Group Topic: The Study of Religion

Religion can be officially defined as ‘a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe. It usually involves devotional and ritual observances, and often contains a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs’. Anthropologists have long tried to research the phenomenon of religion and the immense power it holds over people. Even though religion is considered vital to a society’s evolutionary progress, anthropologists have not looked much into how religion is actually shaping society, rather they are being held back by notions that previous anthropologists adhered to. It comes as a shock to say that much of the academic world today considers anthropologists to research ‘primitive’ religion over anything else. Anthropologists of the past researched beliefs in unseen spiritual agencies, witches, and demons, and concluded these all to constitute the belief systems of uncivilized peoples. If that was not a blow to the traditions and cultures (primarily shaped by religion) of people of the past, addressing their rituals as associating with magic rather than in an omnipotent deity definitely is. Hence, it is not a surprise that such notions which were held by such figures as John Lubbock, or James Frazer, are actually detrimental to the anthropological study of religion of today.

Scholars of today have tried to change the way that religion is academically perceived. Not only is the actual belief system, and the rituals/customs that pertain to it, analyzed, but rather the way it affects people is becoming increasingly well-researched. In other words, it is not what religion is, but rather how people are changed by it, that is of utmost importance. A strong example is that of the monk Thich Quang Duc, who showed no emotion as he slowly burned to death in protest. Religion can make man transcend all boundaries, and this still remains a mystery to many scholars.

Anthropologists have had different theories regarding religion. From Frazer’s theory of magic, to that of animism, animatism, nature-worship, idolatry, fetishism, and superstition of others, many theories have formulated over the years. The focus is slowly shifting from only the constitution of the religion, to the interaction between the religion and the believer.

One concern that many have towards anthropologists today is whether those in academia actually understand the power that religion has over the common folk. Many scholars of today claim that religion can mainly be understood from within. One has to ‘fully appreciate the experience of people for whom religious experiences are real’. Many of the anthropologists research the phenomena from the outside, rather than from within, and that in a way distances the researcher from his research. It is understandable to see that such views are forming, especially in light of such views as Weston La Barre’s (1991) of religion mainly contributing to human biological neoteny.

boyTherefore we end with two views. One of religion contributing to the evolution of society, while the other of religion actually inhibiting the natural development of society. That is left now for the present generation of scholars and anthropologists to fully research and either acknowledge or condemn. Recently, it has become quite the research to determine whether females are more religiously inclined than men, but that is another topic of its own.

I have to agree with Phillips Stevens, Jr. in that religion must overall be considered as extremely powerful and absolutely central to the human experience. The question remains whether this power will actually be beneficial, or detrimental, to society at large.

Official Blog Entry #3: The Sogdians of Sogdiana – a People who shaped history

Ancient Sogdian Letter

Ancient Sogdian Letter

The Sogdians (Old Persian: Suguda-; Ancient Greek: Σογδιανή; Chinese: 粟特 – Sùtè; New Persian: سغد – Sōġd) were an ancient Eastern Iranian people who were deeply involved in trade on the Silk Road.  From the very beginning, the Silk Route was controlled by Sogdian merchants.  The Sogdians had such great influence on the series of trade routes that comprised the Silk Road that their language became the lingua franca of the Silk Route long before the sixth century.  This was while the Chinese Tang Dynasty was in power.  To understand why the usage of the Sogdian language became so wide-spread, one must look at the language itself, and the location of the Sogdians along the Silk Road, along with the religions they adhered to.

Sogdian is a Middle Iranian language belonging in the Indo-Iranian family which in turn falls under the Indo-European family.  The Sogdian script derives from the Aramaic script, and is similar to the Uyghur and Mongolian scripts.  When Aurel Stein, the British archaeologist discovered the Sogdian Ancient letters deserted in a Chinese watch tower in 1907, the modern world got its first glimpse at Sogdian way of life; their attitudes, customs, and their day-to-day lives.  Through the Sogdian ancient letters, one can get a very personal understanding of what the authors of these letters felt, and thus it becomes easy to relate to peoples who dwelled on this Earth many centuries ago.  From the lady abandoned in Dun Huang without clothing and without money, to the man appealing to Lord Varzakk in distributing some wealth, the Sogdian letters help to decrease the years – gap between reader and writer.

Another aspect of Sogdian life was religious life.  The Sogdians were a group of people that held diverse beliefs throughout history, and yet maintained a vibrant culture.  The three main religions in the areas where the Sogdians dwelled were Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, and Nestorian Christianity. Frances Wood in Chapter 5 of The Silk Road:  Two Thousand Years in the Heart of China clearly explains the significance of Zoroastrianism in Sogdian life.  Sogdians on the Silk Road were mainly responsible for the spread of Zoroastrianism along the Silk Roads, and eastwards to China.  According to Wood, there is evidence that there were Iranian soothsayers in China as early as the eighth century BC.  Manichaeism was also spread mainly through Sogdians.  It is worth mentioning that some of the figures and statues present in China, such as the one in the temple at Caoan, near Quanzhou, contains inscriptions and images elevating and depicting Mani (a Parthian), but to ‘pious old women’, these are just Buddhist images.

So it is clearly evident that the Sogdians of Sogdiana were clearly integral in the flow of trade from one region to the next.  Their language traversed the routes, and their customs and rituals migrated along with silk, linen, silver, and other kinds of cloth.  I would conclude then, that the two most important aspects of Sogdian life were their language and their religions.  These two clearly affected their art, documents, and all other artifacts that are left behind to this day, which exist as our only witness to these peoples who were integral in commerce that brought the east of Asia closer to the west.

Official Blog Entry #2: The Han Histories

A Xiangnu warrior

A Xiongnu warrior

The following is a reflection on the Han Histories as found in the Hou Hanshu, and Chapter 4 of The Silk Road:  A Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia, written by Frances Wood.

Ethnography is a branch of anthropology used to provide descriptions of human societies.  That much we know.  It is a strategy used to describe people through writing.  Ethnographic writing is holistic, and tends to not take biases.  Historical writing on the other hand is more scientific.  It presents historical events (defining what constitutes an historical event varies), along with the appropriate sources, arguments, and interpretations.  Can the Hou Hanshu, the official history of the Later (or ‘Eastern’) Han Dynasty (25-221 CE) compiled by Fan Ye, classify as historical writing?  I would say yes.  Read on.

I found the Hou Hanshu to state facts, be them bold or meek.  The not so revered events of China’s past were stated, regardless of the outcomes.  These included beheadings, hostage taken, and plain massacres of people.  Of course the text was from a Chinese perspective, but it can be seen from such descriptions like that of Da Qin (the Roman Empire), that the first hand impressions were stated without personal opinion involved.  From Hopkirk’s book, I remembered
the account of the wife of the consul general who had tried to describe the people found in the open market of kashgar.  She had described them as madmen and having the eyes of people without minds!  This account can also be found in Wood’s book page 25.  Yes, the inhabitants of Da Qin were described as tall and honest appearing, but at least their mental states weren’t questioned.  Such unbiased writing that tries to depict in a first hand account what is being
seen without judging others is what, to me, constitutes historical writing.  Of course the Hou Hanshu is not completely unbiased.  But considering the times it was written in, and later compiled, it can be considered to be historial writing.

Now the ethnographic descriptions in the Hou Hansu is very significant.  The author, Fan Ye, has compared peoples to try to give a better understanding of the peoples.  This writing was originally meant for Chinese readers, most likely Chinese rulers, so the comparisons are chosen so that the reader would understand.  For example, the people of the kingdom of Gaofu (present day Kabul) are considered to have a “way of life [that] is similar to that of Tianzhu (Northwestern India), but they are weak and easy to subdue”.  Such information is important for the ruling dynasty of
China.  People are described as accurately as possibly so that such information can be considered as military intelligence, that can be used in politics to make rulings and decisions regarding cities and regions.

There is so much history packed into chapter 4 of Wood’s book The Silk Road, and the Hou Hanshu writings.  There were battles, betrayals, deaths, sorrows, and victories.  Such a topsy turvy train of events is all presented, to attempt to give an idea of China and its vicinities of the time to the reader.  I enjoyed reading the descriptions, and I have to conclude from reading them that it is necessary to take the various locations and its peoples and their way of life into consideration to fully understand the decisions they undertook, and in turn, to understand the chain of events that took place.

The following is the epilogue presented in the Hou Hanshu regarding the Hu or the Xiangnu, considered to be barbarians by the Chinese.  It shows what the state of mind of the Chinese was, and how they approached the Hu.

The Western Hu are far away.
They live in an outer zone.

Their countries’ products are beautiful and precious,
But their character is debauched and frivolous.

They do not follow the rites of China.
Han has the canonical books.

They do not obey the Way of the Gods.
How pitiful!
How obstinate!

Taxila, Pakistan

A great clip showing ruins in Taxila, the ancient Buddhist capital.  Traditional Gandaharan architecture can be seen.  Taxila is located near Islamabad, in what is now Pakistan.  In the clip, one can see ruins, art, sculptures, and other artifacts.  Taxila (Urdu: ٹیکسلا, Sanskrit: तक्षशिला Takṣaśilā, Pali:Takkasilā) was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.