By H.L. Seneviratne –
Professor Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah passed away on January 19th, 2014. This is not a conventional obituary, but a brief account of his work, meant as a tribute to his scholarship. Professor Tambiah was both a versatile and influential theorist and one of the foremost contemporary social science scholars of Theravada Buddhism. This account, addressed to a largely Sri Lankan readership, focuses on the latter, with only passing mention of the former.
Professor Tambiah’s studies in Thai Buddhism consist of, in addition to numerous scholarly papers, three outstanding works. The first, Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-east Thailand (1970), based on an extended stay in the rural and conservative northeast Thailand, is a detailed description and interpretation of Buddhism as practiced at the village level. Deviating from the views of certain Western textualist scholars who saw popular Thai Buddhism as a debased form, Tambiah demonstrates the relations of continuity and transformation between “Buddhism” and the “folk religion”. While this may sound like the commonest view of these two religious practices in all Theravada cultures, the freshness of Tambiah’s analysis derives from its particular interweaving of insights from several different strands of anthropology, enabling him to make general statements about, for example, the relation between myth and ritual, and the magical power of words.
Professor Tambiah’s second Thai study, World Conquerer and World Renouncer (1976) examines Thai Buddhism from the opposite perspective. Whereas the first study took, in Tambiah own words, a “worm’s eye view”, the second adopts a “bird’s eye view, (“bird” and “worm” incidentally conveying to us the subtleties of evocation characteristic of Professor Tambiah’s writing). World Conquerer is a complex work of detailed historical documentation and ethnography that runs into 550 pages. I can here mention only one of its major facets, the distinction between two different types of polity, “centre-oriented” and “centralized”. The traditional polity of Thailand had no fixed centre or bounded territory. It consisted of a multiplicity of pulsating centres whose fortunes waxed and waned. In this system of inherent instability, a conquering hero emerges periodically from some corner of the political universe, and succeeds in bringing a considerable expanse of territory under “one umbrella”, without ever gaining effective control, but claiming ritual dominion. This claim is made on the model of the ideal Buddhist ruler, the “wheel-rolling emperor” (cakravarti) who, according to myth, conquers the directions by rolling the auspicious wheel in each direction, only to renounce the territory thus conquered, giving it back to the local ruler who in return accepts the wheel-roller’s ritual sovereignty. Parallels with Sri Lanka are clear, as in the case of Dutugamunu, emerging from the peripheral south, and marching on victoriously to bring the whole island under “one umbrella”. Such periodic concentrations of power enabled the king to support the Sangha economically and organizationally, giving rise to a pattern of simultaneous rise or fall in political and ecclesiastical fortunes. The effect on the Sangha is paradoxical: the king’s enhanced power meant that he could ensure the Sangha’s hierarchical authority, but it also gave him the ability to control the Sangha, for example, by staging “purifications” (sasanavisodhana).
In contrast to this centre-oriented polity with ritual dominion but no effective control, and no bounded territory, a centralized polity came into being as the Chakri kings established themselves in Bangkok in the nineteenth century. Economic and administrative measures were taken to strengthen the country as a centralized state. Such centralization meant the introduction of a modern rational bureaucracy to administer the entire the country. These formal measures have been followed up with state sponsored “rural development” programmes led by monks and located in peripheral regions inhabited by tribal peoples who do not subscribe to Buddhism. Implications of the transition from “centre-oriented” to “centralized” for the tribal groups and other minorities are clear: they enjoy only so much cultural autonomy as the centralized state is willing to confer. Later, in his work on Sri Lanka, Professor Tambiah was to pursue this theme further.
If Professor Tambiah’s first Thai study represents a view from the village, and the second from the capital city, the third can be described as a view from the forest. Titled The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of the Amulets (1984), it examines the relations between the polity in its widest sense — the political centre, the people, the society as a whole – and the forest monks, an important branch of the Thai Sangha. The most significant of the book’s many themes that include hagiography and millennialism is the paradox of the renouncer’s meditatively generated magical powers. Such powers are of no use to the renouncer himself, because he has no attachment to wealth or any other mundane benefits that these powers could generate. In contrast, these are of the greatest value to the laity. And the latter can obtain these benefits by (1) looking after the material welfare of the renouncers, and (2) possessing objects that are symbolic of or have been associated with the saintly renouncers. The preeminent of the latter are amulets stamped with the likenesses of particular saints, in pursuit of which city elites –military, banking and other– make uneasy journeys to the periphery of the land, where saints occupy cosmic mountains, and rebels seek shelter in the thick of the forest below. It would appear then that the supernatural powers associated with pre-Buddhist asceticism, devalued by the Buddhists and expelled from their monasteries followed the spread of Buddhism like a shadow and are constantly trying to re-emerge, here in a cult of amulets, there in the search for alchemy and everlasting life, equally constantly to be rebuked and repelled by the path of purity and inner peace.
Amulets also play a role in millennial uprisings, and the book concludes with a general discussion on millennialism in Southeast Asia. At a grander theoretical level Professor Tambiah takes the reader to three conceptual citadels of sociology — Marcel Mauss on mana, the pervasive magical power of Polynesia and related cultures, Karl Marx on fetishism, and Max Weber on charisma. All three are illuminated. The last is particularly important because it is also a critique of Max Weber for failing to see the objectification of charisma in amulets and charms, while readily granting it for institutional structures. The theoretical sophistication these discussions reveal are further evident, among other publications, in Culture, Thought and Social Action (1985), Magic, Science, Religion and the Scope of Rationality (1990), Edmund Leach: An Anthropological Life (2002), and Bridewealth and Dowry (1973) that Professor Tambiah co-authored with his Cambridge colleague Jack Goody.
Professor Tambiah’s Sri Lanka work falls into two distinct phases. Among work of the first phase is a study in kinship, where he demonstrated, among other findings, that polyandry in central Sri Lanka is related to land ownership, practised by small holders as a bulwark against fragmentation. Volume-wise, Tambiah’s work in this area is modest, but its impact was considerable, influencing as it did the thought of the Cambridge anthropologist Edmund Leach who in his path-breaking work on land tenure in Ceylon convincingly challenged the anthropological assumption of the autonomy of kinship, thus far securely enshrined in the discipline and gloriously reflected in the studies of the Tallensi by another Cambridge anthropologist, Meyer Fortes. Consistent with Tambiah’s findings, Leach demonstrated how kinship was secondary to landownership.
While the first phase of Professor Tambiah’s Sri Lanka studies represents the ideal of the detached scholar, those of the second reflect a newer ideal, that of social concern, that has been gaining scholarly respectability in recent decades. Work of this phase is more voluminous and, while scattered in different publications including his book Levelling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia (1996), is best exemplified in two books, Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of democracy (1986) and Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka (1992). Given the ethno-religious and political scene in Sri Lanka, these works have made Tambiah a controversial figure in his home country to say the least. Buddhism Betrayed? was banned and Ethnic Fratricide has been unavailable in the country.
In Ethnic Fratricide, Professor Tambiah demonstrates that the causes of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka are not religious and ethnic differences going back to the island’s early history as some claim, but the stresses of recent origin rooted in economic stagnation with attendant unemployment and unequal distribution, demographic patterns, uncritical scholarship based on partisan hegemonic sources and a growing tendency towards authoritarianism. The book was published in 1986, and, looking back, it is indeed prophetic that Tambiah saw “ethnic fratricide” and “ dismantling of democracy” as two sides of the same coin. As far back as then, none would have imagined how thoroughly and with what salivating gluttony would democracy be dismantled two decades later, its key building blocks methodically taken down, one by one.
Professor Tambiah’s second book on Sri Lanka, Buddhism Betrayed? attracted more open and vociferous hostility, not because anyone cared to read it, but because of false conclusions on glancing at the cover that depicted an oratorical posture of a popular monk. Central to the book is the distinction between two types of Buddhism: (1) that of the texts and their elucidations that enshrine the ethical values of Buddhism, and (2) that rooted in the chronicles written by monks, the main feature of which is the identification of Buddhism with the Sinhala people, the territory of the island, and a kingship dedicated to the protection of Buddhism. The religious revival of the 19th and 20th centuries, despite its potential, failed to foster the first kind of Buddhism, instead bringing to the fore the second kind, resulting in the abandonment of Buddhism as a moral practice in favour of holding it as a political and cultural possession, to be ritualized, exhibited, boasted about, celebrated, televised, exported and so forth, but not to be lived by. The identification of Buddhism with an ethnic group and a territory made it exclusive, demoting other groups to second class citizenship. Tambiah points out how this contrasts with the historical process of inclusion that characterized Buddhism, enabling new and incoming groups to be incorporated as equal citizens in a land that all shared. As pointed out by the distinguished anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere, this is depicted in folk rituals performed up till now.
Far from being a work that should be banned, Buddhism Betrayed? should be read by every literate Sri Lankan, for what it contains is a patriotic message. Tambiah is appreciative of the genuinely nationalist and anti-imperialist urge to assert indigenous culture, and the restorative nationalist and cultural project that came into being in the 1960s and 70s. Most disarmingly of his Sinhala Buddhist critics if only they read the book, Tambiah imagines a pluralistic Sri Lankan culture with a distinctively Buddhist stamp, a position that brings him close to thinkers like Martin Wickremasinghe. To brand him a separatist and a Tiger is as ignorant as it is absurd.
Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah was a towering scholar and one of the very few such scholars Sri Lanka produced in the twentieth century. He was a sensitive human being and a humanist. He will be greatly missed by the scholarly community and friends who have enjoyed his company, his wit, his laughter, his generosity and his humility.