The anthropology of Buddhism may give the impression of already having a well-established lineage. However, understood as a collective endeavor bringing together specialists from different parts of the Buddhist world in a comparative spirit, it remains very much an emerging project. We outline in this introduction some of the striking features of the beginnings of this subfield, such as how it has undergone a process of emancipation from textualist interpretations of Buddhism, and survey some of its main thematic and analytic orientations, pointing in particular to its most substantial ‘long conversation’, on the structure and dynamics of Buddhist religious fields. Throughout, we focus primarily on the period following an assessment of the subfield made by David Gellner in 1990. Finally, we stress the importance and highlight the promise of a comparative anthropology of Buddhism that builds on a critical, reflexive examination of its central concepts.
Legacies, Trajectories, and Comparison in the Anthropology of Buddhism
Nicolas Sihlé and Patrice Ladwig
So What Is the Anthropology of Buddhism About?
David N. Gellner
This afterword considers the history of the subfield of the anthropology of Buddhism in light of the essays in this special section of Religion and Society. Anthropologists have sought to combat conventional assumptions about Buddhism and have long made contributions to the study of Buddhism, the state, nationalism, and politics. As part of a maturing field, they have also made contributions through the study of Buddhism to many other subfields of anthropology, including morality, spirit possession, the emotions, and materiality. It is no longer necessary for the anthropology of Buddhism to be overwhelmingly concerned with the authenticity and identity of its subjects.
Anthropological studies of spirit possession in Theravada Buddhist worlds continue to be strongly shaped by many of the theoretical presumptions embedded in the analytic models proposed by the earliest generation of scholars. The ability of subsequent theoretical developments in the discipline to influence analyses of spirit possession, Theravada Buddhism, and the relationship between them has been hindered in recent decades by the limited institutionalization of the anthropology of Buddhism as a shared, comparative research agenda. This article re-examines anthropological models of spirit possession in Theravada Buddhist South and Southeast Asia in light of three theoretical developments in anthropology in the final decades of the twentieth century—the critique of culture, the rise of practice theory, and the historical turn. Incorporating these developments more fully will, it is argued, advance a more analytically robust and empirically nuanced framing of both Buddhism and spirit possession as objects of future anthropological study.
The interaction of Buddhism and Shamanism
Based on extensive fieldwork, this article analyses the state of religious beliefs and practices in present-day and recent Altai. The contending claims and historical traditions of Shamanism, Buddhism and Burkhanism are discussed as part of the process of forging a new Altaian national identity. Altaian intellectuals tend to favour Buddhism over Shamanism, as providing more systematic philosophical content and links with the wider Buddhist community in neighbouring countries. Shamanism, however, more spiritual, unstructured and heterogeneous in its make-up, is more popular at grass-roots level, though there are some attempts at institutionalization and interaction with the political process. Supporters of this view see Buddhism as extraneous and non-indigenous and 'un-Altaian'. Despite instances of open clashes, the author concludes that in the future there may develop more constructive interaction between the two religious traditions.
Russian Orthodox Archbishop Nil Isakovich's Perception of Tibetan Buddhism in Eastern Siberia
Nil (Isakovich), bishop of the Irkutsk and Nerchinsk eparchy from 1838 to 1853, completed a major work on Tibetan Buddhism, Buddizm, razsmatrivaemyi v otnoshenii k posledovateliam ego, obitaiushchim v Sibiri (Buddhism, examined in relation to its Siberian followers), published in St. Petersburg in 1858. It was a thorough description of Buddhist doctrine, rites, and organizational structures in the Transbaikal. The bishop observed the rapid spread of Buddhism with the growth of the number of followers, clergy, and monasteries (datsan) in this area. As a Christian missionary, he tried to find out the reasons why this teaching was so powerful and influential, and why Buddhism became so popular among the Buriat population, attracting far more converts from native Shamanism than Christianity. Nil was interested in organizational aspects, hierarchical structure, Buddhist dharma, everyday rituals, and ceremonies during major holidays. Throughout his book, Nil presented his erudition and understanding of the Buddhist tradition. He used numerous sources in Tibetan, Mongolian, Latin, Russian and French. The quality of his writing varies greatly from other contemporary works of the Russian Orthodox missionaries. Unfortunately, Nil's book, published in Russian, was unknown to the majority of European scholars of that time.
The Patronage of Lao Buddhism and the Reconstruction of Relic Shrines and Temples in Colonial French Indochina
From 1893 onward, French colonialism sponsored and restructured Lao and Khmer Buddhism in order to create an ‘Indochinese Buddhism’. Over a span of several decades, the French promoted monastic education, reconstructed the major temples in Vientiane, and renovated the That Luang, the most important Buddhist relic shrine of Laos. This article explores the motivations and strategies for this endeavor, specifically focusing on French efforts to ‘re-materialize’ Lao Buddhism’s religious architecture. I argue that the renovation of these monuments as symbols and centers of power under the auspices of the École française d’Extrême-Orient was based on mimetic processes that should be understood as a form of ceremonial governmentality and colonial politics of affect, whose goal was to win the ‘sympathies’ of the colonized.
Navayana Buddhism and Dalit emancipation in late 1990s Uttar Pradesh
B. R. Ambedkar (1891–1956) advocated the religious conversion of Dalits to Navayana Buddhism as the pillar of the future struggle against caste. This article examines the implications of this turn to religion for the Dalit movement. As shown by its convergence with Marx’s critique of bourgeois citizenship, Navayana exceeds the framework of political liberalism. It is argued, though, that Navayana is neither an orientalized version of liberal politics, nor is it fully contained by Marxism. The ethnography highlights the revival of Navayana in the 1990s in a context of disillusion with institutional politics. With the rise to political power of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in this period, Uttar Pradesh emerged as the new center of Dalit politics. However, the BSP government also disappointed many former activists, who then turned to the Navayana movement. What spaces and possibilities did Navayana open up to further the task of Dalit emancipation that political power failed to achieve? The ethnography highlights the Navayana movement’s practical difficulties and dilemmas, caused by its being advocated and practiced by secular minded activists hostile to popular religiosity.
Warfare was widespread in classical India. Although the Buddhists of India abhorred killing, they could not evade or ignore war altogether. From the seventh century to the thirteenth century, various types of war magic, together with justifications for their use, developed in tantric Buddhist communities. Defensive types of war magic adhered to pacifist ethics and aimed to avoid, halt, or disperse armies. Harmful war magic was applied in the context of the transcendent ethics of enlightenment. Even when warfare was fully incorporated into Buddhist soteriology, non-violence remained a paramount virtue, and the scope of a just war was very limited. The present survey of tantric sources shows that tantric Buddhist war magic emerged as a reaction to the inevitability of war and was applied in the hope of mitigating warfare's excesses.
Identity, Law, and Gender in the Anthropology of Contemporary Buddhism
“To be Burmese is to be Buddhist” is a slogan commonly identified with the dawn of nationalism in the country known today as Myanmar, where violence between Buddhist, Muslim, and ethnic communities has increasingly jeopardized liberalizing reforms. How do contemporary forms of Theravada Buddhist discourse shape ideas of belonging in a multi-religious and ethnically diverse Myanmar following the dissolution of military rule in 2011? How do digital technologies and globalizing communication networks in this nation influence rapidly changing social identities, anxieties, and imaginaries that Brigit Meyer identifies as ‘aesthetic formations’? In this article, I trace diverse genealogies of belonging to show how contemporary constructions of meaning facilitate religious imaginaries that may exacerbate difference by drawing on past ideologies of conflict or may seek to envision a new and diverse Myanmar.
Archbishop Veniamin Blagonravov's Perception of Religion and Nationality in the Transbaikal
Veniamin (Blagonravov), Bishop of Selenginsk (1862-1868) and Archbishop of Irkutsk and Nerchinsk (1873-1892), was for almost three decades the leading missionary in the Transbaikal. A strong believer in Christian and Russian/Western superiority he actively introduced Christianization and Russification to Transbaikalian Buriats. Veniamin understood both processes as crucial for the Russian raison d'état in Asia. Baptized Buriats were supposed to accept a Russian lifestyle and identify themselves as Russians. Perceiving Buddhist lamas as vicious competitors he accused them of delaying the process of the development of the native people. Veniamin perceived Buddhism as a heathen Asian tradition and, as such, inferior to the religion and culture offered to the converts by the Orthodox Christian missionaries. Images of “heathens,“ his way of portraying Buddhists, differed noticeably from the comprehensive and complex understanding of Buddhism presented by his predecessor, Archbishop Nil.