If by “indigenous religions” we mean to denote religious traditions that have not (yet) been influenced or colonized by the global “isms, ” then such traditions are notoriously difficult to locate, since most of our evidence is not the autonomous self-expression of an ab-original entity (“a story people tell themselves about themselves, ” in Clifford Geertz’s memorable phrase), but a product of contact between indigenous cultures and encroaching others. Indeed, the very mediations that make these data available to anyone other than indigenes also render them most problematic (travelers’ accounts, colonial archives, missionary reports, ethnographies, co-authored autobiographies, and studies by those educated in mission schools or Euro-American universities). As a result, our view of the “indigenous” per se is always refracted, if not obstructed: what we observe most clearly is not “the other, ” but the situation of encounter between that other and an exogenous intruder. This, however, need occasion no regret, for it provides the stimulus and opportunity to transform our understanding of “indigenous” and “world” religions alike.
Thus, the encounter situation reveals the methodological and moral fallacy of treating “world religions” in a-historic fashion, and forces one to recognize these as emergent phenomena, which expanded their territory, numbers, and power always at the expense of others. Here, one needs to enquire about the extra-doctrinal factors that facilitated their expansion by asking, for example, when and how specific areas and populations were identified as targets of opportunity for missionizing and conversion? Who made these determinations, and in consultation with what other interests (the state, the military, chartered monopolies or venture capital, etc. )? Whence came the personnel and material support for such ventures? How were these resources deployed, and what returns were expected on the investment? Perhaps most important, what kind of subjects did missions seek to constitute, and how did they pursue this project? (Proletarianization is likely to be a key issue. ) Furthermore, which portions of prior doctrine, canon, and ethical and ritual practice were emphasized, and which ones reinterpreted or occluded for local consumption?
Conversely, focusing on the encounter situation also helps us avoid theorizing an unrealistically pristine “indigenous” and lets us appreciate that local traditions meet advancing world religions in situations of vastly unequal power, within which they mount certain kinds of resistance, while also making strategic accommodation at points they consider less than vital. At the points of most serious contention, one can observe