SOAS University of London

Department of Religions & Philosophies, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

Frames of Comparison: Nihilism and the Modern Sikh Imaginary

Professor Arvind Mandair (University of Michigan)

Date: 30 November 2009Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 30 November 2009Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: Khalili Lecture Theatre

Type of Event: Seminar

17.00h–18.00h, Khalili Lecture Theatre
18.00h–19.00h Room T102 (21-22 Russell Square.)

This opening lecture examines the possibility of re-envisaging translation as a critical concept for the modern study of religion, that is, a concept that helps us to reflect critically about the nature of religion itself. As a “critical term” translation has the ability to weave together discourses as widely different as such as the history of religions, (continental) philosophy of religion and postcolonial theory. The genealogy of these discourses suggests that they can all be linked to a theoretical matrix, referred to by Derrida as a “generalized translation” or a “theology of translation”, which has enabled the convergence of the concept of religion with a certain concept of translation. 

The lecture tracks the emergence of one instance of “generalized translation” in the colonial and subsequently postcolonial encounter between Sikhs and the West. A consequence of this encounter was the construction of frames of comparison that enabled modern (reformist) Sikh thinkers to enter into an intellectual exchange with the West. This form of exchange took shape in the project of modern Sikh apologetics which, although it sought to defend the integrity of traditionalist modes of Sikh thought, ironically, ended up either imprisoning Sikh thought within a nihilistic framework or radically reformulating the core teachings of the Sikh Gurus in order to make them conform to the what has come to be called the representational mode of thinking characteristic of modernity. The effects of this nihilistic mode of thinking can be seen not only in the continuing obsession with a certain kind of gestalt, as well as the recent resurgences of religious identity politics. 

More importantly it can be discerned in the way that many avowedly ‘atheist Sikh’ intellectuals, who were influenced by Marxism and thus rejected religion in favor of secularism, nevertheless continued to incorporate these comparative frames into the idiom of Punjabi language and literature. Despite their formal opposition to each other, the work and indeed the world-views of avowedly pious Sikhs and Sikh atheists is strongly connected, indeed owe their existence to, the fundamental translatability between religion and the secular. 

The question I pose towards the end of the lecture is whether it is possible to rethink Sikh (and more broadly South Asian) categories at the limits of a “generalized translation” which means simultaneously within and outside the project of apologetics and ostensibly Christian frames of reference? This will be taken up in the lectures that follow.

Organiser: Dr Cosimo Zene

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