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Unified System

Question: ‘A unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is things set apart and forbidden beliefs and practices which unite into a single community called a Church all those who adhere to them’, this is a definition given by Emile Durkheim, but of what?

  1. Religion
  2. Sect
  3. Denomination
  4. Church

Answer: (1)

Unraveling Emile Durkheim’s Definition of Religion: A Sociological Exploration

Emile Durkheim, a pioneering figure in sociology, embarked on a profound exploration of religion in his magnum opus, “The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.” In this seminal work, Durkheim grapples with the intricate tapestry of human beliefs and practices, offering a definition of religion that transcends conventional notions. This essay endeavors to dissect Durkheim’s definition and shed light on the profound insights it brings to the study of religion.

Durkheim’s Definition: A Unified System of Beliefs and Practices:

Durkheim’s definition of religion encapsulates a multifaceted understanding, emphasizing the unity inherent in a system of beliefs and practices. He characterizes religion as a cohesive force that binds individuals into a collective moral community, often referred to as a Church. The unification arises from shared adherence to sacred things—elements set apart and deemed forbidden—forming the bedrock of religious life.

The Sacred and the Profane:

Central to Durkheim’s conception is the dichotomy between the sacred and the profane. Sacred things are objects, entities, or symbols that hold a special, consecrated status within a religious framework. These can range from traditional deities to seemingly mundane elements like rocks or trees. The key lies in their designation as sacred, setting them apart from the ordinary realm of the profane.

Representation of Sacred Things:

Durkheim delves into the role of representations in religion, elucidating how beliefs, myths, dogmas, and legends serve as the expressive medium for the nature of sacred things. These representations act as a symbolic language, facilitating the communication of shared values, virtues, and the inherent power attributed to sacred elements. Thus, religion becomes a narrative that imbues meaning into the sacred.

The Church as a Moral Community:

Crucial to Durkheim’s definition is the concept of the Church not confined to a physical structure but as a metaphorical entity encompassing all adherents of a particular religious system. The Church, in this context, symbolizes a moral community where individuals unite through shared beliefs and practices. This communal aspect emphasizes the collective conscience that religion fosters.

Beyond Traditional Deities:

One notable aspect of Durkheim’s definition is its inclusivity. The sacred is not limited to conventional gods or spirits; rather, anything can attain sacred status. This broad perspective accommodates diverse religious traditions, from animistic beliefs to polytheistic pantheons, highlighting the universality of the sacred-profane distinction.

Implications and Critiques:

Durkheim’s exploration of religion has far-reaching implications. It paved the way for the sociological study of religion, emphasizing the social functions and shared meanings embedded in religious systems. However, his conceptualization has not been without criticism. Some argue that the emphasis on the collective diminishes the individual dimension of religious experience, while others point to the Eurocentric biases in Durkheim’s analysis.

Applicability to Contemporary Religious Dynamics:

Despite its origins in the early 20th century, Durkheim’s definition resonates with contemporary religious dynamics. The notion of a unified system of beliefs and practices remains pertinent, especially in the context of globalized religions and the diverse expressions of spirituality in the modern world.


Emile Durkheim’s definition of religion stands as a cornerstone in the sociological examination of religious phenomena. His conceptual framework, with its emphasis on the sacred-profane distinction, communal unity, and symbolic representation, continues to shape scholarly discussions on religion. As societies evolve and diversify, Durkheim’s insights offer a timeless foundation for understanding the intricate interplay between human beliefs, practices, and the communal bonds forged through the sacred.


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Frequently Asked Questions:

1. Question: Define the term “ethnic movement” and provide an example from India.

Answer: An ethnic movement refers to a collective effort by a group sharing common cultural, linguistic, or religious traits, seeking to assert their identity and rights; an example from India is the Khalistan Movement in Punjab.

2. Question: Identify the main objectives behind the Gorkhaland ethnic movement.

Answer: The Gorkhaland ethnic movement primarily seeks to establish a separate state for India’s Nepali-speaking population in the Darjeeling region, advocating for linguistic and cultural recognition and political autonomy.

3. Question: What was the Operation Blue Star, and which ethnic movement was it related to?
Answer: Operation Blue Star was a military action in 1984, aiming to remove Sikh militants hiding in the Golden Temple in Amritsar; it is related to the Khalistan movement, which sought a separate Sikh country.

4. Question: Mention a critical factor that triggered the emergence of ethnic movements in India, as discussed by Dipankar Gupta.
Answer: Dipankar Gupta emphasized that ethnicity is fundamentally a political process, wherein caste and religion, the key components of identity formation, are politicized by leaders for vested interests.

5. Question: What were the primary reasons for the Assam Ethnicity conflicts involving Bodo tribals and Bengali Muslim settlers?
Answer: The Assam Ethnicity conflicts primarily stemmed from issues related to immigration, land rights, and resource allocation, leading to clashes, riots, and evolving relationships among indigenous communities to address challenges.

6. Question: Briefly describe the role of the Dravidian Movement in terms of caste and societal structure.
Answer: The Dravidian Movement, led notably by E.V. Ramasamy, aimed to establish an egalitarian society, focusing on anti-Brahmanism and advocating for equal rights for backward castes, while also introducing reforms like self-respect marriages.

7. Question: Name the prominent ethnic movements in North-East India and specify one common objective.
Answer: Prominent ethnic movements in North-East India include the Nagas’ and Mizos’ struggles; a common objective was to gain autonomy and recognition for their distinct tribal identities and cultural uniqueness.

8. Question: What is the key argument of Gail Omveldt regarding traditional Indian society and multiculturalism?
Answer: Gail Omveldt opposed romanticizing traditional Indian society, arguing that hierarchy has always dominated it and dismissing the notion that multiculturalism is an intrinsic feature of Indian society as a myth.

9. Question: Briefly explain the social hierarchy factor as a contributing element to ethnic movements as suggested by Olzak.
Answer: Olzak suggests that the construction of hierarchies among ethnic communities, which often leads to the suppression of one group by another, is a key factor that can instigate social and ethnic movements.

10. Question: Identify one consequence of the unequal economic development factor within the context of ethnic movements in India.
Answer: One consequence of unequal economic development is the marginalization and underdevelopment of certain groups, leading to feelings of alienation and sometimes initiating ethnic movements as these groups strive for equality and recognition.

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