Becoming Religious in a Secular Age

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Mark Elmore
  • Berkeley, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , July
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Becoming Religious in a Secular Age, Mark Elmore draws on ethnographic and historical sources to write a “biography of the idea of himachali religion.” Using the voices and perspectives of HImachalis (residents of the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh in the western Himalayas), Elmore challenges the divide between the concepts of religion and secularity. He argues that in the context of Himachal Pradesh’s “Secular Age,” religion and secularity are mutually constitutive concepts. The secular state provides frameworks from which Himachalis come to understand themselves as being religious. Through this case study of Himachal Pradesh, Elmore calls on scholars to approach religion not as a static category, but instead as an active verb: religion indicates a process of being and becoming within the parameters of a secular age. As Elmore develops his narrative, he presents key insights for current scholarship on religion and secularism in South Asia and the Himalayas.

The first part of the book argues that the modernization projects initiated by the state “set the dominant conditions within which Himachali religion could emerge” (13). Government initiatives endeavored to make Himachal Pradesh a “sufficiently developed” territory and achieve “the desire of the people.” Governance necessitated defining what it means to be Himachali and to identify a discernable Himachali religion. Elmore observes that “against this backdrop…the people of the region gradually came to understand themselves as being religious” (37). Chapter 2 explores how land reform policies displaced temples and gods from their traditional estates. After deities became displaced from their estates, Elmore observes, they were “reinscribed in a privileged place in the modern Himachali imaginary…the deity becomes the heart of a new Himachali religion that is free of economic, political, and social entanglements” (86). In part 1, Elmore traces and analyzes the impact of the secular state on the construction of modern Himachali identity and religious ideals. He seems to suggest that conceptions of being religious were entirely absent prior to Himachal’s secular age. Were debates, dialogues, and negotiations over religion completely missing throughout the history of premodern Himachal Pradesh? Although Elmore emphasizes the activities of the secular state as foundational for the emergence of Himachali religion, it is worth inquiring if precolonial and premodern modes of being religious were perhaps instrumental in the very formation of a secular state.

Part 2 examines how academic writings and government regulations have shaped Himachali notions of being religious. Chapter 3 surveys the development of history writing in this region by individual authors and through government sponsored literature. Through these literary, photographic, and artistic productions, an indigenous “theoculture” (devīdatā saṇskṛiti) emerged. This theoculture brands the state as a timeless and changeless region whose gods remain exclusively tied to the natural landscape in Himachal Pradesh. Chapter 4 describes state efforts to regulate religious festivals, limit the authority of temples, and publish works separating authentic Himachali religion from “superstition.” These initiatives foster a tension between government sponsored agendas and local religious specialists. In part 2, Elmore demonstrates that the secular state is not necessarily an inherent threat to the authority and sovereignty of religion; instead, the state frames new contexts and discourse from which to imagine and debate the grounds for being authentically religious in relation to modern ideals of governance. Elmore shows that for Himachalis, the meaning and significance of the concepts of religion and governance arise in relation to one another.

Part 3 of Becoming Religious explores the ethical significance of the “naturalization of religion” in Himachal Pradesh. Elmore hones in on how Himachalis have indigenized the modern concept of religion and how this concept impacts their relationship to urban space and the use of media. He argues that “religion,” “the city,” and “media” have become mutually constitutive elements of the Himachali theoculture (devīdatā saṇskṛiti). Within this matrix, Himachalis define notions of true religion and negotiate their identities in relation to these truths. When the state increasingly manages religion and Himachalis questions what it means to be religious, locals reevaluate the authenticity of extant practices such as animal sacrifices to local deities. Public religious ceremonies take on a new significance as venues to both attract tourist revenues and to define a “real Himachal.” Elmore’s treatment of data in this section could have benefited by drawing on insights from a growing body of literature on the public dimensions of religion in South Asia.

Becoming Religious in a Secular Age presents a theoretically nuanced account of the evolving relationship between notions of religion and governance in Himachal Pradesh. Elmore’s scholarship, however, leaves significant issues unexplored. Two areas for Elmore to expand on in future works stand out to this reviewer. First, his examination of “becoming religious” in Himachal Pradesh calls for further analysis of different demographic groups. How does this process of becoming religious differ based on gender, ethnicity, caste, class, and so forth? Second, although Elmore sufficiently theorizes notions of religion, further elaboration is required on what exactly it means to “become secular” in Himachal Pradesh and how the region’s experience of a “Secular Age” compares to that of other areas in South Asia and the Himalayas.

Overall, Elmore’s work makes a significant contribution to the study of modern South Asian and Himalayan religions. His “biography of the idea of Himachali religion” presents cogent arguments explaining how the secular state engenders new ways of identifying as a Himachali and being religious. This case study of Himachali religion raises broader theoretical issues for studying the relationship between religion, governance, and secularity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Rohit Singh is visiting assistant professor of Asian religions at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

Date of Review: 
October 13, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Elmore is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Davis.



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