Student Report on “Ritual, Anti-Ritual, and the Efficacy of Reform” Lecture by Dr Peter van der Veer.

On April  22, 2024, the Humanities Research Center hosted Dr. Peter van der Veer, a distinguished scholar in the field of anthropology and religion. Dr. van der Veer is Director Emeritus of the Max Planck Society in Germany, and Professor Emeritus at the Utrecht University in the Netherlands. He has taught at the Free University in Amsterdam, Utrecht University, and at the University of Pennsylvania. This event was divided into two sections: an informal discussion with students and faculty followed by a lecture by Dr. van der Veer. In total, over 80 people were present across the two sections. 

During the informal discussion, Dr. van der Veer started by sharing his own journey and experience in the field. He reminisced that he had been interested in linguistics and had spent time after high school travelling in India, Iran and Afghanistan. It was these experiences that led him to learn Pali, Hindi and Sanskrit. Although his academic career had been shaped by his interests, Dr. van der Veer also reminded the audience that context and circumstances were also vital. He shared that he never predicted that he would be a scholar of nationalism, but circumstances would have it that there would be the rise of the nationalist party BJP in his research area, India. Later in his career, he would apply his expertise on India with comparisons in China.

The audience was excited to have Dr. van der Veer share his experiences and many questions were asked. Questions on graduate school, academia and general advice for interested students was a common theme. In particular, some students were concerned with the prospects of majoring in anthropology or the social sciences. Dr. van der Veer was quick to point out that the skills and sensibilities learnt in this field would not just be contained within academia but was vital and could be applied to any other profession.

 Dr. van der Veer also gave a talk on “Ritual, Anti-Ritual, and the Efficacy of Reform” during the second half of the event. In this lecture, he highlighted 2 common fallacies in the field. The first fallacy was that academics tended to focus on action and doing rather than meaning. Dr. van der Veer challenged this conception because it does not fully capture the intricacies of ritual behavior. He provides an example of rituals and the disciplining of the body. In India, there exists a distinction between rituals carried out by the Brahminical tradition and those carried out by the ascetical tradition. At first glance, it seems that the actions of both groups were in opposition, with the former focusing on rituals maintaining the caste system while the latter renouncing the caste system and worldly actions. However, Dr. van der Veer argues that these two traditions are not in opposition but just different variants of rituals. There is an internalization of rituals through the disciplining of the body in the ascetical tradition. If one were to solely focus on the actions alone, one would overlook rituals such as the creating of social relations and techniques of the body that are transmitted across generations. 

The second fallacy that Dr. van der Veer sought to address was the opposition of sincerity versus rituals. He highlighted how this line of thought had roots in anti-Catholic polemics that culminated in the Protestant movement. As such, previous understandings of Chinese religion still carried this framework. For example, some scholars viewed a distinction between the ritualistic and the sincere in Mohism. In addressing this fallacy, Dr. van der Veer drew an example of a Chinese festival held in Indonesia. This festival had a rich soundscape where the distinction between the sacred and profane was blurred. Dr. van der Veer also took questions from the audience. One audience member asked for Dr. van der Veer ’s thoughts of the recent increase of religious tourism in China, where throngs of buses, sometimes sponsored by the state, would appear at temples. Dr. van der Veer acknowledged that this was an interesting phenomenon and highlighted that this ‘revival’ would need to be looked at as a total experience, where the question of the sincerity of the tourists would also need to be scrutinized.