Today, Samudra is proud to feature a brief interview with Jochem van den Boogert, one of the tutors for the area of South and South East Asia (SSEA), Philosophy of Science, and Cultural Studies, about his career path and how he became interested in the area of SSEA.
Interviewer: Could you describe the path you have taken to reach your current specialism?
As long as I can remember, I have had an interest in Asia and religion. I am not sure how these interests originated, and whether that matters, but in all probability, it had to do with our family moving around quite bit when I was young. As a kid, I could not differentiate between East, South and Southeast Asia and all of it was equally fascinating. Similarly, when I got attracted to Buddhism I did not understand the difference between Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism, nor what constituted Zen Buddhism for example. I would go through our small-town library and unearth all the books that were somehow related to these two topics, and would try to make sense of them. At the end of secondary school, all students were to write a small thesis in which they would discuss one topic in-depth: I chose to compare Christianity with Buddhism.
I started studying Philosophy at university, forgot about this fascination, and unknowingly turned into a raging eurocentrist. Western philosophy, especially from the Middle Ages onwards, tends to speak on behalf of humanity while ignoring the cultural specificity of its ‘fundamental questions’ and especially its answers. Of course I found that out only a couple of years after obtaining my MA in Philosophy, when I learned about Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap (Comparative Sciences of Cultures). Its scientific approach of both religion and culture was opening up a whole new field of research. I started to see why I could never really make sense of Buddhism and Asian culture, and that the humanities are actually secularised Christian theology. I moved back to studying ‘Buddhism’, this time with the knowledge that the subject (i.e. both the concept and the term) of the field of Buddhist studies are completely of Western make.
On a trip to Java, my first time back after 30 years, I realised the research programme of Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap would be very productive in studying the ‘religious condition’ of the Javanese. And so, I embarked on a project that would turn into my PhD research. In my dissertation, I argue that there is no such thing as a syncretist ‘Javanese Islam’ consisting of a blend of beliefs and practices from Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, animism and Islam, which had been described and studied since the 1850s. Instead, I argue, the Javanese had a well developed body of traditions (or rituals) in which they incorporated specific elements from Islam. The concept of ‘Javanese Islam’ did not refer to a religion, but to a Western experiential entity drawn from certain bits and pieces from that larger Javanese body of Javanese traditions. Islamisation in Java has progressed enormously since the 1850s and today most of Java’s ‘syncretist’ traditions have either disappeared or have been sanitised by Islam.
I am now starting to see that the phenomenon that is being referred to by ’syncretism’ is present all over Southeast Asia. (I’m pretty sure it’s present in South Asia as well) Moreover, there seems to be a link between tolerance and ’syncretism’, which makes it all the more interesting. I have started to compare Java and Myanmar in terms of tolerance and intolerance. Both regions are faced with issues of religious tolerance and violence, but there are differences: their motivations are different, and so are the concepts that structure their (in)tolerance. I find this fascinating, as there might be alternative ways, indigenous to Southeast Asia, of different social groups living together harmoniously, apart from the liberal secular way.
In short, the path I’ve taken is one of evolving research interests.
Interviewer: what motivated you to study it at an academic level?
It is really hard to make a living out of your research interest. Therefore, my motivation to turn my research into a PhD was not a very practical one career-wise. The main reason was to get access to proper guidance and academic resources – unfortunately I did not land any financial resources. As the ambition was to execute a scientific research, I’m not sure if that had been impossible outside of academia.
Interviewer: would you have any advice for students considering or currently studying the area?
A lot depends on what your ambitions are, and on the choices you make. Especially in International Studies there are so many directions one could take. The sooner you figure out what that direction is, the better. Whilst figuring that out, think for yourself and don’t be distracted by everybody’s opinions. However, compared to my own path, I’d advise students to be a bit more practical than I have been.