Material Culture and the Study of Hinduism and Buddhism



This essay surveys the history of material culture in relation to the study of Buddhism and Hinduism. The essay opens by exploring the factors in Reformation and Enlightenment Europe that led to the marginalization of material culture in relation to religion, and how these attitudes towards the use of material objects in religion entered the academic study of religion as the discipline developed. Colonial attitudes towards Buddhist and Hindu material culture are also addressed as an example of how the western move towards a privileging of texts and doctrines over matter impacted the early study of Indian religions by western academics. The more recent shift towards including data from material sources is also demonstrated with a focus on two fields within religious studies: the history of religions and lived religions. In relation to the history of religions, the essay demonstrates that incorporating material sources both questions accepted scholarship based solely on texts and allows for a more complete historical context through which scholars can explore both texts and objects together. The discussion of lived religions and material culture emphasizes the movement towards understanding religion as embodied and that a study of how objects are produced, exchanged and understood gives us insight into everyday religious practice and the social relationships that are constructed through the use of ‘stuff’.