Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language

Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language

Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language

Guru English: South Asian Religion in a Cosmopolitan Language

Synopsis

Guru Englishis a bold reconceptualization of the scope and meaning of cosmopolitanism, examining the language of South Asian religiosity as it has flourished both inside and outside of its original context for the past two hundred years. The book surveys a specific set of religious vocabularies from South Asia that, Aravamudan argues, launches a different kind of cosmopolitanism into global use. Using "Guru English" as a tagline for the globalizing idiom that has grown up around these religions, Aravamudan traces the diffusion and transformation of South Asian religious discourses as they shuttled between East and West through English-language use. The book demonstrates that cosmopolitanism is not just a secular Western "discourse that results from a disenchantment with religion, but something that can also be refashioned from South Asian religion when these materials are put into dialogue with contemporary social move-ments and literary texts. Aravamudan looks at "religious forms of neoclassicism, nationalism, Romanticism, postmodernism, and nuclear millenarianism, bringing together figures such as Swami Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Mahatma Gandhi, and Deepak Chopra with Rudyard Kipling, James Joyce, Robert Oppenheimer, and Salman Rushdie. Guru Englishanalyzes writers and gurus, literary texts and religious movements, and the political uses of religion alongside the literary expressions of religious teachers, showing the cosmopolitan interconnections between the Indian subcontinent, the British Empire, and the American New Age.

Excerpt

Imbued with a knowledge of objective sciences by English
education, our people will be able to comprehend subjective
truths.

—Bankimchandra Chatterjee, Anandamath

IT IS A TRUISM, universally acknowledged, that English dominates the globe today as no language ever has in the recorded history of humanity. Despite the linguistic diversity of a world that features more than five thousand natural languages by some counts, a mere one hundred languages account for the mother tongue of 95 percent of the world’s population, twenty-five languages for about 75 percent, and just twelve languages for about 60 percent. Second in terms of total number of speakers, English dominates by virtue of its stranglehold on global organizations as an international auxiliary or link language. Barring theories of the monolinguistic origin of the species that can never be proven, the observer can only look at existing examples of linguistic globalization in recorded history in order to glean the evidence.

A comparison of the current dominance of English with that of other languages at different times leads to the discovery that empires and religions have been the two most obvious vehicles of linguistic universalism. Sometimes a universalizing religion inherited a language-vehicle from a successful empire, as the Catholic Church did from the Romans, thereby establishing Latin as an administrative and scholarly medium of communication across Europe for a millennium and a half. In the case of Arabic, the situation developed the other way around, whereby the political ambitions of the caliphs spread it around the Mediterranean and West Asia from Spain to Persia and India for at least half a millennium, even though various political empires had actually inherited the language from Islam’s humble origins as an iconoclastic desert religion. Pan-Arabism has still kept modern Arabic alive as a viable lingua franca throughout western Asia and northern Africa, and to a limited extent in other places where Islam is a presence. Mandarin Chinese, demonstrably the tongue with the greatest number of speakers today, remains one of the stable legacies of Han imperial suzerainty, even if there is no significant religious impulse to spread it beyond familiar ethnic confines. The case of Sanskrit reveals a pattern of survival that is exactly opposite to that of Chinese. A largely sacerdotal language . . .

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