Posts Tagged ‘colonialism’

Power, Resistance and their Religious Manifestations: The Cases of the Colonial and Postcolonial Period

©Tessa Valo, 2007



As the title of this essay suggests, we will be concerned here with the fundamental relation between power, resistance, and the religious manifestations of these. Though power and resistance can take many forms and are as such to a definite degree present in almost any conceivable ritual practice, be it initiation ceremony chisungu or rites performed by the Christian Church, we will focus our attention on two more explicit examples of this interplay, which stem from the interaction of two different conceptual systems; these being the language game played by the colonizers and another played by the colonized. The situation of the colonial and postcolonial subject is in other words an example par excellence in relation to our object of interest. But before we can proceed to the concrete examples, a brief theoretical sketch is highly needed; we will operate here with three rather problematical notions, i.e. the notions of power, of resistance and of the “religious”, which all call for clarification, even though the space here is limited.

The concept of power (and consequently also the one of resistance) has become almost an obsession in social sciences of the last few decades[1] (especially with the help of its influential promotion by Foucault), and we thus have to be more careful when using it, not to fall in the realm of reductionism of such notions as ‘power is an aspect of every social relation and interaction’ or, as Walzer has called it, ‘micro-fascism of everyday life’ (cf. Brown 1996). There is, of course, no doubt that the whole of social life entails degrees of domination and subordination, but the institutions that on one hand dominate also on the other hand enable. Power and resistance are distinct but interdependent aspects of power relations. “Resistance imposes limits on power” (Barbalet 1985:531); “the influence on social relationships exerted by powerless agents derives precisely from their resistance to power. Resistance limits the effects of power and in doing so materially influences the ‘conditions of reproduction of those social systems’ in which those resisting power have its subordinate positions” (ibid.:542). One more aspect of power must be emphasized here – power depends on action[2]. Power is not a static entity, it has to be continually negotiated and constructed anew, it is a matter of social relationship – there is simply no power without those over which power is exercised. At this moment it may be of use to recall the fundamental relationship between society, action and religion as described by Durkheim, in his own words, “it is action that dominates religious life, for very reason that society is its source” (Durkheim 2002:48; emphasis mine). And it is precisely religion that can serve these two sides of the same coin, i.e. power and resistance – it is on one hand “world-maintaining” and on the other “world-shaking” (cf. Billings & Scott 1994:173), as it is capable of legitimating power as well as challenging it. In the analysis of the two examples that have been chosen (the one coming from the colonial South Africa and the other, more recent and actual, from the postcolonial India), we will focus more on the discursive (primary) level, where power and resistance are expressed through various religious metaphors, classifications and symbolism. One reason for focusing on the discursive level as on the primary one is that the fundamental struggle underlying all power relations evolves around meaning, i.e. the definition of the reality itself resp. around whose definition is to be established as the dominant, valid, and norm giving. What we have to bear in mind and what will prove as crucial is the fact that “powerless groups must learn to master the language of the powerful, and in this process they may have to alter their cultural identity substantially” (Eriksen 1991:274) together with the idea that “classifications are not otiose, they do something, they are necessary in organization” (Douglas 1999:196; emphasis mine). And again we have to bear in mind that religious symbols and religious expressions “cannot be understood independently of their historical relations with nonreligious symbols or of their articulations in and of social life, in which work and power are always crucial” (Asad 2002:129)[3]. The idea of religion itself is a part of particular history and discourse of knowledge and power; this point comes out clearly in our first example.

The Impact of Christian Missionary Activity on South Africans

Though the Christian missionary activity exercised (not only) over the South Africans presented itself in purely religious terms, the impact it had and the way it substantially changed the everyday life of the subjects of colonization shows, how it was in fact tightly bound with the discourse of modernity itself and how it stepped across the imaginary boundaries of the religious and affected every single sphere of life. “The Africans became drawn into conversations whose terms (central concepts and arguments) were set by Europeans” (Lambek 2002:493), they were forced to learn the language of the powerful, which led to inevitable alternation of their cultural identity, but which also, on the other hand, created a substantial space for resistance. In their article, which is our point of departure in this brief chapter, Jean and John Comaroff (1992[1989]) look closer at the case of the Tswana people of South Africa and analyze the impact of the Christian missionary activity, i.e. of the colonization of consciousness and the struggle over power and meaning. As in other places, colonizers tried to “gain control over both the material and semantic practices” – and one could argue that primarily and foremost over the semantic practices as they are constitutive of the material ones – “through which their would-be subjects produce and reproduce the very basis of their existence” (Comaroff & Comaroff 1992[1989]: 494). The aim of the colonization was to convert and to reform the Tswana, i.e. to convince them of the ideological content of Christianity by use of powerful symbolism and religious narrative and to impose the hegemonic practices not only in the realm of religion of the colonizing culture on the colonized. The response and consequently also resistance of Tswana to this double project was the strongest especially on the discursive and conceptual level. “The Tswana response to the mission encounter was an effort to fashion an awareness of, and gain conceptual mastery over a changing world” (Comaroff & Comaroff 1992[1989]:508). Since colonizing process is not a simple dialectic of domination and resistance, this effort (typical not only for the Tswana) can lead to different results, such as emergence of new techniques of empowerment, sources of new knowledge, movements such as cargo cults, etc. (cf. Turner 2002[1969]: 369). The response to the colonial encounter may be, and often was, expressed in religious terms, since religion disposes of powerful symbols that have not only the potential to legitimate the given power structure but also to express and gain support to resist it; these symbols are also to a large extent dynamic, able to serve the actual needs. One more feature is crucial here, typically to be able to resist and be at least to some extent effective in ones resistance, one has to adopt the language of the powerful and dominant and express the resistance in terms of the Other. The dominant and the dominated thus necessarily have to share, if not the entire, so at least a great part of the identical conceptual universe and the struggle is no longer a struggle between two radically opposed conceptual systems, but a struggle over meaning and definition of particular segments of reality, often expressed in religious terms and metaphors. The example of the encounter between Christian missionaries and the Tswana nicely shows how religion is embedded in particular history and discourse of power and knowledge and how for meaningful it must be reproduced together with a definite social organization and material structure[4], it can not be truly distinguished as a realm of its own. The power of the colonizers was thus not only manifested through religious expressions, but the religion itself was the power, since because of its nature it had the potential to change substantially the social structure, organization, identity and consciousness of the colonized.

Hindu Religious Nationalism: A Love Affair between Power and Religion[5]

Our first example was concerned mainly with the relation between the religious expressions and the dominance and power of the colonizers; our second example will on the other hand focus more on the religious expressions manifesting resistance particularly to modernity and the notion of secular nationalism. Religion, on the global scale, gained recently a renewed potential as a cultural medium of protest; it has turned into a mean how to express political opposition and challenge, as in the case of India, even the legitimacy of the secular state (cf. Billings & Scott 1994:181-8). Similarly to our first case, the Indian nationalisms and Hindu nationalism in particular, were and are being formed in resistance to colonization but are also inevitably deeply affected by it. As we have already noted religious identities are historically produced, by particular social forces, i.e. by power (cf. Asad 1993[1982] and 2001); the formation of religious communities is affected by the state formation and by state practices (we can recall f. ex. the census practices and by its means imposed societal divisions during the colonial era, which largely affected the self-perceptions of the colonial subjects and led to the creation of strict border lines between diverse communities and became a base of identity and communalistic politics). But now let us turn our attention to a brief sketch of the Hindu nationalist movement itself. The primary objective of the Hindu nationalist movement is the unification of all Hindus into a single community that would serve as a foundation of a strong Hindu rashtra and that would ensure social cohesion in India. The Indian state, civil society and social formations should be according to this ideology “reorganized in a holistic and organic way along exclusively ‘Hindu’ precepts” (Bhatt; Mukta 2000:408). Hindutva thus aims at assimilation, dissolution of all religious pluralism and constitution of India as a religiously homogenous Hindu nation. This means for the Hindu nationalist movement overcoming of all the innumerable divisions of the Indian society (caste divisions which remain the strongest, family, gender, territory, rural-urban divisions etc.) and integrating all the marginal groups, such as untouchables and other backward classes, into the body of the Hindu society and simultaneously reinforcing and strengthening the division between non-Hindus, especially Muslims, and Hindus themselves; the definition of Hinduism – “the game of defining religion in this context is a highly political one” (Asad 2001:210). Severe boundaries are drawn between Hindus and Muslims, who are being constructed as the Other, as invaders, foreign transplants and as a great threat[6]. Muslims and secularism thus become the two main enemies and nationalism based on shared religious identity is the way how to express the opposition to both of these and how to gain power and support, for “since ritual creates domination, powerful groups and movements try to seize control over it and use it for their purposes” (van der Veer 1994:83). But the ideological background, symbolism and metaphors employed by Hindu nationalists and the arena where Hindu nationalists operate is much broader and can not be reduced to either the religious or the political field, though the religious metaphors have a certain privilege. The Hindu nationalism emerges in the sphere of the public and attacks directly and in different ways the representation and recognition of individuals and the creation and institutionalization of diverse communities.


As we have seen from our examples, power and resistance are inseparable, they are two sides of the same coin; they can be powerfully manifested under specific historical and social conditions through the religious expressions and symbolism. These three notions can thus become so tightly bound that it is almost impossible to distinguish where the one begins and ends and which one causes the other. They are under certain circumstances mutually dependent on each other for their own existence.


Asad, Talal. 1993[1982]. The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category. In: Lambek (ed.). Pp: 114-132.

Asad, Talal. 2001. Reading a Modern Classic: W.C.Smith’s “The Meaning and End of Religion”. History of Religions. 40(3):205-222.

Barbalet, J.M. 1985. Power and Resistance. The British Journal of Sociology. 36(4):531-548

Billings, Dwight B. & Scott, Shaunna L. 1994. Religion and Political Legitimation. Annual Review of Sociology. 20:173-202.

Brown, Michael. 1996. On Resisting Resistance. American Anthropologist. 98(4):729-735.

Comaroff, Jean & Comaroff, John. 1992[1989]. The Colonization of Consciousness. In: Lambek (ed.). Pp: 493-510.

Bhatt, Chetan & Mukta, Parita. 2000. Hindutva in the West: mapping the antinomies of diaspora nationalism. Ethnic and Racial Studies. 23(3):407-441.

Douglas, Mary. 1999. Land Animals, Pure and Impure. In: Michael Lambek (ed.). 2002. A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. Pp: 194-209.

Durkheim, Emile. 1995[1912]. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. In: Lambek (ed.). Pp: 34-49.

Eriksen, T.H. 1991. Ethnicity versus Nationalism. Journal of Peace Research. Vol. 28. No. 3. pp. 263-278.

Friedland, Roger. 2001. Religious Nationalism and the Problem of Collective Representation. Annual Review of Sociology. 27:125-152.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973[1966]. Religion as a Cultural System. In: Lambek (ed.). Pp: 61-82.

Giddens, Anthony. 1976. New Rules of Sociological Method. London: Hutchinson.

Lambek, Michael.(ed.). 2002. A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Lienhardt, Godfrey. 1961. The Control of Experience: Symbolic Action. In: Lambek (ed.). Pp: 330-339.

Tarrow, Sidney. 2006. Power in Movement. Social Movements and Contentious Politics. Cambridge University Press.

Turner, Victor. 1969. Liminality and Communitas. In: Lambek (ed.). Pp: 358-374.

van der Veer, Peter. 1994. Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in India. University of California Press.

Weber, Max. 1958[1904-5]. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In: Lambek (ed.). Pp: 50-60.

[1] As Sahlins has rightly pointed out, power has become an ”intellectual black hole into which all kinds of cultural contents get sucked” (Sahlins 1993:15, cit. In: Brown 1996:133-4).

[2] ”Power refers to the transformative capacity of human action” (Giddens 1976: 110; emphasis in original).

[3] Simply put, there is no such distinctively religious realm of things separated from the cultural and social filling as Clifford Geertz would like to imagine (Geertz 1973[1966].).

[4] Here we can recall Webers famous study of the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism (Weber 2002 [1958]:50-60).

[5] This chapter is partially based on my previously written essay on Hindu nationalism (“nr.451”. 2007. A Glimpse on the Hindu Nationalist Ideology & Religiopolitics. Unpublished manuscript).

[6] ”For people draw social lines, or oppose the attempt to do so, in particular contexts and for particular purposes.” (Asad 2001:210-1).


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