Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

How Giving Sanctifies: The Birthday of Thamanya Hsayadaw in Burma

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

How Giving Sanctifies: The Birthday of Thamanya Hsayadaw in Burma

Article excerpt

Geertz, in a well-known essay ['Thick Description'], speaks of culture
thus:
  Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of
  significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and
  the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in
  search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.
This seems an unexceptionable statement, yet in reading Geertz I see
webs everywhere but never the spider at work.
Gananath Obeyesekere (1990: 285)

The problem: giving and the production of sainthood

Anyone who studies living religious figures committed to a quest for spiritual perfection, for sainthood, is inevitably confronted with the question of the recognition of this sainthood. It is true that from a doctrinal point of view, the actual acquisition of sainthood in any religion constitutes an individual spiritual process which is beyond the reach of empirical observation in the conventional sense: it derives either, as in Christianity or Islam, from the establishment of a particular relationship with the divine, or, as in Buddhism, from the understanding of an ultimate truth. For the anthropologist, however, the problem must be approached from a different angle: it is notably a question of elucidating the social and cultural processes by which an individual is recognized as a saint, and, on this basis, of investigating the mechanisms and principles which turn an individual's quest for sainthood into its recognition by others. To this end, the two major inner workings of the production of sainthood--the way the saint makes him/herself and the way the saint is made--must both be considered. In other words, understanding how a saint comes to be acclaimed in his/her lifetime requires an examination of the role of the aspiring saint him/herself in the sanctification process: the way in which the specific practices which he/she undertakes to attain physical and mental purity, as well as the activities he/she carries out in the world, work to shape and fix the social representations and expectations which eventually give substance to the belief in his/her sainthood. What is required, then, is to take into account the cultural, religious, economic, and political contexts in which his/her sainthood is elaborated, as well as the rules of the game these different contexts impose and the mechanisms they trigger.

Trying to hold both ends together, this article seeks to account for the role and meaning of different forms of giving which arise in the emergence and recognition of a saint in Theravada Buddhist society. The Buddhist saint (p. arahant) (1) is generally defined as a person who has obtained nirvana (p. nibbana) by having successfully put into practice the teachings of the Buddha. The term nibbana designates access to a state of absolute spiritual purity. Doctrinally, this consists of being freed from the three main sources of mental defilement--greed, hatred, and delusion--which keep a person in the infinite cycle of rebirths and thus subject him/her to the suffering inherent in any existence. The saint, liberated from the cycle of rebirths, simply disappears at his/her death--he/she does not go anywhere. Even if the attainment of nirvana represents the ultimate horizon of any Buddhist individual in contemporary Theravadin societies (Burma, (2) Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Thailand), to most it is a goal remote and inaccessible. Only a small minority of figures, most frequently monks, put the objective of liberation at the core of their existence and claim to reach sainthood in their own lifetimes.

The belief that sainthood can actually be reached, that individuals undertaking such a quest do succeed in carrying it through to conclusion whatever the difficulties, is of vital importance for contemporary Theravadin societies. In these societies, the ideal of nirvana is the primary ordering principle of social relationships and hierarchy, overriding others like age, status, wealth, and power. …

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