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Defining Religious Minorities in a Global World (1/2)

Panel Chair: Sergio Botta | Tuesday, August 25, 9-11 a.m. | Venue

Religious minority is a concept historically conditioned and informed by the dominant religious system. As a category, it appears constantly at stake when historians attempt on outlining the ways through which colonial experiences have come to forge newly conquered territories, altering both the landscapes and mindscapes of societies under colonial control. This panel aims to address and problematise the concept of religious minority, hoping to cast new light on the multifaceted religious, political, ethnic and socio-cultural interplay occurring between global/wider frameworks and local dynamics in early modern history. By focusing on the dynamics involving conflicts, negotiations, exchanges and compromises between minority and hegemonic religious actors, as well as on the necessary process of self-definition and self-representation on the part of non-dominant groups, we aim to highlight and critically assess the complex realities of religious minorities in different areas of the world within a time-frame that stretches from the 15th to the 17th centuries. Critical interventions will deal with the colonial sources such as missionary works, travel chronicles, archival materials, and any other source useful for our research proposal. A critical and deep understanding of the connected world will definitively impact our knowledge of contemporaneity.

Chiara Ghidini, Anna Andreeva

Transferring the economies of the ‘sacred’: the case of the Ryūkyū Islands at the turn of the 17th century

The Ryūkyū Shintōki (Account of the “Way of the kami” in the Ryukyus, c. 1603-1606) is one of the oldest surviving texts providing historical descriptions of the religious landscape of the Ryūkyū Islands before the Satsuma feudal domain established its suzerainty over the Ryūkyū Kingdom in 1609. Stretching southwest from Kyushu to Taiwan, the Ryukyus were a site of multiple polities and peoples, with a strategic position at the crossroads of maritime routes connecting Japan, Southern China, Korea and Taiwan. Recorded by the Japanese Buddhist Pure Land priest Taichū (1552-1639) at the request of Ryukyuan court officials, Ryūkyū Shintōki reflects the founding legends, traditional beliefs and ritual practices of the pre-1600s Ryūkyū archipelago. Most importantly, the text charts the historical attempts to ‘replicate’ on Ryūkyū’s soil a religious landscape constructed and developed by the Buddhist-Shinto milieu of medieval Japan, and exemplifies the multifaceted religious culture of pre-modern Ryukyus. Andreeva will focus on the relevant aspects related to Japan’s medieval religious landscape and on the way it entered the Ryukyuan archipelago. Ghidini will deal, instead, with Ryukyuan local systems of worship, later advocated by Japanese folklorists in order to corroborate their theory of “Shinto” rituals and oracles performed and delivered mainly by shamanistic women in ancient Japan. Since it is through Taichū’s use of the formula “Ryūkyū Shintō” that Japanese folklorists came to refer to Ryukyuan religious system as Shinto, we believe that a deeper gaze into Taichū’s text is crucial in order to better understand the cultural and social dynamics taking place in the Ryukyuan archipelago shortly before the sovereignty of the independent kingdom was eventually shattered by Satsuma’s colonial domination in the 17th century.

Gautam Chakrabarti

'In-Between' Religiosity: European Kāli-bhakti in Early Modern Calcutta

One of the most engaging socio-cultural traits in late-eighteenth-century India was the disarmingly-involved and comparativist manner in which European travellers responded to the richly-syncretised field of devotional spirituality in eastern India. The predominantly-shākta orientation of early modern Bengali configurations of religious devotion led, especially in the vicinity of the rather-heterodox city of Calcutta, to the familiarisation of European migrants to the Goddess Kāli, Herself representing a certain subaltern, tāntrika configuration of Hindu devotionalism. Anthony Firingee, (Antōnī Phiringī) originally Hensman Anthony (?-1836), was a folk-poet/bard, who, despite being of Portuguese origin, was married to a Hindu Brahmin widow and famous for his much-feted devotional songs, addressed to the Goddesses Kāli and Durgā, in Bengali towards the beginning of the 19th century. He was also celebrated for his performance in literary face-offs, occasionally of a competitively-scurrilous nature, known as Kavigān2 (bardic duels) with the then crème de la crème of Bengali composers. His āgamani songs, celebrating the return of Goddess Durga to her parental home—a process that marks the Bengali autumn-festival of Durgā Pujā—are immensely-popular till today and he was instrumental in the construction of a temple to Goddess Kāli in the Bowbazar-area of North Calcutta that is nowadays famous as the Phiringī Kālibāri (foreigner's Kāli temple). In this paper, the literary-cultural construction of a religious hybridity, operating between and cross-fertilising Indo-European cultural conjunctions, will be examined through the study of individual, 'in-between' religious agency, in this case of Hensman Anthony, and literary-cultural borrowings.

Wei Jiang

Minority, heterodoxy, and alternatives: popular religions in the context of Catholic accommodation in China, 16-17 centuries

In recent historiography, Christianity as a local religion in the Late Imperial China has been developed in three different aspects. Erik Zürcher claims that the accommodation policy of the Jesuits responded to the cultural imperative of China that distinguished orthodox Confucianism from the heterodox religious sects. Nicolas Standaert holds that the notion of religion in the early modern concerns is more adequately interpreted in cultural and secular sense rather than in its modern concept. From anthropological point of view, Eugenio Menegon asserts that Christianity became a local religion through a successful adaptation to the kinship network in rural China. The three statements consider popular religions as a minor parameter to measure the localization of Christianity. This paper, instead, examines the interactive dynamics between Christianity and Chinese popular religions in a series of case studies in both rural and urban settings in the southern Vice-Province of China, 16-17th centuries.


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