Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

The Genres of Comparative Religion, 1815–1947

Sebastian Lecourt, PhD


My project explores how Victorian scholars, missionaries, and publishers used literary form to establish terms of comparison for the global study of religion. During the nineteenth century writers in England and Europe began to publish comparative studies that portrayed different religious traditions as having common formal features: an inspired founder, or a sacred scripture, or a set of atoning rituals. One way that they dramatized such comparisons for readers was by reshaping their primary texts around shared literary structures or motifs. Volumes such as Paul Carus’ The Gospel of Buddha (1894) gave a Bildungsroman-like arc to the lives of different religious founders; texts like Rammohan Roy’s The Precepts of Jesus (1820) and H. S. Olcott’s Golden Rules of Buddhism (1887) condensed various wisdom traditions into similar collections of poetic aphorisms; and scholars working from Egypt to China published translations of the Bhagavad-Gita and the Quran that presented them as the unified expressions of different national voices. Many of these formal homologies proved influential and were adapted both by subsequent scholars and by literary texts like The Light of Asia (1879), Edwin Arnold’s internationally bestselling poem about the Buddha. One might even say that they became genres – structuring patterns that readers could recognize across a variety of texts.

By tracing the role that genre played in organizing Victorian religious studies, I argue, we can develop a more nuanced sense of how literary forms globalize – in particular, how they may facilitate disagreement as well as conceptual homogeneity. Comparative religion, along with comparative literature, has been accused of imposing western categories upon colonial materials. Yet if we examine how these genres of comparative religion were taken up by different audiences a more complex story emerges. For genres, as Ralph Cohen reminds us, exist only where they are recognized, and when colonized readers began to encounter these comparative forms they did not always read them in the same way that Europeans did. To Charles Wilkins, the first English translator of the Bhagavad Gita, repackaging non-Christian scriptures as single volumes allowed one to contrast them unfavorably with the Bible. To Indian reformers such as Rammohan Roy, it had the very different effect of recasting Hinduism as the worthy opponent of a colonizing Protestantism. And to the members of new international organizations like the Theosophical Society and the Brahmo Samaj, defining a global canon of sacred texts promised to clear the way for new forms of religious syncretism. In short, these comparative forms came to command widespread recognition because different parties – missionaries, colonial administrators, anticolonial nationalists – were able to narrate their significance toward different ends.

To make this argument I draw upon a combination of reception history, close literary analysis, and the work of rhetorical genre theorists like Anne Freadman, who have shown how generic expectations can take shape through the interactions between authors, readers, and their social contexts. My chapters trace the emergence of five distinct genres – 1) the founder’s life, 2) the national scripture, 3) the wisdom digest, 4) the prophetic biography, and 5) the tale anthology. Chapter 1 examines how nineteenth-century epic poems about the Buddha like Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia (1879) used conventions of the Bildungsroman to make the lives of Jesus and the Buddha appear comparable and how the contradictory capital of English verse helped popularize this construction of Buddhism from Ceylon to Japan. Chapter 2 explores the rise of the notion that a certain kind of book could simultaneously make universal religious claims and express the character of a particular people, focusing on the history of Max Müller’s Sacred Books of the East series (1879-1910). Chapter 3 turns to the genre of the wisdom digest, which boiled different sacred traditions down to concise arrangements of poetic aphorisms modeled on Edward Fitzgerald’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam (1859). Chapter 4 explores how conventions of secular life-writing shaped lives of Mohammed such as Thomas Carlyle’s “The Hero as Prophet” (1841). My final chapter turns to the genre of the tale anthology, using Richard Burton’s Arabian Nights (1885) and Joseph Jacobs’ Indian Fairy Tales (1892) to trace how the rise of the short story at the fin de siècle shaped a new notion of religious stories as portable aesthetic objects.

The Genres of Comparative Religion is part of a larger attempt in my work to rethink the relationship between religion, print culture, and secularization in nineteenth-century Britain. Although critics have long portrayed the Victorian era as one of religious decline, recent commentators like Talal Asad have shown how in fact the period saw different constructions of religion – as propositional belief, or ethnic identity, or aesthetic experience – become central to competing visions of modernity, from romantic nationalism to liberal imperialism. Much of the work following Asad, however, has treated this shift at the level of abstract ideology, tracing (for example) how a Protestant construction of religion as the zone of personal belief was exported from Europe to its colonies. My project aims to uncover the specific textual bases of these conceptual shifts by exploring how particular literary modes helped shape popular understandings of what different religious traditions had in common and thus what made religion a truly generic feature of human life. In this respect my project brings Asad’s line of work into conversation with a revival of literary formalism that has endeavored to show how form is not an ahistorical category but in fact shapes and is shaped by history.