Apprehending the “Essence” of Religion

In “Scripting Difference,” students from Dr. Richard Newton’s Ethnicity, Gender, and Religion course, reflected on concepts from Stephen Sharot’s sociology of Religion, James W. Watt’s work on scriptures, and a variety of case studies in order to examine the discourses in the course title. In this edition, Emily D. Crews, a PhD candidate at the University of Chicago Divinity School, responds to Ray Cotolo’s engagement iwth comparison. You can read Cotolo’s piece on the religion and the formation of ethnicity here. 

In his thought-provoking paper, “How the Gita Jayanti Exemplifies the Defining of Ethnicity,” Ray Cotolo considers the ways in which particular spiritual practices and events might offer an opportunity to think more generally about the relationship between religion and culture.  He does so by exploring certain aspects of theGita Jayanti, an annual Hindu celebration that takes place in Singapore, and comparing them to similar phenomena characteristic of Christianity.

Mr. Cotolo begins his paper with a consideration of the notion of “transcendence,” which he defines as “the existence or experience beyond the physical level” and which he argues “is the cornerstone of all spiritual practices.”  He further argues that the desire to attain transcendence is at the root of not just the Gita Jayanti, but of all “spiritual practices, ranging from contemporary Christianity to Hinduism.” He then explains that, although “these traditions are bound by the same pursuit of transcendence, they are distinct through their idiosyncratic practices.”  In other words, Hinduism and Christianity share a common search for transcendence that is alike in nature, but shaped by the broader cultural traditions in which each religion exists.

Mr. Cotolo analyzes the Gita Jayanti through comparison with Christianity on several points: the use of a holy text, “the Bhagavad Gita, which is the holy book to Hinduism as the Bible is to Christianity;” the significance of a virtuoso, Jesus Christ, whom he aligns with Krishna; the symbolism of breath and breathing; and two rituals of transubstantiation, the Gita Havana and the Catholic Eucharist. In each of these cases, the relevant datum from the Gita Jayanti is stated and then framed or articulated through references to Christian and/or biblical examples.

In asserting the universal significance of transcendence and placing what he defines as a Hindu ritual in a comparative relationship with Christianity, Mr. Cotolo has made the case that religions are, at their core, made up of the same matter, and the differences we might observe between them are cosmetic or aesthetic ones that arise out of the specific contexts in which they are located. Or, said in another way, all religions are the same underneath, even if they might look different on the surface.


Despite his relative newness to the academic study of religion, Mr. Cotolo has undertaken a series of conceptual moves that, for much of their existence, has characterized both the field of Religious Studies and more colloquial discussions of religion.  The claim that there is some essence common to all religions (or to their rituals or myths or texts or claims) comes with a long history, and one that cannot be separated from the enterprise of comparison.  Indeed, the comparative method has long been the preferred tool of those seeking to prove the similarity—and especially the equality—of religions across time and space.  That agenda, however, has not always been successful and has at times engendered ironically problematic scholarship.

Many advanced scholars of religion will know the contours of this story, and some will be able to recite it from memory.  Rather than rehearse it here and risk spoiling the ending, I want to offer a few questions that might allow for Mr. Cotolo and other students new to the study of religion the opportunity to make their own discoveries.

First, by what method can we as scholars apprehend the “essence” of a religion?  That is, what are the repeatable, falsifiable tests we can undertake to discover and analyze a sample of “essence” and then compare it to another?  [Spoiler alert: this is a trick question.]

“Religious circle,” Symbols by the clockwise order: Judaism Christianity Islam Bahá’í Faith Hinduism Taoism Buddhism Sikhism Rodnoveri Celtic paganism (contemporary) Heathenism Semitic paganism (contemporary) Wicca Kemetism Hellenic paganism (contemporary) Roman paganism (contemporary) Languages by the clockwise order: Latin English German French Czech Russian Modern Greek (ancient would be πιστις) Arabic Chinese Simplified. Wikipedia CC-BY-SA 3.0.

Second, what is the causal or directional relationship between religion and culture?  Which came first and which emerges out of which? Mr. Cotolo offers several (sometimes contradictory) answers to this question in his paper, each of which would change the conclusions to which we can come regarding the notion of universality.

Third, what makes for a good comparison?  What makes for a less good one?  What kinds of things can we compare to each other and which things resist being compared?

And finally, what types of conclusions might be predetermined, enabled, or prevented by framing the object of analysis (in this case, transcendence, the Gita Jayanti, and/or Hinduism) in relation to Christianity?  Is there any reason to be cautious about this kind of comparative enterprise?  What kinds of power dynamics, hierarchies, and assumptions might be at work in how we think through this relationship?

By way of conclusion, I would like to thank Mr. Cotolo and Professor Newton for the opportunity to engage with a promising, exciting paper from a new member of our intellectual community, and to congratulate Mr. Cotolo on this foray into a classic debate in Religious Studies.


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Emily D. Crews is a PhD candidate in History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School.  Her dissertation project explores the religious lives of Nigerian immigrants living in Chicago.  In the classroom Emily focuses on teaching the skill of critical analysis through the rigorous interrogation of categories, texts, customs, and selves.  She hopes her students will someday forgive her for always answering their questions with a question.

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