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Challenging Definitions: Human Agency, Diverse Religious Practices and the Problems of Boundaries

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Much contemporary scholarship in Religious Studies emphasizes communities who contest the standard definitions of their religion. However, religious labels and terms such as syncretism often implicitly validate the dominant definitions that identify these diverse practices as peripheral. This essay explores the challenges that the dominant definitions present to such communities and suggests an emphasis on agency and the contestation surrounding any definition of a religion to avoid privileging one definition of a religion and, thereby, to facilitate a more balanced analysis. The example of Sindhi Hindus illustrates the value of this emphasis on agency. Sindhi Hindu communities and individuals construct and defend their own definitions of religions in environments where non-Sindhis challenge Sindhi practices, which do not necessarily correspond exactly to the definitions that the Sindhis construct for themselves. Adding Bell's conception of ritual inscription to this discussion of agency further highlights how participation in practices commonly associated with different religions can foster internal tensions. Therefore, an emphasis on agency with its complexity and limitations enables scholars to recognize the internal pressures that exist in some constructions of religious practices without contributing to the external challenge from dominant definitions. This approach also enables a more nuanced analysis of processes of syncretism that are more complex than traditional applications of that term allow.

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Affiliations: 1: Department of Religious Studies, 212 Manly Hall, P.O. Box 870264, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487–0264, USA


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