How I Came to Study Religious Violence
Why would a nice guy from a farm in Southern Illinois, a Christian pacifist and a Gandhian, turn to the study of religious violence? The answer is the Sikhs. I had lived for a couple of years in the Punjab, the region in the far north of India in the Himalayan foothills, where the largest religious community was not Hindu or Muslim but a relatively new religious tradition that followed a series of spiritual masters from the 16th and 17th centuries. What attracted me to Sikhism was not only its peaceful spiritual teaching but also the egalitarian spirit of the community. Sikhs were warm, generous, open-hearted rural people, and I found in them a certain kinship.
So when an awful spiral of violence began to emerge in the Punjab in the 1980s between the Indian government and rural Sikh youth, I wanted to know why? Why was this movement violent and why was it religious? The questions were not only close to my academic subject of interest in religion and politics, but also close to my heart, since I wanted to know how people from the Sikh community that I so much loved and respected could be engaged in clashes so brutal and vicious. And I wanted to know why religion—the harbinger of peace—could be suffused with conflict and blood.
After the tragic invasion of the Sikh’s Golden Temple in 1984, I returned to the Punjab with questions. I interviewed followers of the fallen leader of the Sikh uprising, Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, and listened to recordings of his sermons. What I discovered would propel me through many of my comparative studies of religious activism around the world in the several decades since. I found that Bhindranwale and his movement saw the political world through religious eyes, and that they understood the mundane clashes of the material world to be a part of a grand unfolding drama, a scenario of cosmic war. They saw politics within a vast religious tableau.
Hence my studies of instances of religious violence have lead me back to my original interests in the study of religion in general, trying to understand the role that religious ideas and images play in the human imagination and in the aspirations of social life. I have also learned that the best way—the basic way, really—to study religious phenomena is to go inside them, to try to understand them from the perspective of the believer. This means taking seriously the notion that religion portrays “an alternative reality” as Robert Bellah put it in his last book, Religion in Human Evolution. To enter into the religious imagination, I have found, is not only a sound intellectual procedure, but also a way of entering into aspects of humanity’s complex socio-spiritual world. It is a window into the hidden recesses of our selves.