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RELS462 Asian Religions and the West

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A study of the contexts in which Europeans have encountered Asian religions since 1500, the representations of Asian religions which resulted and the uses to which such representations were put in European and Asian debate.

Whether in the sterotype of the mystical Indian yogi, the threatening Muslim despot or the saintly Tibetan lama, the religions of Asia have long exerted a powerful fascination over the Western mind. This paper will provide a long-term historical perspective on the kinds of images that continue to circulate in contemporary film, novels and science fiction. The paper begins with an overview of the contexts in which European travellers, colonists, missionaries, writers and artists have encountered and depicted the religions of China, India, Japan, the Middle East and Tibet over the last five centuries.

The second part of the paper begins with the enormously influential work of Edward Said and will consider some theoretical issues arising from the impact of colonialism on European understanding of Asian religions. The final part of this paper examines a range of further issues, including the impact of European thinking about gender and race on representations of Asian religions and the representation of Asian cultures and religions in literature and film.

Paper title Asian Religions and the West
Paper code RELS462
Subject Religious Studies
EFTS 0.1667
Points 20 points
Teaching period Not offered in 2020 (Distance learning)
Domestic Tuition Fees (NZD) $1,142.40
International Tuition Fees (NZD) $4,661.93

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One 300-level RELS or RELX paper
RELS 310, RELX 310, RELX 462
May not be credited together with RELS 331 or 430 passed in 2005.
Associate Professor Will Sweetman:
Teaching staff
Lecturer: Will Sweetman
Paper Structure
This paper is divided into six modules. The first two examine the different historical contexts in which Europeans have encountered Asian religions and the representations that emerged from those encounters. The next considers the theoretical framework that has been developed in recent decades to understand those representations. The final three modules focus on some particular themes that cut across the different contexts and different religions examined in the first part of the paper.

Assessment for this paper consists of two written assignments (5,000 words) - 50% each
Teaching Arrangements
For on-campus students: Each week there is a one-hour lecture. In alternate weeks there will also be either a second one-hour lecture or a two-hour film screening.

For distance students: There are fortnightly tutorials (via Zoom videoconferences).
A coursebook has been developed for this paper and will be available in print and PDF form.
Course outline
View a sample course outline for RELS 462
Graduate Attributes Emphasised
Global perspective, Interdisciplinary perspective, Scholarship, Communication, Critical thinking, Cultural understanding, Ethics, Information literacy, Research.
View more information about Otago's graduate attributes.
Learning Outcomes
Students that successfully complete this paper will have a sound knowledge of
  • The historical contexts in which Europeans have encountered Asian religions since 1500
  • Conceptions and representations of Asian religions by European writers (including missionaries, scholars, artists, novelists, philosophers and filmmakers)
  • Recent scholarly critique of such representations
  • The use of Asian religions in debate in both Europe and Asia
  • The impact of European interest upon the religions themselves

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Not offered in 2020

Teaching method
This paper is taught through Distance Learning
Learning management system