Skip Navigation

On Geertz and the Definition of Religion: The Politics of Rituals and the Economy of Symbols in an Asian Context

Abstract of paper to be presented by Lionel Obadia, University of Lyon, at the conference "Islam Re-Observed: Clifford Geertz in Morocco"

Clifford Geertz’s well-known definition of religion (1963) obviously paved the way to new perspectives but also critical debates in the anthropology of religion. The theoretical focus upon symbols and the role of religion as the crystallization of one’s people ethos indeed raised crucial questions. Among others respondents to Geertz, Talal Asad (1983) was notably instrumental in pointing the urge to draw attention to the underlying political issues of religious symbolism (who produces, controls and transmits a certain set of symbols considered as religious and why) and to the sociological roles of rituals (lacking explanations in Geertz’s post-durkheimian vision of religion).

Inspired from Asad’s stimulating reflections of religion and power (1993) and Turner’s theory of ritual performance as a “theatric” mise en scène (1992), this paper attempts to confront Geertz’s views on cultural and religious symbolism to located empirical data, and to evaluate – to a certain extend – their universality. In an Asian non Muslim society, Nepal, on the Himalayan borderland, the Bothia (ethnic groups from Tibetan origin) indeed perform different religious rituals and festivals, which are supposed to “mirror” their ethos. However, considering the local conditions, in which these collective acts are achieved, and the dual level of their intelligibility (official – manifest vs unofficial and latent), Asad’s political instrumentalism of religious symbolism seems a more suitable theory than Geertz’s essentialization of the ethos through religious symbols – at least in this case.

Because the Bothia are subordinated to the nation-wide social hierarchy of Nepal, as Buddhist rural mountaineers, unlike the urban centralized Hindu elites, and because they inhabit the “tribal” and remote borderlands – those that are intensely exposed to tourism – their ritual performances involve complex identity issues and strategies of cultural reinvention in order to exist as ethnic groups in the Nepalese Nation and in the global World. They are indeed – ethnographically speaking – “more or less” Buddhist according to the kind of ritual they perform, and to the audience these rituals aim at (whether local, national or foreign), and they literally “play” their “Tibetaness” on the ritual scene in a mimetic (Adams, 1996) process of reinvention of their ethos. Such processes therefore impel for a reconsideration of the ontology of cultural ethos and the role of religion in their formation and transmission.

Center for Near Eastern Studies