Alexander Henn’s book is an intriguing investigation of religion in Goa in which the author traces the interactions between Christian and Hindu people, ideas, and practices from the colonial to the contemporary based on historical and ethnographic work in Goa. Henn explores how religious identity is performed and enacted surrounding various rituals, iconography, diet, etc. What results is a remarkable insight into the fluidity of practice and the seeming-contradiction of the rigidity of communal identity in the religious landscape of the coastal Indian city.
In the Introduction, Henn begins his book by laying out his theoretical claim that, contrary to many prevalent streams of academic theory, the syncretic processes at work in Goa are not a product of (early) modernity. Instead he argues that “syncretism marks a rupture and transition between premodern and modern modes of knowledge and signification” (p. 18). He hypothesizes, instead, that the shared practice comes from the entire community embeddedness within and connection to the place (i.e. Goa) that overlaps communal or parochial distinctions and concerns. The author grounds his material in the first chapter in which he examines ‘Vasco de Gama’s Error’ of assuming the Hindu practices he observed were a derivation of (read: devolution from) Christian rituals and beliefs. For Henn, this establishes precedence for scholars to examine shared practice as a form of assimilation (p. 39). The historical foundation-building continues in the second chapter which examines the Catholic iconoclast campaign in the region. This chapter is critical because it demonstrates how the displacement of deities of local significance (i.e. ganvdevāta and healing sites) led to the incorporation of Catholic shrines and imagery into the religious practice of the population at large. This chapter is extremely well done and will become a mainstay in courses I teach on South Asian religion. The third chapter examines Christian purāṇas and how they mimicked bhakti literature. Henn shows that their authors likewise assumed that the ‘gentile’ beliefs of Hindus were “distorted and perverted, rudiments of the ‘Christian Truth’” and sought to use these texts as a corrective to those presumed adulterations (p. 81).
Chapter four transitions the work to Henn’s contemporary ethnographic research. In this chapter, Henn begins with a discussion of the literature on village and caste, but then the author revisits the themes of the previous chapters discussing the role of ganvdevāta, patron saints, and goddesses. He finds that the primary factors for the intertwining of practice were: 1) the relationship with the embedded sacrality of the space; 2) hereditary performance of ritual that supersedes religious identity and historical conversion; and 3) the desire for miracles pertaining to health. In the next chapter, Henn discusses the Jagar as a performance of religious memory in which all the gods, goddesses, saints etc. that have been important in the region are curated and continue through the narratives enacted in the ritual. In the last substantive chapter, Henn produces another jewel in his discussion of street shrines in Goa. He argues that these shrines sit at the crossroads of increased movement of populations, ideas and practices, and motorized vehicles and display a widening of local hierarchies and the flexibility of ‘late-modern’ urban religious concerns.
Setting terms for syncretism
In an otherwise wonderful book on religion and religious practice and identity, I question Henn’s use of ‘syncretism’ throughout the work. Syncretism as a term to explain the interaction has been cultures arose in the first half of the nineteenth century in the field of anthropology (Droogers and Greenfield, p. 24). As André Droogers and Sidney Greenfield have shown, this term is rooted in the anthropological theory that assumes that peoples and cultures were distinct and isolated. While syncretism introduced a vital intervention in understanding the ways people interact, it was still based on the assumption that the peoples under consideration were distinct and isolated. Since the late 1980s and 90s, syncretism has been the subject of scrutiny in the academic study of religion. Many of the critiques focused on these assumptions and the power dynamics created through this analytical lens and contested the definition of the term. Syncretism, however, continues to be used, and scholars have argued for its relevance in understanding interactions between different religious communities and the hybridity of their beliefs, practices, and identities (see pp. 177–84 for a litany of reasons to ‘reconsider’ the term). With such academic debate in the background, Henn addresses this problematic and contested term in his introduction; however, his discussion only problematizes the term as far as it has been ‘politicized’ (pp. 14–5) and delays the argument for its usage until his conclusion (pp. 177–84). While I do not disagree with Henn’s final argumentation, it would have been extremely helpful had Henn briefly discussed the history of the term and explained what he meant when using it in his introduction. I assume that Henn decided to forego a definition based on the scholarship of Carsten Colpe and Kurt Rudolph, which he cites in his conclusion (p. 178); however, a clear presentation of how he was employing this contested term upfront in his work would have helped this reader understand the processes he was describing. In turn, taking the time, not to define syncretism, but to explain what he meant when using it would have enhanced his overall thesis.
In conclusion, Hindu-Catholic Encounters in Goa is a rich work in which the author shows the processes of religious interaction and development. The writing is clear and concise and would be great required reading for upper division undergraduate courses on religion that could easily range from courses on South Asia, Christianity, Hinduism, Religion and modernity, and a whole host of others. Yet, the book is exhaustive and novel enough that it is also ideal for graduate courses that deal with more specific issues such as Method and Theory or Christianity in South Asia, among others. Additionally, as a researcher of religion in Karnataka, I found both the method and the content of the book to be extremely helpful in my understanding of similar interactions between European Christian and India Muslim and Hindu rulers during the late 18th and 19th centuries and would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about religion in the region.
Droogers, André F. (1989) Syncretism: The problem of definition, the definition of the problem. In: Jerald D. Gort et al. (eds) Dialogue and Syncretism: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishers, pp. 7–25.
Droogers, André F. and Greenfield, Sidney M. (2001) Recovering and reconstructing syncretism. In: Sidney M. Greenfield and André F. Droogers (eds) Reinventing Religions: Syncretism and Transformation in Africa and the Americas. Lanham, MD. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, pp. 21–42.