwin Arnold‘s bestselling poem about the Buddha‘s life, The Light of Asia (1879).

Page/Syllabus Citation (MLA)

Sebastian Lecourt, dev. “Empire of Religion.” Charles LaPorte, peer rev.; Sebastian Lecourt, Winter Jade Werner, syllabus cluster devs.; Sophia Hsu, syllabus guide. Undisciplining the Victorian Classroom, 2024, https://undiscipliningvc.org/html/syllabi/empire_religion.html.