This week I attended a public lecture here in Edinburgh entitled ‘Teaching the Abrahamic Religions: A Subversive Enterprize?’ delivered by Guy Stroumsa, Professor of the Study of the Abrahamic Religions, University of Oxford. Stroumsa’s basic argument appeared to be that studying the three “Abrahamic” traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) together presents certain dangers but is nonetheless a compelling and worthwhile approach. It set me wondering about what scholars of South Asian religions can learn from such endeavours and vice versa.
One of Stroumsa’s most forceful points was that we must be aware of the difference between comparative religion and interfaith discourse. The latter, he argued, is interested in commonalities, whereas the academic enterprise of comparative religion focuses upon differences. Reflecting on my own approach, I would prefer to say that I use the commonalities to explore the differences. So, for example, in my recent work on stories of karma and rebirth in Buddhist and Jain texts I look at how a very similar set of doctrines concerning cosmology, ethics and soteriology play out rather differently in the narratives. And in this project we are using common characters, roles and genres to explore the ways in which three traditions developed in dialogue with and opposition to one another.
Stroumsa argued that one of the dangers of the comparative approach is a tendency to crystalize the traditions, to take a snapshot of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and therefore to simplify them. He suggested that the most productive form of comparative religion is that which focuses on moments of transformation and pays attention to specific historical contexts. His advice applies equally to scholars of South Asian religion: Brahmanical Hinduism (or whatever else we want to call it), Indian Buddhism and Jainism are three traditions that are – like the “Abrahamic” traditions – linked both structurally and historically. They are therefore asking to be studied together. Yet such a comparative study must situate itself in a specific historical context in order to avoid essentialising the three traditions.
Maybe scholars of the “Abrahamic” traditions can learn something from scholarship on South Asian religions, which benefits from being largely free of the theological investment and interfaith motivation that have tended to accompany the former. With a strong historical focus, albeit one that is rather broadly conceived, my hope is that this project will bring about similar benefits to those highlighted by Stroumsa, namely a more complete picture of religious development and a better appreciation of the ways in which religious traditions change and interact over time.