Comparative Religious Essays

Comparative Religious Essays-35
This was possible in part because different groups of elites also participated in several different spheres of religious and community activities, thus giving popular culture considerable cover.In an earlier study of the Guandi cult, I tried to show how the imperial state sought to appropriate the popular and apotheosized hero of the Three Kingdoms era (220-280) as an orthodox figure elevated to the status of the highest of gods and represented as carrying the classics in one hand, even as popular lore told martial stories of his bandit-like exploits and vows of brotherhood and loyalty.

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Although there were several episodes of what Max Weber called Caesaro-papism in Eurasia, in the Abrahamic and Indic traditions, the realm of the transcendent was controlled by the religious clergy, whether Brahmins, priests, or the ulama.

In China, however, this intermediate realm was weakened by the powerful role of the imperial state.

Indeed, during the Han dynasty, Confucius was “made” into a lineal descendant of the Shang dynasty.

Thus he was converted into an imperial ancestor, which gave the emperor the privilege of ancestral access to his worship and transformed him into the paragon of filial virtue, a crucial Confucian value.

And such is what is meant by cutting the communication between Heaven and Earth. He argues that the king himself was the most important shaman and that he and his priests sought to monopolize access to the sacred authority of Heaven.

In other words, the emperor, aided by his ritual specialists, claimed a monopoly on communication with the sacred powers vis-à-vis not only other clergy but the people as well.The figure and myth of Guandi was superscribed by various groups and communities at all levels of society, drawing on older and contemporary versions, but each marked by a distinctive interpretation that served its own charter.At the same time, the imperial version of the Guandi myth was acknowledged and mobilized for other purposes.Third, by patronizing different religions and ritualists, the imperial court fostered rivalries among the Confucians, Daoists, and Buddhists.The threats posed in particular by the Buddhists—with their challenge to familism and filial piety—to the cosmology of Heaven and ancestral worship drove the Confucians further into the arms of the ancestral cult and the imperial court.But these campaigns tended to drive many of the ideas and practices related to alternative conceptions and popular access to Heaven still deeper into popular culture, where they mingled and often camouflaged themselves in the thicket of popular religiosity.There, it was difficult to execute the policy that the minister of the state of Chu had counseled: “to cut the communications between Heaven and Earth” so as to prevent “each household from indiscriminately performing for itself the religious observances.” Behind the translucent canopy, popular religiosity turned out to be a vibrant field of communication and negotiation, accommodation and adaptation, camouflage and resistance between state orthodoxy and the popular cultural nexus.This short essay draws up the principal ideas from a chapter in my forthcoming book concerning the historical field of Chinese religions in comparative context in order to identify its distinctive problems and possible pathways.In order to distinguish religions in the Sinosphere from other state-religion relationships in the longue durée, we need to identify how the state and religions have managed the question of transcendence.There were several reasons for the growing power of the imperial state over the Confucians.First, as is well known, the Confucian bureaucracy ultimately served under the authority of the emperor. But while bureaucratic power might in theory have been able to displace that of the emperor—as it did in other places—the patronage mechanisms of the imperial court played a powerful role in its management.


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