Arguing that intellectual movements, such as deconstruction, postsecularism, and political theology, have different implications for cultures and societies that live with the debilitating effects of past imperialisms, Arvind Mandair unsettles the politics of knowledge construction in which the category of "religion" continues to be central. Through a case study of Sikhism, he launches an extended critique of religion as a cultural universal. At the same time, he presents a portrait of how certain aspects of Sikh tradition were reinvented as "religion" during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
India's imperial elite subtly recast Sikhism as a mystical religion, which robbed its teachings and traditions of their political force. In turn, Sikhs began to define themselves as a "nation" and a "world religion" that was separate from but parallel to the rise of the Indian state and global Hinduism. Rather than investigate these processes in isolation from Europe, Mandair shifts the focus closer to the political history of ideas, thereby recovering part of Europe's repressed colonial memory. He brings together the theorization of religion and secularism in recent continental philosophy, the history of South Asian religions, and secular postcolonial theory. Though seemingly different, these discourses are shown to be linked to a theoretical matrix that emerges in the colonial encounter between India and the West. Mandair argues that this matrix is repeated not only in the recent resurgences of religion and identity politics in the lives of South Asians but also in the way the academy, state, and media have analyzed such phenomena.