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Modern Buddhist Conjunctures in Myanmar

Modern Buddhist Conjunctures in Myanmar: Cultural Narratives, Colonial Legacies, and Civil Society

Juliane Schober
Copyright Date: 2011
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    Modern Buddhist Conjunctures in Myanmar
    Book Description:

    For centuries, Burmese have looked to the authority of their religious tradition, Theravada Buddhism, to negotiate social and political hierarchies. Modern Buddhist Conjunctures in Myanmar examines those moments in the modern history of this Southeast Asian country when religion, culture, and politics converge to chart new directions. Arguing against Max Weber’s characterization of Buddhism as other-worldly and divorced from politics, this study shows that Buddhist practice necessitates public validation within an economy of merit in which moral action earns future rewards. The intervention of colonial modernity in traditional Burmese Buddhist worldviews has created conjunctures at which public concerns critical to the nation’s future are reinterpreted in light of a Buddhist paradigm of power. Author Juliane Schober begins by focusing on the public role of Buddhist practice and the ways in which precolonial Buddhist hegemonies were negotiated. Her discussion then traces the emergence of modern Buddhist communities through the colonial experience: the disruption of traditional paradigms of hegemony and governance, the introduction of new and secular venues to power, modern concerns like nationalism, education, the public place of religion, the power of the state, and Buddhist resistance to the center. The continuing discourse and cultural negotiation of these themes draw Buddhist communities into political arenas, either to legitimate political power or to resist it on moral grounds. The book concludes with an examination of the way in which Buddhist resistance in 2007, known in the West as the Saffron Revolution, was subjugated by military secularism and the transnational pressures of a global economy. A skillfully crafted work of scholarship, Modern Buddhist Conjunctures in Myanmar will be welcomed by students of Theravada Buddhism and Burma/Myanmar, readers of anthropology, history of religions, politics, and colonial studies of modern Southeast Asia, and scholars of religious and political practice in modern national contexts.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6083-7
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Juliane Schober
  4. Introduction Modern Buddhist Genealogies
    (pp. 1-14)

    Myanmar, formerly Burma, has been embroiled in conflicts at the nation’s center and at its borders almost since its independence from British colonial rule in 1948.¹ As recently as September 2007, the so-called Saffron Revolution, a populist uprising led by monks, contested the legitimacy of the state. The discussion that unfolds in this book traces the cultural narratives of Burma’s Theravada Buddhist engagement with modernity at the intersections of religion and politics. In the course of this exploration, I point to conjunctures in modern Burmese history when public discourse about Buddhism and politics fueled particular cultural debates. Such pivotal moments,...

  5. 1 Theravada Cultural Hegemony in Precolonial Burma
    (pp. 15-33)

    This chapter delineates Theravada Buddhist paradigms that shaped precolonial polities in the region that became modern Burma. These empires modeled themselves after classical states of Southeast Asia in which royal patronage of Buddhist institutions helped consolidate the regional power of the court. Periodic reforms of the Buddhist sangha and the ritual mobilization of ethnic communities upheld this Buddhist hegemony. The intrusion of colonial trade networks and concurrent monetarization in Lower Burma undermined this economy of merit. As the British gained control over the regions of Lower and Upper Burma, colonialism became the cultural harbinger of modernity.

    In response to the...

  6. 2 The Emergence of the Secular in Modern Burma
    (pp. 34-45)

    European colonialism profoundly shaped Buddhist modernity in Asia.¹ One of the hallmarks of this conquest is the fragmentation of authority that results from the simultaneous affirmation of distinct, even contradictory bodies of knowledge like, for example, science and religion. The experience of modernity in Burma through British colonization brought about a cultural and religious crisis of authority that had an enduring impact on the country’s history. Emerging from this collision of western and Buddhist worldviews was a radically changed social order that lacked the totalizing conceptual coherence of a traditional Theravada polity. Such changes often create the sort of contradictions...

  7. 3 Educating the Other: Buddhism and Colonial Knowledge
    (pp. 46-61)

    In the nineteenth century the Government of India imposed modern educational reforms on its colony in order to prepare local populations for careers as civil servants in the administration of the colony.¹ The aim of colonial education was to impart objective knowledge and rational methods of inquiry in modern science and technology. The curriculum and its language of instruction, English, would also serve to consolidate British rule in South Asia and, of course, Burma.²

    Education, particularly religious education, plays an important role in the formation of the self and in shaping moral values. An eminent colonial scholar of Burmese history...

  8. 4 Civil Buddhism in a Colonial Context
    (pp. 62-75)

    The previous chapters discussed some of the ways in which British rule in Burma introduced secular structures that expanded the power of the modern state and undermined traditional Buddhist authority.¹ Colonial rule dislodged worldviews characteristic of traditional cosmological Buddhist polities and created many social disjunctures. The initial Burmese experience of modernity was therefore characterized by a cultural eclipse of received institutions and lifeways. This process had a particularly detrimental impact on the culture of Upper Burma, which still identified with the former royal capital of Mandalay.² But the collapse of the traditional culture hastened the restructuring of Burmese society through...

  9. 5 The Politics of the Modern State as Buddhist Practice
    (pp. 76-98)

    In Burmese history, traditional and modern states have relied on support from the monastic community to ensure their political continuity, and complex interdependencies developed as a result of the state’s reliance on Buddhist legitimation. Secular institutions that confer power upon government, including participation in the political process through fair elections, have consequently suffered. This chapter explores recurrent attempts by the state to infuse political ideologies with Buddhist meaning. Modern Burmese governments—be they democratic, socialist, or military—have often tried to control the sangha in order to enhance their political legitimacy. Alternatively, they worked to keep the sangha from contesting...

  10. 6 Buddhist Resistance against the State
    (pp. 99-118)

    InThe Nation and Its Fragments,Partha Chatterjee observes that the discourse of nationalism encompasses material and spiritual concerns that map onto a dichotomy of outer and inner spaces, respectively.¹ Similar conceptions have been expressed in Burmese resistance movements. Nationalists as well as later protest movements have rallied around Buddhist ideals to express their opposition to the state. This chapter looks at the ways in which Buddhist identities have helped mobilize resistance against the colonial government and against military regimes throughout the twentieth century. A common theme among those who resist the power of the state is the moral judgment...

  11. 7 The Limits of Buddhist Moral Authority in the Secular State
    (pp. 119-145)

    In September 2007 the world watched as tens of thousands of Buddhist monks marched in daily defiance of Myanmar’s military rule.¹ The “Saffron Revolution,” as it came to be called in exile media, was the most recent iteration in a genealogy of Buddhist resistance against the secular state. Despite its designation as a “revolution,” the revolt did not achieve its promised transformation of the political order. Nonetheless, the events of September 2007 have figured monumentally in the minds of ordinary Burmese. The military and its supporters were widely seen as internal colonizers who extracted the country’s resources at the cost...

  12. 8 Potential Futures
    (pp. 146-154)

    In Southeast Asia, Buddhist encounters with modernity unfolded in the context of wider engagements of traditional polities with the economic networks of the colonizing west. Partly in response to the encroaching west, modernizing reforms were initiated in 1851 by the Thai King Mongkut (r. 1851–1868) and in 1872 by the Burmese King Mindon (r. 1853–1878). These reforms led to significant revisions of Buddhist institutions, practices, and texts and stripped the Theravada tradition of many of its cosmological and mythic articulations. Equally significant was the fact that these reforms made possible changes that, until then, had been unimaginable. They...

    (pp. 155-158)
  14. NOTES
    (pp. 159-188)
    (pp. 189-190)
    (pp. 191-202)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 203-208)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 209-212)