2 June, 2020

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Professor S.J. Tambiah: A Humble And Passionate Intellectual

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.

Professor Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah

Professor Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah

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).

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  • 10
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    Western powers have used the social sciences, chiefly anthropology, in their attempt to gain knowledge about traditional societies that they colonized across the world in order to administer them efficiently to their advantage. This was a dual process in that while uncovering “primordial” mysteries underlying the culture and ideology of these societies, the West also exoticised these societies by projecting their own biases and preconceived notions about the “primitives” onto their studies. A proliferation of ethnographies and area studies that are neatly stacked in university libraries and turning largely into exotica themselves is the legacy of this “anthropology as the handmaiden of imperialism” approach.

    Prof. S.J.Tambiah, though much more sophisticated than the early pioneers of this school, was still constrained in his inquiries by the limitations of the theoretical framework within which he worked. No doubt he opened up new areas of study, but nonetheless, in my view, he failed to break any new ground as far as contribution to knowledge is concerned as his narrative was for the most part predetermined by the social-anthropological and sociological training that he had received. As a result he couldn’t capture the multifaceted dynamism of the societies that he studied. Prof. Tambiah’s passing away signifies the eclipse of this latter phase of imperialist anthropology.

    • 2
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      The science of Anthropology has also enlightened many about various cultures , the origins of man and documented the cultures of many to their benefit. Anthropology is much much more than a tool used by Western imperialist forces.

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      Now that Tambiah’s passing “signifies the eclipse of the latter phase of imperialist anthropology” as Dimitry sagely observes,we can look forward to a new phase of nativist anthropology written for the serene joy and emotion of the pious. Or is it already here?

  • 2
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    It is with profound grief we learn of the passing of this brilliant
    Sri Lankan scholar. Dr. Stanley Thambiah brought much honour to the
    country through his intellectual pursuit. I hope the country will remember him fittingly.

    Senguttuvan

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    An outstanding scholar and a credit to Sri Lanka. Rest in Peace.

  • 6
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    The passing of Prof. Tambiah, a renowned thinker, analyst, anthropologist, and writer is sadly noted. As an undergraduate studying anthropology in the late 60s at University of Ceylon,Peradeniya I had the privilege of reading his writings. Intellectuals of his caliber that belonged to his generation were our role models then.They were able to to bring their thinking, teaching, and writing to a world audience. When conventional canon is misappropriated, misinterpreted, misused or misunderstood by many, academics of Prof. Tambiah’s caliber applied their critical faculties to sort out the mess created by such misadventures.The world community of anthropologists will miss him sadly.But his published work will remain a monument to his intellect for a very long time.

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    A great scholar, intellectual,all rounder and yet humble. May his soul rest in peace. Bensen

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    There are Only few that we could identified As Genuine scholars. Tambiah is one of them. Our unlucky is that the Sri Lankan students could not get a chance to study from these scholars. Current requirement policy of University lecturers is More Political. The Chairman of UNI GRAnd COMM too a politically appointed one. Further her husband too appointed as a vice chancellor due to his pro government and the Sinhala Nationalist Policy.

    What a shame.

  • 3
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    Though reference has been made to Stanley Tambiah having attended the University of Ceylon, it might be mentioned that he was an illustrious alumnus of S.Thomas College Mt.Lavinia where, if I remember correctly, he was an outstanding athlete

    Neville

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      I did not mention SJ’s school because did not want to distract the reader with the some jounalists and politicians associated produced by St.Thomases who is not in the same league as Tambiah.

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      Yes, indeed Jeyaraj Tambiah,as he was known, was a rare combination: a scholar and sportsman.He captained the St.Thomas cricket team.It must be mentioned here too that before he became a Thomian he studied, I believe,at Jaffna Central College where he learned his cricket.

  • 0
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    I breathed a deep sigh when I saw this reference to the passing away of Prof.stanley Tambiah.That is the way I express my grief when someone known to me, especially one in my age group passes away.I did not know him personally but became familiar with him through his writing on social anthropology which I read with interest.His books gave me a feeling that I was in conversation with him. I had my disagreement with him especially on his publication “Buddhism Betrayed,” not for the reason that many others did but because I found his thesis that from the 13th century onwards the Sinhalese literature reflected an anti Tamil slant. I argued that the manifestations were too unimportant to deduct general conclusions. I thought this was based on an inadequate appreciation of the texts and his mind trying to find a historical basis for the Sinhala -Tamil divide. I felt that he should have never agreed to make a contribution like that sort at the request of “Wider” then managed by Lal Jayawardena. (Chandrika Kumartunga too had a hand in it). That seemed to be somewhat below the level of his other respected academic output.
    Stanley Tambiah acknowleged his indebtedness to the members of the Sangha in Sri Lanka over his writing. Unfortunately, for his book “Buddhism Betrayed” he had used a picture of Ven Maduluwawe Sobhita in a defiant mood as the cover page. Part of the controversy was over the book was on that account. The gentleman he was, he immediately apologized to the Ven Bhikku. I think he was influenced by the Wider group in using that picture.
    Something that I appreciated in Tambiah’s writing was his appeal to respect multiple discourses in discussing a subject. This is something which is fast disappearing from our leading academics in Sri Lanka.
    I had great respect to him as a human being and a an erudite scholar. May he rest in peace.
    Bandu de Silva

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    I had the privilege of knowing Prof.S. J. Thambiah at the University OF Ceylon (Peradeniya Campus)as a brilliant academic, engaging lecturer and an outstanding past sportsman in 1955/59. SJ and his friend Upali Amerasinghe were outstanding Dons in the younger band of Lecturers. Both maintained their interest in Sports participating in the internal tennis tournaments which at that time I had the privilge of organising in my capacity as the Captain of Peradeniya campus Tennis Team.There was an incident which showed the excellent characteristics of these two fine personalities when they intervened to defend me( a student) in a dispute with another participating Don who was clearly in the wrong. They were prepared to stand up for the correct position although against one of their colleagues.It is very seldom one can come across persons of SJs calibre excelling in all aspects. He was truly a Gentleman and Scholar. May his soul rest in eternal peace. Rex Olegasegarem

  • 1
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    Prof.Tambiah, one of the outstanding scholars Sri Lanka ever produced and he will be greatly missed by the younger generation of anthropologists in Sri Lanka. When I met him in Harvard 2009 he generously offered me a copy of his last book on ‘Edmund Leach” and encouraged me to carry my research on “Religion and Politics”. He was truly a great human being.

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