Too Much Information   /   Spring 2015   /    Book Reviews

The Modern Spirit of Asia: The Spiritual and the Secular in China and India by Peter van der Veer

Benjamin Schewel

The concept of modernity has long been under scrutiny. It has been deconstructed, genealogically critiqued, and exposed for its moral failings. Nevertheless, the term remains an important part of our vernacular, seemingly irreplaceable in its capacity to describe the novel social transformations that have swept the world during the last four to five centuries. One of the many merits of Peter van der Veer’s The Modern Spirit of Asia is that he acknowledges the unprecedented nature of “the project of modernity with all its revolutionary ideas of nation, equality, citizenship, democracy, and rights,” yet shows how it has taken strikingly different shapes in the Chinese and Indian cultural spheres.

An anthropologist and the director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity, in Göttingen, Germany, Van der Veer has written extensively on the theme of modern Asia, analyzing with particular insight the formation of modern “Hindu” identity in a trio of books (Gods on Earth, Religious Nationalism: Hindus and Muslims in South Asia, and Imperial Encounters). One of the key features of his work is his analysis of the series of complex interactions with the imperial West that have shaped modern Asia. Throughout, he resists the tendency to reduce modernity to its Western manifestations and present all non-Western peoples as having either to accept or reject modernity’s monolithic structures. Van der Veer’s work, his latest book included, thus finds its place within a growing body of literature that examines the global interactions among the multiple sociocultural configurations that characterize the modern world.

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