By Jude Fernando –
Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah, a world renowned social anthropologist, Esther and Sidney Rabb Professor (Emeritus) of Anthropology at Harvard University passed away on the January 19, 2014 at the age 84. He was born in Sri Lanka and studied at University of Ceylon, Cornell and Harvard universities. Having served as a UNESCO technical assistance expert in Thailand from 1960 to 1963, he joined the faculty at the University of Cambridge, and was a Fellow of King’s College. He went to the University of Chicago in 1973 as a tenured professor, and joined Harvard University in 1976. He was also the curator of South Asian Ethnology at the Peabody Museum.
He specialized in studies of Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Tamils, as well as the anthropology of religion and politics. His academic interests were in comparative analysis of the ways Western categories of magic, science and religion have been used by anthropologists to make sense of non-Western cultures. He started his career by studying Buddhism in Thailand. He brought in new dimension to study of religion in anthropology in particular and social sciences in general. He His work also made a significant contribution to the study of state formation in colonial societies. His commentary on Edmund Leach, the author of Pul Eliya, is still regarded s masterpiece in anthropology.
After 1983 riots in Sri Lanka, he focused on religious and ethnic identities and their role in violence in Sri Lanka. His book “Buddhism Betrayed”, apparently banned in Sri Lanka, is still popular among those interested in role of religion ion ethnic conflict. In this book, Tambiah was critical of the essentialized notions “Buddhism in terms of its pristine teachings and viewed all subsequent developments, especially those of political kind as deviations from the canonical form.” The controversy over the book has to do with how it seeks to provide a scholarly answer to “the question of how the Buddhist monks in today’s Sri Lanka—given Buddhism’s traditionally nonviolent philosophy—are able to participate in the fierce political violence of the Sinhalese against the Tamils.” In this book, Tambiah was critical of the essentialized notions “Buddhism in terms of its pristine teachings and viewed all subsequent developments, especially those of political kind as deviations from the canonical form.” This book is misunderstood and misinterpreted by many of his critics. As a pacifist who believed in Buddhist notions of non-violence, Tambiah was greatly disturbed by the ethnic violence in Sri Lanka and always hoped for a peaceful settlement. His negative experience during the ethnic riots during 1950s and threats following his book prevented him from visiting Sri Lanka frequently.
In November 1997, Tambiah received the prestigious Balzan Prize for “penetrating social-anthropological analysis of the fundamental problems of ethnic violence in South East Asia and original studies on the dynamics of Buddhist societies [that] have opened the way to an innovative and rigorous social-anthropological approach to the internal dynamics of different civilizations”. Later Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland awarded him the Huxley Memorial Medal and Lecture, the highest award by the institute. In 1998, he was awarded the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize by the city of Fukuoka, Japan. In 2000, he was inducted as a corresponding Fellow of the British Academy a title given to those who have “attained high international standing” in a discipline in the humanities or social sciences. He also served as the president of the Association for Asian Studies (1989-90) and was a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1984) and a member of the National Academy of Science (1994).