West Sees East: Cultural Stereotypes in Twentieth-Century Czech Discourse about Indian Religions
The history of the humanities suggests that no scholarly discipline or theory can function without the models and categories it generates and relies on. Since they are necessarily conditioned by the cultural and ideological context in which they are developed, however, they readily become distorting stereotypes. During its academic history, the academic study of religions has been formed by philosophical perspectives and worldviews drawn from Evolutionism, Positivism, Historicism, Scientific Atheism, Theology, and other schools of thinking. This article explores this use of stereotypes through the example of shifting perceptions of a different culture in the history of Czech understandings of Indian religions during the 20th century, on the basis of a critical analysis of Czech discourse about Indian religions in several academic disciplines: theology, philosophy, history, study of religions, sociology, etc. We see that the religions of India were repeatedly evaluated through stereotypes and a European colonial mindset of cultural values, such as the Western search for doctrinal order in the ‘Oriental chaos’, an emphasis on Western ‘activity’ as opposed to perceived Oriental ‘passivity’, or seeing Catholic hierarchy reflected in the Indian caste system. These stereotypes were also deeply entrenched in Czech popular understandings of Indian culture, despite the low levels of contact between Czech and Indian society. Both in academic and in popularized discourse, we can recognize the uncritical and mechanical adoption of models, categories and values from a Western European cultural framework rather than as a result of scholars’ empirical experience and scholarly evidence.
Keywords: Czech Study of Religions, Indian Religions and Culture, Orientalism, Stereotypes
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