Liberty and Circuits of the Sacred


A few days ago was the first time I heard Chinese being spoken with a heavy Indian accent.  Given the tenor of our times, one might expect this to have been at some gathering of wheelers and dealers brandishing business cards at one another, as they eagerly bind Asia and the world together around new circuits of trade.  But in this rather more unusual instance, the Indian in question was addressing a couple of dozen Chinese Buddhist pilgrims.  His voice carried through the light drizzle well enough for me to hear it some distance away.

This was Sarnath, the site of the Buddha’s first sermon, and over the centuries one of the major pilgrimage sites for Buddhists across Asia.  Today, most of the large complex lies in ruins, with low clusters of red sandstone, streaked with black here and there, and interspersed with neatly trimmed green grass.  The centrepiece is a cylindrical tower of stone and brick looming several stories tall.  Through the scaffolding that suggested an attempt at preservation, I could see intricate carvings dotting the glistening reddish-brown surface.

A few minutes earlier, the pilgrims in question had been prostrating themselves on approaching the tower and then walking clockwise around it, hands together in prayer.  This was not the average group of Chinese travellers on an organised tour, which nowadays too often means megaphone-wielding guides, accumulated shopping bags, and trodden-upon local sensibilities.  While they were wearing secular modern clothing and obviously had some money to travel—an iPad came out later to take a picture—they were quiet and orderly enough, and engaged enough in the rituals, that the motive for the visit was evidently religious first and foremost.

Visiting Sarnath is certainly easy today, compared to the experience of Chinese Buddhist pilgrims who crossed the Himalayas in earlier centuries.  Perhaps the most famous pilgrim was the monk Xuan Zang, who set out in 629 during the Tang dynasty.  It took him over a year to reach India, during which he “crossed trackless wastes tenanted only by fierce ghost-demons…[and] climbed fabled mountains high beyond conjecture, rugged and barren, ever chilled by icy wind and cold with eternal snow.”  He was eventually to spend some fifteen years in India, including a visit to Sarnath with its population of some 1500 monks at the time.  He then returned to the Tang capital at Chang’an, with 657 Buddhist texts and 150 relics laden on twenty horses.  The circuits of religious knowledge had been renewed across great distance.

As the Porch motto, “Place, Limits, Liberty,” suggests, conversations on this site often revolve around a particular view of how scale intersects with a sturdy independence.  Place matters because it sustains a rich texture of interactions in daily life and a sense of belonging.  A reverence for place also buffers against excesses of human ambition, particularly of the sort that press down from the modern world’s power centres in state and market.  Places can serve this purpose in part because they are hard to access.  To join fully in local life demands sustained commitment.  Barriers to entry—be they geographic, institutional, or merely psychological—can also raise the costs of encroachment.  This view of place and liberty also more or less lies behind F A von Hayek’s observation about Austria and Switzerland that “the mountains breathe freedom,” and James Scott’s masterful study of “the art of not being governed” in the uplands of Southeast Asia.

I agree that liberty often does flow from such a defence of place.  Yet the idea of the pilgrimage prompts questions about how circuits among places, especially places of sacred significance, also challenge power.  For both place-based liberty and the pilgrimage are about resisting overbearing forces.  The difference is that while communities keep the powerful at bay, pilgrims escape, or at least subtly discredit, the grasp of the powerful.  Or to put it differently, it is like the mountains themselves.  To the annoyance of those holding sway in the lowlands, the mountains can be at times impermeable redoubts, and at other times all too permeable zones through which the downtrodden slip away.

The pilgrimage is a sacred circuit beyond the state’s reach.  To be sure, states often do try to manage pilgrims, and can facilitate or frustrate their movements.  Muslims going to Mecca do need Saudi visas.  But the spiritual meaning of the pilgrimage is never fully confined by the ambitions of territorial authority.  Pilgrims often cross borders, usually along routes far older than any Ozymandian power of the moment.  Their motives for moving, and the common ground they find with one another en route and at their destination, are beyond the reach of any polity.  Unlike the cross-border flows of goods and money that we associate with today’s globalisation, however, the logic of the pilgrimage is much richer.  Perhaps the old saying is right, that there is no force in history so powerful as a low price.  The irresponsible solvent of profit has indeed crumbled the knees of many an Ozymandias.  But whereas profiteers pay tribute to nothing higher than themselves, pilgrims affirm far more than they negate.  They remember the divine even as they forget the despot.

Some might be tempted to reduce these observations about the pilgrimage to the old dualism of religion and state, and the balance of influence between them.  To many a modern liberal, both overconfident states and overconfident religious hierarchies are symptoms of the same issue with power.  Around last Christmas, I read a somewhat snide email commentary comparing the hierarchies of the Chinese Communist Party and the Roman Catholic Church, as if structure rather than purpose were the core issue.  From a certain liberal vantage point, both sorts of entities need checking in the name of the claims of the naked individual.  But to frame things that way rather misstates the question.  Historically, many civilisations did develop a deeply entrenched division of function between the “two swords”—the political and the spiritual—but that division was never simply about sharing out authority between different types of domination.  Any full understanding of spiritual allegiance shrinks the space for useful coercion.  The freestanding claims of the religious sphere also hold in their logic regardless of how layered or flat institutional arrangements are in a given faith.  Any human activity under a spiritual ægis is necessarily chastened by an end beyond the human.  Yet even the best of states, as a state, is much more self-contained.  That makes it less likely to contain itself, so to speak.

The modern state’s ambitions vis-à-vis religion—particularly religion of the cross-border sort—are well known.  How far those ambitions are passively accepted, even by the devout, is striking.  One of my foreign colleagues in Nanjing remarked a few weeks ago, after attending a Christmas service at one of the state-approved “patriotic churches,” that he did not quite appreciate all the fuss about religious liberty in China.  On his understanding, all the government was requiring was that a denomination go through a routine process of getting approval for its operations, in line with “the law of the land.”  Perhaps this seemed to him like the deference fitting for guests.  Yet the assumption that the legitimacy of religious activity depends in any way on political authority has a repellent novelty about it.  I am reminded of reading a somewhat fevered chain of postings on an online forum three or four years ago.  An irate Chinese nationalist lashed out at one point that “You foreign missionaries just don’t get it: China is above God!”  I do not know if any flagpoles were struck by lightning that day.

One of the great liberal blind spots in modernity has been that states are kept in check most sustainably not by enumerated rights in constitutions they have written themselves, but by prepolitical spheres of influence in society.  The centuries-long assault by states on societies has been ably traced by thinkers from Alexis de Tocqueville to Bertrand de Jouvenel.  Given the near disappearance of aristocracies around the world, and the weakening of local communities under pressure from the market, perhaps the most enduring reservoirs of prepolitical allegiance are the family and religion.  While one could certainly evaluate and critique specific practices within family units, or within religious denominations, in light of their stated higher ends, the notion that they are spaces with their own logic, more fundamental than any polity, is often forgotten.  Still, modern states as jealous monsters rarely acknowledge, in their foundational documents, the prepolitical legitimacy of any such spheres of activity.  Occasional exceptions, such as the Irish constitution’s mention of the family as “antecedent and superior to all positive law,” are mostly gestures rather than deep metapolitical guarantees.

As sphere-sovereignty theorist Herman van Dooyeweerd detailed, these other spheres can only truly be prepolitical, in the sense that the state cannot universalise its present claims at their expense, if the different spheres—including the state—are seen as emanating from a single source above them all.  His account centres on a religious view of the human purpose.  Considering that human purpose, each sphere has its own differentiated logic, much as light fragments into a spectrum of colours.  In contrast, the ancient Greek polis commanded the whole lives of its citizens, the Roman empire expanded civil law as the self-governing clans retreated, and the modern liberal state assumes the primacy of political citizenship over other human endeavours.

Seen in this light, the pilgrimage with all it represents is a challenge of sorts to the modern state.  It is so in a way that Dooyeweerd and other sphere-sovereigntists of the early twentieth century, with their focus on applying the scheme within countries like the Netherlands, did not fully appreciate.  They paid a great deal of attention to the nesting of religious, family, educational, and other autonomies under a limited government, on a territory.  Yet the pilgrimage’s implicit challenge to the modern state is, in good part, because it is often transnational.  Obviously there are situations in which religious activity connects with the scope of laws on a given territory.  Religious institutions often get nonprofit status under a country’s laws, for example, and the Sarnath ruins come under the jurisdiction of the Archæological Survey of India.  Yet the vital challenge to political authority comes from the older, underlying meaning of the sites and the far-reaching circuits that link them.  A religious institution founded after a given state, under its laws, and engaged only or primarily by people within the borders of that state is somewhat defanged, in practical effect even if not in ultimate intent.  Spheres are less sovereign, in other words, if they are nested within polities rather than cutting across them.  This is why “patriotic” denominations—whether in today’s China or in early modern Europe—have long been seen as less threatening than those with transnational reach.

This is a matter of degree, of course.  Take Varanasi, a few kilometres from Sarnath.  Millions of Hindus flock to Varanasi, with its dozens of temples strung along the north bank of the Ganges.  Many a bearded, saffron-clad figure sits quietly meditating on the ledges, while the brownish-green river laps along the steps below where others bathe in the waters.  Flowers float past from the cremations carried out daily.  A nightly riverside ceremony, filled with bells, trumpets, incense, smoke, and Hindu chants, addresses the dark and hazy void over the water.  The place exudes a certain spiritual intensity, perhaps more than at Sarnath—at least from the untutored impression of one neither Hindu nor Buddhist—because of the sheer scale of activity.

Varanasi is claimed by some to be the world’s oldest surviving city.  It, and Hinduism, long predate any Indian polity.  Yet pilgrimages to Varanasi, compared with pilgrimages to places like Sarnath or Mecca, do have a different context because most of them are not across borders.  Unlike Buddhists, Muslims, or Christians, the vast majority of the world’s Hindus do live within the borders of one state.  The same is true of Confucians.  I am reminded of Lee H Yearley’s distinction between “open” and “locative” religions.  Open religions lean toward more emphasis on how spiritual insight transcends one’s particular culture, while locative religions stress how spiritual fulfilment is manifested within a sacred complex of relationships and practices.

I suspect the real implications for sphere sovereignty and offering a counterweight to the modern state are probably not so different between open and locative religions.  But as a locative religion operating largely within India, Hinduism is a bit more easily invoked by those with an eye on political power.  Some radical Hindu nationalists, for example, lay out a distorted version of “Hindutva,” or “Hinduness,” as mainly a cultural marker and a demand for the allegiance of all—including religious minorities such as Muslims and Christians—to the national territory.

Finally, I should mention one more site of pilgrimage, since alongside Sarnath and Varanasi, my wanderings of the last ten days took me to it as well.  Before crossing the border to Pakistan—I shall be here until March for some research—I stopped at Amritsar, the hub of Sikhism and site of the Golden Temple.  Sikhism started in the Punjab and, while most Sikhs ended up on the Indian side after Partition, a few tens of thousands remain in Pakistan.  Bound by family and faith, they are among the people who from time to time pass through this very lightly trafficked border crossing between two nuclear powers paranoid about each other.  That the border-closing ceremony every evening has some impressive synchronised pageantry does not diminish the air of tragedy over an arbitrary and bloody line running through the middle of people’s lives.

But symptomatic of the modern era is what, far more loudly and visibly than the ties of family and faith, is breaking down that border.  A few days ago, the Indian and Pakistani trade ministers announced that this crossing would soon be opened to commerce twenty-four hours a day.  We are back, it seems, to the power of the low price to batter down walls.  And yet a week earlier, another headline hit the news, as some British classified records from 1984 were opened.  During a rebel Sikh faction’s occupation of the Golden Temple, Margaret Thatcher apparently quietly despatched SAS commandos to advise their Indian counterparts on how to retake the site.  In due course, Indira Gandhi would then launch Operation Blue Star, a reaffirmation of the supremacy of the Indian state that would cost some lives.  According to the released classified documents, outrage from the Sikh diaspora was expected if the cooperation became known.

Jealous though modern states are, they join forces readily enough when they have to.  Good neighbours appreciate good fences, as it were—and do not want them broken by those who might have good reasons to stand on them.

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