chapter  9
20 Pages

The construction of religious boundaries

This chapter is in many ways a continuation of the themes of Chapter 8, in that it explores further ways in which the encounter with ‘the West’ impacted on South Asian religious traditions. Here, however, we are focused on one particular area that is of critical importance to the way in which these traditions are practised and represented in the modern and contemporary era: the ways in which definite boundaries have been constructed or developed between these traditions. This process has been critical to contemporary understandings of South Asian religions. The ‘construction of religious boundaries’ is actually a term deployed by the Punjabi academic Harjot Oberoi (1994) in his study of the development of Sikh traditions in the Punjab over the period from the sixteenth century up to the present. Oberoi’s thesis is a rather startling one at first sight, and has led to him being aggressively targeted by some Sikhs as an apostate (as he is himself a Sikh). It is, briefly, that the religion of Sikhism was not established by Guru Nanak in the sixteenth century and subsequently developed through the work of the nine Gurus who succeeded him. Rather, the notion of Sikhism as a religion was really established at the end of the nineteenth, beginning of the twentieth century, through a number of socio-economic and cultural changes associated with colonialism. In this sense, he presents it as part of a broader process of religious boundary construction, in which different traditions coalesced through similar processes in order to form the different religions that we now understand as ‘the religions of South Asia’. In short, the Oberoi thesis suggests that this period saw the creation of religions in South Asia.