Gananath Obeyesekeere Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Understanding Culture: Conversation with Gananath Obeyesekere, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, Princeton University; March 19, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 3 of 4

Between East and West

You must have been [alert] to the ways in which Western social theory could get things wrong, because of a lack of empathy or understanding with the setting. Tell us a little about that and how you dealt with those tensions, and how you came to realizations like that.

That, again, is a difficult question to answer, because it permeates my work to such a degree. I would say it cuts both ways. On the one hand, I'm very critical of the way European scholarship approaches the Other -- you know, Third World cultures, including my own. I'm very critical of that. I'm also critical of my own culture particularly, and am terribly unpopular in Sri Lanka, at least among small groups of people, because I'm very critical of the nationalism in the country, the nationalism that led to this terrifying war in which we are now implicated and fortunately having a breathing spell right now.

So I am critical both of the Western attitude to the Other, as well as our own attitude to the West -- for example, some extreme nationalists will say colonialism had no impact on us, we have the same Buddhist culture going right through. I try to point out in several of my works, including Wisdom Transformed, and in this book, that in some sense the Buddhism that we now believe in is the colonial product. It is a product of Western theories and translators of Buddhist text, who came in the nineteenth century. I'm not saying that's necessarily bad, but it led to a transformation of ethics, a transformation of the way we look at the world in Sri Lanka, and it is foolish to deny this colonial impact. I am product of that, too, myself as I sit with you, speak in English, trained in English literature, and so forth. So why deny this?

At the same time, I don't want to whitewash the colonial enterprise. A lot of my work, the work on Captain Cook, for example, and the work I'm now doing, which I call Cannibal Talk, is the way the European looks at the Other. Cannibal Talk, when it appears (I hope it appears soon), will deal with that issue. So it's a Cook book.

Tell us a little about the Cook book. I know it's an important work.

The Cook book, in some sense, was an attempt to be critical. All this time, I've been critical of my own country and the way they have framed Buddhism and so forth. With the Cook book, I move into a critique of the way in which European scholarship has looked on the Other -- the Third World people and so forth. The Cook book deals with the phenomenon of this great explorer, Captain Cook, who goes into, at that time, the last part of the known world. After all, the rest of the world was fairly well-known and mapped. He goes into Polynesia. He's a brilliant, great figure. I don't doubt that at all. I call him Prospero in one sense -- trying to discover new worlds. One of the interesting things is, wherever he goes, he brings English animals. He plants the landscape with English trees and fruit trees. It's a matter of incorporating this other society within the frame of English ideas and culture.

So I am not denying that Cook was a very important figure of the European Enlightenment. He had the Prospero side to his persona. But I'm saying that that's not all there is. There's a dark side to the Enlightenment, which we know now today, I'm afraid. There's a dark side to the Enlightenment, and Cook represents what I also call the courage persona; that is, a person who goes into this foreign land and gets, in some sense, corrupted, so to speak. I show the two aspects of the courage persona in ...

Courage from ... Heart of Darkness?

Heart of Darkness. On the one hand, he's bringing in the Enlightenment, the light in some way, and on the other hand, he's bringing in the darkness, you see, because of the way he treats the natives and so forth.

That part of the Cook enterprise has been smothered in the scholarly representations, the popular representations. What I do is to read between the lines, read the footnotes that others have used, and bring that to the surface. The crux of the issue is that when Cook went to Hawaii, the way that Europeans scholars, and very distinguished ones, present it is that he was treated as one of their gods -- the god Lono, because he was called Lono. But I point out -- the subtitle of the book is European Mythmaking in the Pacific. The whole thrust of the book is to show that this is a European myth, and myths are, after all, not just the prerogative of us in the Third World! There's a great myth-making culture -- we know that. Even now, as we are here, it's myths that are being created about wars and so forth.

What I try to show is that the idea that the white civilizer is a god to natives is a structure of the long run in European thought. It comes in Columbus, it comes in Cortez, and it comes in Captain Cook. My argument was to show that they did treat Cook with great respect on the model of one of their chiefs, they bowed before him and so forth. They did that to their chiefs, too. There is no evidence in Cook's journals and the journals of the writer on board ship that he was deified at all. But there is definite evidence that soon after Cook's death, that there were pantomimes in Covent Garden in which Cook was deified by the Hawaiians. That was a European construction, even before the first ships went back to Hawaii. So my argument, therefore, is not just to point out the dark side of the Enlightenment project, particularly in respect of the Voyages of Discovery, but also to show European myth-making at its peak, that Cook is transformed into a god for natives.

Your new book is called Imagining Karma. It was published by UC Press. You spoke about it in yesterday's lecture. What was the problem that you were trying to address?

I can put it in this way. Intellectuals, myself included at one time, imagine that theories of reincarnation are an indirect phenomenon. We all associate that with Buddhism, and with Hinduism, and with the religions of India. A few people who are very well versed in the classics know that Pythagoras and so forth also had that [belief], but, basically, it's an indirect thing. There are even scholars who say that Pythagoras borrowed it from India.

So in the course of my reading and my anthropological experience, I began to question that whole thing. So the book was ...  the spoil that led to the writing of the book was to expand the notion that the idea of rebirth is not an indirect phenomenon: to decenter India, to delocalize India as the home and ground of rebirth, and to show that it is found [in many cultures]. In a recent book called Amerindian Rebirth, the younger scholars have shown that Northwest Coast Indians and other Indians had beautiful circular theories of rebirth, that a soul goes round and round, and comes back to the same patrilineal or matrilineal group. Beautifully circular systems. And then Mino from West Africa, from Ibo, which I describe in great detail, and other West African cultures, they too had theories of rebirth. The local classicists, Malinowski, our great ancestor, wrote of the religion of the Trobriand Islands, and that, again, has a wonderful system of rebirth theory.

So this led to a theoretical argument, trying to make the point that whether you're in ancient Greece or in ancient India, or current, present-day India, or whether you are dealing with what I call small-scale society (nowadays it's very unfashionable to use "primitive" and "tribe") there is in rebirth an elementary structure. That is, if you have a rebirth theory, you have the soul coming from some sphere, born into the womb of a woman, conceived there. One is then born in the human world. You go around the lifecycle. You die. You enter into another world. You come back, and you have a cyclical structure of continuity. It goes round and round. It doesn't matter where you are. It may be Plotinus. It may be Empedocles, Pinda, Pythagoras -- it doesn't matter -- or the Buddha, or the Jain, or Amerindians. That elementary structure is there. And any other system, so to speak, whether you're talking about Greek rebirth or Plato. Contrary to some of my classicist friends, I believe that Plato was not writing stuff on rebirth as allegory, as many people think, but he really believed in it.

So whether it is Plato or whether it is the Buddha, and these are very powerful thinkers, they have to build their system of thought on this elementary structure. This permits, in some sense, comparison. So, since this permits comparison, I am arguing against a dominant theme in my own profession, and in postmodernism in general, that everything in the world is fragmented, cultural and ethical relativism is everywhere. I am saying yes, it is everywhere, but it is also not. You take these structures and you can demonstrate the existence of compatibility in cultures.

Again, I'm not an anthropologist, so for the layperson, what I hear you saying is that you're discovering on the one hand a kind of universalism -- in this case, the rebirth story that appears in all sorts of places. But on the other hand, there is a richness in the particular setting in which this occurs. And so the job of the analyst -- in your case, the anthropologist -- is to see that [universalism] but also to dig out the local story and the way it's played out in that system.

Yes, that's part of my argument. The point of my argument is that these things are comparable on one level because they share this elementary structure. You have to build a complex system of thought (and Buddhism is a tremendously complex system of thought), on [elementary] structures. Obviously, Buddhism is different from Greek culture, it is different from Amerindians; but even at the level of complexity, there are some interconnections. You can't avoid them. So that is why I always am both a relativist and an anti-relativist, in some sense.

Next page: Advice for Students

© Copyright 2003, Regents of the University of California