Student Report on Religion + Empire

Reported by Shivam Mani, Class of 2025

This talk was a part of the HRC’s Religion+ event series, held in-person on the DKU campus. Each event connects a topic to religion, and faculty are invited to speak on their work and/or ideas about the intersection of the topics.

 This event brought Prof. Bryce Beemer, Prof. Titas Chakraborty, and Prof. Tommaso Tesei together for a conversation about the role of religion in the formation, development, and behaviors of empires throughout history.

Prof. Tesei kicked the discussion off with a recording of a surah from the Quran that mentioned the Byzantine/Roman Empire. The purpose of this was to introduce the influence of Christian theology, specifically, the cosmocratic ambition of Christian kingdoms that was thought up by early Christian intellectuals, on later Islamic empires. Communities living on the edge of the Byzantine Empire adopted this religious zeal, and eventually spread it to the early Islamic elite. An interesting distinction that Prof. Tesei made was that the Byzantines used this idea to take on a defensive stance, whereas the Arabs adopted it and had a more aggressive, and expansionist stance. This idea persisted through the European colonial age, as Western kingdoms turned into imperial powers.

Prof. Chakraborty then turned the discussion to the British colonization of India. The professor stated that the colonization had two relevant ramifications on India: the conception that everything social is religious, and the categorization of Hinduism as a religion. The result was that a society that was strictly divided along sectarian lines (caste), was forced into a single group—the Hindu. Prof. Chakraborty criticized the British Colonial Administration for their ignorance in the ways they administered their subjects, particularly by highlighting their insistence on trying to make Hinduism a ‘religion’ much like their own. Another interesting effect of British rule was the role missionaries played in attempting to lobby for the rights and demands of lower caste Indians.

Prof. Beemer brought up a similar phenomenon in the context of Burma. British rule brought in waves of missionaries that seeked to bring the Gospel to the native population. Missionaries arriving in Burma did not arrive to a monolith of a society, but rather one that was stratified, and had its own oppressed groups that seeked to change their political/economic position. Missionaries built schools and hospitals, lifting up oppressed groups, and provided opportunities for studying in the West. The idea is not to glorify the work of missionaries, but to highlight the nuanced and complicated dynamics that missionaries encountered abroad, and for us to understand the reasons why groups converted to Christianity during the colonial period.

The event ended with a lively, and at times heated discussion of the merits and/or evils of missionary work, and their influence on post-colonial societies.