Review of Staal’s Rules Without Meaning –S.N.Balagangadhara

[Appeared in (1991) CULTURAL DYNAMICS. 4(1). p.98-106]

FRITS STAAL. Rules Without Meaning: Ritual, Mantras and the Human Sciences. Toronto Studies in Religion, Vol. 4. New York and Bern: Peter Long XIX+419p.

In order to set the tone of this review article, let me begin straightway with a confession: I have been a closet admirer of Frits Staal ever since I discovered his writings in 1987. The reasons that undergird my attitude are several: firstly, most of his writings are about a culture I am familiar with, namely, India; secondly, absent from them is the dewy-eyed romanticism that is pernicious to any serious study of cultures and people; thirdly, present in them are insights that are immensely important and extremely exciting; fourthly, the theses argued for are the results of absolutely pioneering research which fly in the face of deeply entrenched commonsense wisdom; and so on… He is my fellow-traveler on more tracks than one, and my own thinking on several subjects over the last few years carry the deep imprint of Staal’s rigorous thinking and painstaking enquiries. 

No admiration, hoxwever, is unqualified at all levels and mine is no exception. My unease arises from the fact that, for some reason or the other, Staal seems to stop short of building his formidable insights into a well-articulated theory. The book under review, Rules without Meaning, which pulls together many strands of research that Staal pursued over the last decade, exemplifies this tendency too. 

 The book is about many things: language and meaning, rituals and mantras, science and philosophy, religion and music. Not only are there general considerations about each of these themes but they are also supported by empirical studies of one culture, namely, India. In this sense, Rules without Meaning is an anthropological study of aspects of Indian culture as well. Nor merely that. Staal enters into polemics with Tambiah, Obeyesekere, and Geertz about their methodologies. Thus it is a book about theories and methodologies. The sub-title of the book, Rituals and Mantras and the Human Sciences, appropriately enough, tells us how ambitious Staal’s project is. He cuts across disciplinary boundaries by tackling several authors active in different domains of social sciences. He believes too that what is being said is of relevance not just to sanskritists, indologists, or to scholars active in the domain of religion alone. Even though it is indubitable that his insights, if true, will have profound repercussions on various human sciences, it is nevertheless not obvious to an attentive reader what Staal’s theory amounts to. By the time we reach the end of the book, we will know the several theses Staal argues for. But their impact is not so evident because one does not quite know what to do with them. This may sound both exaggerated and unfair because Staal keeps continuously emphasizing the importance of theory building to scientific endeavor throughout the book. In this review, I will present a reasonable case for making the criticism stick.

Consider, for instance, the bare bones of Staal’s claims about Ritual: it is a meaningless activity (but not valueless because of that); exhibits a recursive structure; and, as related to the above two, the syntax of the natural languages may have their evolutionary origin in Ritual. These claims (especially the first two) are the results of painstaking analyses of some of the Vedic rituals, which have been transmitted in their original form for over thousands of years in India. However one might look at them, it must be admitted that these are revolutionary claims. They are not badly stated either. The evidence that Staal presents for each of these theses is extremely impressive—together, they stand more than a cut above anything that anthropologists have ever presented in defense of the opposite, commonsense view that rituals are ‘symbolic activities’ which carry deep meanings.

As though this is not enough, Staal uncouples ritual from religion and, as he puts it, from society (p.141). I am not sure what he wants to say by the latter, but that ritual needs to be looked at independent of religion is something I agree with. Furthermore, with respect to religion, he makes the claim that it may not be universal and refers explicitly to India in particular and Asia in general.

This is where Staal’s thesis becomes intriguing and cries out for a theory. If ritual transmission is so strong in India, if transmission of religion has characterized the West, how have they affected these two different cultures? What, furthermore, does this tell about human cultures? These questions provide us with a serious entry-point to theorize about cultural differences and hence about human culture itself.

Here is where Staal disappoints us the most. Despite his repeated emphasis throughout the book on the need to build theories, there is very little attempt to do so. At least one reason for this failure is Staal’s own meta-theoretical commitments as they are reflected on at least two levels. Firstly, what contemporary philosophy has become: a profession which confuses building theories with providing arguments for making this or that thesis appears plausible or acceptable. Of course, this may not be just a conclusion. It could be the result of holding the no-longer tenable view that scientific explanations are some sort of deductive arguments. Secondly, rather naive notion of what sciences are and thus what human sciences can be: if some phenomenon is not ‘universal’ then a theory about it cannot be set up (e.g. p.63).

The first point must be evident to students of contemporary philosophy, but the second may require a word or two. If it is the case, as Staal suggests, that India knows of no religion whereas the West does, it is no doubt that trying to build a theory about the origin of religion and its continuous persistence in human cultures will not bear fruit. But we must not lose sight of the fact that the affirmation about the universality of religion is a theoretical claim, which has issued forth from some or another theory about human beings. (A skeptic need only glance thru the writings of Hume, Durkheim, Freud, etc. to be convinced of this.) An alternative to a theoretical claim cannot be anything less than a theory explaining not merely why religion is not a cultural universal but also why it is nevertheless believed to be one. That is to say, the localized existence of a social phenomenon, when it has hitherto been argued to be a cultural universal, poses a problem whose solution requires the presence of theory. It will not, of course be a theory of religion (in the sense of Hume and others) but one which can tackle religion as a trait of a specific culture. It might do so by theorizing cultures in terms of their differences. Religion could turn out to be a phenomenon present in one specific culture, but only a theory about human cultures could tell what it means to make such a claim.

In contrast to the above route, Staal’s ideas seem to roughly run thus: religion is not a universal, hence it may not be possible to set up a theory about it; ritual probably is, hence a theory may be possible. But what if ritual is not a cultural universal either? I believe it is not. As I see the issue, ritual and religion are mutually exclusive as cultural phenomena.  Of course, commonsense wisdom makes ritual into an integral part of religion (‘religious’ rituals) and even speaks in terms of ‘ritualistic’ religions. I think that this is wrong. The way to decide the case is by building an adequate theory about both–one which tells us why religion and/or ritual are not cultural universals or whether they are. A singular negative statement does not, of course, falsify universally quantified statements. As student of cultures, however, we must not forget that our problems actually begin here: why did we hitherto believe in the universality of some cultural phenomenon? Why does it enjoy merely a localized existence? Solutions to these questions require nothing short of building theory.

The reason why I have emphasized the absence of theory in Staal’s writings is simply this: without a theory, even truly revolutionary insights end up getting trivialized. This is what Staal has done to himself. There is no better way to appreciate the predicament than follow Staal in his own reasoning. For the brevity, I shall focus on just one theme (religion).

Staal takes exception to the existing concepts of religion and their ‘applicability’ (!) in Asia. He motivates this stance on two grounds in his most extended considerations on the subject so far (1989). The first ground involves using a rather narrow concept of religion based upon the three western monotheisms, and seeing the extent to which such a concept is useful in Asia. What would this narrow concept be?

(E)ven if we do not seek to provide a precise definition, it is not entirely unclear what would be involved in a concept of religion based upon Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It would involve such notions as a belief in God, a holy book, and (at least in two cases out of these three) a historic founder. Taking our cue from this last exception (the fact that Judaism has no founder), we can meaningfully ask whether it is feasible to apply to Asia a concept of religion that requires the presence of at least two of these three characteristics. (397-398.)

What would we find in Asia were we to apply this narrow concept of religion?

What we find, even with these relatively flexible characteristics, is that none of the so-called religions of Asia is a religion in this sense. Buddhism, for example, has a founder, but neither belief in God, nor a holy book…Taoism does not have a belief in God…Tantrism does not appear as an independent movement. It is allied with Buddhism or Saivism, and shares characteristics with theYoga which enters into similar alliances. Shintoism lacks all three characteristics. Confucianism possesses only one: it has a founder. And so our conclusion can only be that any notion of religion that is based on the characteristics of the three Western monotheistic religions is inapplicable in Asia (398).

There is, to be sure, a great deal of truth to his empirical description of the Asian traditions. However, it is not clear that these properties make the three western monotheisms into religions either. Could Jesus be considered a founder of Christianity? An ‘orthodox’ Christian would be hard put to answer the question unambiguously: there cannot be a Christ figure without there being a past to Christianity. The fulfillment of God’s promise is the event of the coming of Christ in flesh, but that does not make Jesus into the founder of Christianity in any unambiguous sense. If Christianity is the continuation of the ‘real’ tradition, then it is no breakaway group with Jesus as its founder. If Judaism is the ‘real’ tradition, then Christianity is the splinter movement. This point is equally true for Islam. Again, a Muslim would be hard put to answer the question unambiguously: if the prophet Muhammad was not there, in all probability, there would be no Islam. However, the Muslim would continue, Muhammad was merely the last prophet of God in a line of other earlier prophets. In this sense, just as is the case with Christianity, if one sees Islam as the continuation of the ‘real’ tradition, Muhammad did not found a new religion. On the other hand, if Mohammed was no prophet at all then one could say that he founded a new religion. Equally, Christ need not have asked Peter to build the Church–would Christianity have been any less of a religion for that? As far as holy books are concerned, there were Christians before the gospels were codified after all. In other words, it can be plausibly maintained (to some extent) that Christianity itself need not necessarily have these properties in order to be a religion. Of course, as a matter of historical fact, we do describe (from the outside) Christianity in terms of its holy book, the figure of Christ, the Churches, and such like. How much of this is historical contingency, and how much by virtue of the fact that Christianity is a religion?

The same point could be made with respect to belief in God. Even though I have tried to argue that ‘atheistic religiosity’ is Christianity gone secular, and I have difficulty in comprehending how God could become irrelevant to being religious, this argument does not establish that such religions could not exist elsewhere or that they could not come into being. In this sense, even this possibility requires to be left open until that stage where we could show that belief in God is essential not to just these three religious traditions, but to the very nature of religion itself.

The reply to Staal, then, could be that this ‘narrow concept’ is inapplicable in Asia because its ‘applicability’ to the Western monotheisms is itself suspect.

His second argument involves using an ‘extended’ concept of religion, which includes or incorporates the categories of ‘doctrine’ (belief), ritual, mystical experience, and meditation. He argues (I will not summarize the points here) that because the last three consist of other categories more fundamental than the concept ‘religion’, an ‘extended’ concept of religion that comprises of these three is an incoherent concept. As such, the category ‘religion’ exhibits all the characteristics of pathological, if not monstrous growth, tumorous with category blunders. It is worse than a spider with a submarine, a burning bush, an expectation, and a human head. We have found that the trio of ritual, meditation and mystical experience consists of categories that are more fundamental than the category religion itself (401).

Consequently, he suggests that we take a terminological decision and confine the term ‘religion’ to Western monotheisms.

Let us go along with Staal for a moment and take this terminological decision. What exactly does this imply? It could imply several things, depending on how we state the thesis. What I shall do now is to provide three versions of Staal’s thesis– a weak version, a strong version, and a stronger version. Even though more variants are possible, these three are enough to appreciate the problem.

(a) Our conceptualization of religion has been inadequate. We need to develop a more adequate, more sophisticated, and a more fine-grained concept of religion in order to satisfactorily account for different religions.

The weak version of Staal’s thesis would almost win universal consensus. No intellectual worthy of his name would resist a plea for developing subtler and richer concepts. Further, there is also a quasi-universal consensus that the ‘Western’ concept of religion is inadequate. Staal subscribes to this thesis as he explicitly states:

A philosophy of religion worthy of its name should begin with a discussion of the concept of religion and an investigation into the status of a possible science of religion based upon what is presently known about religions or so-called religions of mankind (418; italics mine).

But then, people have been doing precisely this for over a hundred years. This weak thesis does not entail that we confine the concept of religion to western monotheisms. If we cannot use the concept ‘religion’, which other concept shall we use? Indeed, many would be willing to concur with Staal that the imposition of the Western concept of religion on the rest of the world illustrates how Western imperialism continues to thrive in the realm of thought (419).

They would also add that one has to start somewhere, with the existing concept of religion for example, and appropriately extend it, modify it, enlarge it, refine it, by studying other cultures. Studying what in other cultures though? Why, religions of course. Staal would also agree with this point of view because, as he says, we should base ourselves upon what is presently known both about religions and the “so-called religions” of humankind.

Let us now look at the strong thesis.

(b) We cannot use our concept of religion to translate certain concepts in Asia, because both this concept and the concept cluster associated with it are absent in its culture.

This is the strong version of his thesis, which may or may not imply the weaker thesis. (That is to say, it is logically independent of the truth of the weak version.) It does entail that the ‘western’ concepts of religion are not applicable in Asia. Staal subscribes to this thesis as well:

(T)erms for religion that refer to its doctrinal content are relatively rare in the languages of Asia and are invariably of recent date…In India, the term dharma has been used in the sense of “religion” in expressions like Hindu dharma, bauddha dharma, jaina dharma only during the last few centuries. The same holds for the Chinese tsang-chiao and the Japanese shukyo. The concept of “Hinduism”, incidentally, came up in the thirties of the nineteenth century in English literature (390; italics mine).


One of the reasons why this strong thesis might not entail the weaker version has to do with the italicized portion of the citation. If one uses the concept of religion to refer to ‘doctrinal contents’, then the point could hold. However, this concept is not the only one floating around. There are other ‘western concepts’ too such as those that refer to an ‘experience of the Holy’, the ‘absolute’, or of a ‘mysterium tremendum et fascinans‘. Or, again, if the ‘western’ concept constitutes a ‘polythetic’ class, in which the ‘doctrinal content’ is but one property, the entailment that the ‘western’ concept of religion is inadequate does not hold. The clarion call to refine this concept further, being the platitude that it is, does not get not affected.

These remarks are sufficient to turn our attention to the stronger version of the thesis.

(c) The concept of religion is ‘inapplicable’ because that which is designated by the term ‘religion’ in the West is absent from the cultures of Asia.

The stronger thesis entails the strong thesis (b) by being its explanans. The weaker version is logically independent of this stronger thesis as well, for obvious reasons. To say that religions are absent in Asia is to say that they are unreal in that culture; they are not products of Asia but creations of the West. Staal appears to subscribe to this thesis as well:

The inapplicability of Western notions of religion to the traditions of Asia…is also responsible for something more extraordinary: the creation (Staal’s emphasis) of so-called religions. This act was primarily engaged in by outsiders and foreigners, but is sometimes subsequently accepted by members of a tradition. The reasons lie in the nature of Western religion …In most parts of Asia, such religions do not exist, but scholars, laymen and Western converts persist in searching for them. If they cannot find them, they seize upon labels used for indigenous categories, rent them from their original context and use them for subsequent identification of what is now called a “religious” tradition. Thus there arises a host of religions: Vedic, Brahmanical, Hindu, Buddhist, Bon-po, Tantric, Taoist, Confucian, Shinto, etc. In Asia such groupings are not only uninteresting and uninformative, but tinged with the unreal (393; italics, unless otherwise indicated, mine).

This is not all. Staal goes even further to emphatically state:

Hinduism does not merely fail to be a religion; it is not even a meaningful unit of discourse (397; my italics).

The implication, then, is that religion is not a cultural universal but a conceptual compulsion of a religious culture. If Hinduism is not a meaningful unit of discourse, that is because (Staal notices this) it does not refer to a single unified phenomenon or even to a set of discrete phenomena. Simply put, it has no reference to anything in the world but a learnt way of answering the question, ‘are you a Hindu?’

If Staal subscribes to this version, how then could he argue or accept the following?

The study of religion ought to play an important part in the human sciences, for while language provides the foundation for most intellectual activity of the human animal, religion hovers around the loftier realms of human expression and belongs to a domain that lies beyond language(387).

He could not; yet he does. My thesis entails the negation of the above sentiment. It may be informative and illuminating, given what I have said during the last few chapters, to note that Staal does not argue for the truth of the above but presupposes it: it is the opening paragraph of his discourse into religion.

Let me provide a brief overview of the nature of the difference between Staal and me. I am investigating the object designated by the term ‘religion’; Staal is talking about some or other concept of ‘religion’. I am arguing that religion–as an entity–has not been shown to exist in all cultures; Staal assumes its universality and suggests that the ‘Western’ concept is incoherent. If I succeed in my aim, I will have argued that religion does not exist in Asia and, therefore, it is not a cultural universal; Staal pleads for a philosophy of religion whose task would involve, among other things, a ‘conceptual analysis’ of the concept ‘religion’ (or, in more pedantic terms, providing a ‘good definition’).

By all standards, the first two theses are both lame and trivial. Yet the suggestion that India (Asia) has no religion is anything but lame and trivial. But what is its significance? There is only one way to answer this question and that is by building a theory about religion. How to go about doing this, if religion is not cultural universal? This is not the place to discuss this issue as I have recently completed a manuscript on this very question. (The Heathen in his blindness: Asia, the West and the dynamic of religion, 1994) There I too argue that India (Asia) does not know of religions; and I have been able to shed light on the belief about the universality of religion by beginning to build a theory about religion.

There is also a second theme to this difference. Staal is content to note Western imperialism and its continued operation. I think that it is a problem we need to understand. What compels thinkers of today and yesteryears in the West to see and create religions in other cultures? To call it ‘imperialist’ is to baptize it with a name and names, as we all know, do not explain anything or solve any problem.

To the reader of this review, it may appear that I sound negative. But it is anything but that. Staal is probably the most interesting anthropologist/Indologist (professionally he is neither), whose writings are pioneering in every sense of the world. His proposals are immensely important, heuristically powerful, and cognitively productive. Surely, this book is a required reading for any student of human cultures. I have only two regrets, one of which I have already expressed: alas, Staal does not build a theory that can give the required prominence to his revolutionary ideas. There is a second regret too: this book will not be easily accessible to those who need to read it. The extraordinarily prohibitive price of the book will keep it forever away from the personal libraries of intellectuals.