Global Religious History

At its most basic level, my current research follows the approach of global religious history, which I have mainly operationalised in my recently completed study about Bengali Tantra in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and which I am further elaborating through ongoing projects. Published results of this approach may also be consulted in co-edited volumes about Theosophy across Boundaries (with Hans Martin Krämer, Japanese Studies, Heidelberg) and New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism (with Egil Asprem, Religious Studies, Stockholm). In combination with historical source work, I am contributing to more theoretical and methodological debates, especially through a forthcoming special issue about "Global Religious History" for Method & Theory in the Study of Religion (with Giovanni Maltese, Theology, Hamburg). The main goals of these efforts are the development of a systematic global historical approach within religious studies, as well as collaborations with other disciplines and fields of studies.

Globally Entangled History of Religious Studies

It is now well known that the emergence of comparative religion during the nineteenth century can only be grasped through a consideration of global exchanges. However, the research focus almost exclusively rests on "Western" actors, especially from Europe and North America. In my current work, I am demonstrating that comparative religion and the Religionswissenschaft emerging from it were actively and decisively marked by "non-Western" actors: the emergence of religious studies must hence be explored through the perspective of global entanglements. I am establishing this argument on the basis of exchanges between Bengali Hindu reformers, Christian Unitarians, orientalists, and Theosophists in the nineteenth century. The diverse participants on those discourses significantly contributed to negotiations of the meanings of religion and its relationship with science and philosophy, but also to related philological research, which was famously christened science of religion, or Religionswissenschaft, by Friedrich Max Müller. Indeed, the latter intensely corresponded with intellectuals from North America, especially representatives of Unitarianism and Transcendentalism—but also with Indian intellectuals, particularly with members of the Hindu reformist Brahmo Samaj. Other prominent contributors to those debates included members of the Theosophical Society. The project will hence not only demonstrate the importance of global entanglements for an understanding of those contexts, but also the fuzziness of demarcations between Hindu and Christian reformers, orientalists, theologians, and esotericists. This will allow for new insights into the histories of theology and religious studies, as well as into more foundational subjects regarding religion, colonialism, modernity, and historiography.

Perspectives on Esotericism and Politics

I explore the political dimensions of esotericism mainly in light of three foci: 1) the context of colonial India; 2) socialism and other currents that are considered part of the left political spectrum; 3) völkisch movements, National Socialism, neo-Nazism, and far-right extremism, including current examples such as the terror attack in Christchurch, fascist militias in Ukraine, US-American phenomena like QAnon and the alt-right, or basic issues such as conspiracy theories or Traditionalism. As different as these subjects may appear, there are significant and numerous links and overlaps between them, which are best investigated through a global historical lens.

Religion and Politics in Modern Asia

The foundation of my approach to the relationship between religion and politics is mainly formed by my recent research on Tantra in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, wherein I highlighted the subject’s relevance for (anti-)colonialism, independence struggles, and nationalism. In this regard, esotericism played a decisive role, as the publications about Theosophy across Boundaries and New Approaches to the Study of Esotericism serve to illustrate. The subject area has enormous potential that I aim to tap through further collaborations. My own focus rests on South Asia, while I am working towards a collaboration with perspectives covering the Middle East through East Asia. Here, too, the approach of global religious history forms the overall framework, which however requires further elaboration on the relationship between religion and politics.