Placing Self Amid Others: A Mongolian Technique of Comparison

In: Regimes of Comparatism

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Abstract: This paper attempts to understand comparison as an intellectual endeavour in a non-European cultural milieu and then takes up the challenge of relating this case to the ways in which comparison is done in anthropology. These issues are discussed through analysis of one example, that of the conceptual apparatus of a Mongolian Buddhist lama and poet of the 18th century, Mergen Gegen. The paper argues that the Mongolian regime of comparison was done on the basis of a cosmology consisting of unrelated beings or objects and by means of constructing analogical relations between these elements that enabled equivalences and oppositions to be established. This operation was in tension with the writing of the history of the Mongols; for in order to set up ‘the Mongols’ as an object in a comparison their history had to be written in such a way as to enable conceptualisation of this people as an internally consistent, separate ‘kind’, equivalent to other cosmological elements. Having, not without difficulty, achieved this task, Mergen Gegen then wielded a grand structural schema capable of linking – by analogy and on different scales – political, ethnic, geographical and moral dimensions in order to produce comparisons between peoples.