Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity

By Jacob K. Olupona | Go to book overview

Chapter 4

A postcolonial meaning of religion

Some reflections from the indigenous world

Charles H. Long


Where is the indigenous located?

I begin with two anecdotes: I am told on good authority that when Alexander the Great made his incursions into India in the third century BCE he was met by Buddhist monks who viewed him with an enquiring detachment. Instead of being in awe of his great army, they are reported to have asked him the following questions: “Who are you? Do you have a home? Why aren’t you at home?” Perry Miller, in his classic The Errand Into the Wilderness, is careful to point out the two interrelated meanings of the notion of “errand. ” On the one hand, “errand” refers to a particular task that has been assumed or authorized, a task that must be accomplished. On the other hand, “errand” equally refers to the specific task that is to be accomplished. 1 The distinction is subtle, but for Miller, an essential truth about New England Puritanism is defined by this distinction. Is the “errand” the task itself or is it the process of fulfilling the task? Does the “errand” define the specificity of the task that is to be done?

I have begun with these anecdotes because they pose for me the problematic surrounding the term, “indigenous. ” On the one hand, “indigenous, ” from the Latin, means literally being born from within, which leads to the notion of being produced or living naturally in a particular region. In other words, “indigenous” refers to what, in a conventional sense, we define as home, whether that home is defined geographically, ethnically, or religiously.

This is a rather straightforward understanding of the notion of indigenous. Things are not, however, quite so simple, for the term is called forth not by those cultures and peoples who are referred to when we use the term. It is, rather, occasioned by those typified by Alexander the Great and their progenies, the conquerors and imperialists - the Romans, and modern Western culture, among others. The term indigenous is called forth within the structure of those who have chosen to understand the source of human value through the processes and practices of “not being at home. ”

Observe the awkwardness of certain terms used to designate indigenous peoples and cultures: for example, “pre-Columbian, ” “Native American, ” “traditional, ” “pre-colonial. ” In other words, all indigenous cultures must of necessity admit of the impingement of the “other” roving cultures upon them as a dimension of their identity. Thus, although the notion of the indigenous implies the identity and reality of a people prior to the impingement of the worlds of modernity, in point of fact the “indigenous” has little meaning apart from the colonial and imperial cultures in the modern period. I hope that the movement in linguistic usage from “primitive” to “indigenous” means that we are no longer speaking of an a priori romantic and exotic reality that reveals the “elementary forms of the religious and social life of humankind. ”

-89-

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