Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Theravada Buddhist Engagement with Modernity in Southeast Asia: Whither the Social Paradigm of the Galactic Polity?

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Theravada Buddhist Engagement with Modernity in Southeast Asia: Whither the Social Paradigm of the Galactic Polity?

Article excerpt


In the Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia, that is Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and, to some extent, Vietnam, the articulation of secular and religious authority developed in historically particular ways.(1) Scholars have explained these historical changes in terms of religious and political modes of constructing and negotiating power characteristic of the galactic polities of Southeast Asia and their Theravada Buddhist tradition, such as state-sangha relations and the notion that one's position within the social hierarchy is perceived as a function of, and hence validated by, one's ability to engage in merit-making ritual exchange to support the Buddhist dispensation generally and the sangha in particular.(2) Trevor Ling has argued that the differences created by country-specific developments in the social history of Buddhism in Southeast Asia are more significant than communalities found in the Pali scriptural tradition.(3)

Transformations from traditional galactic polities to modern nation-states initiated profound reconceptualizations of the relationship between Buddhism and society. The religious reforms of the nineteenth century ushered in unprecedented centralization of the sangha, enhanced the religious authority of the laity and rationalized cosmology in the Southeast Asian Theravada tradition. The established totalizing constructs of the galactic polity were gradually modified to meet new social exigencies, and the impact of competing social, political, and religious institutions and values has weakened or rendered obsolete many of its structural and symbolic functions. The demise of colonialism and the advent of independence brought further sweeping changes in political ideology, economic innovations, and access to increasingly modern life ways, all of which have radically altered the social, cultural, and religious landscapes of these countries. Emerging modern nation states, while maintaining many of the religious and symbolic functions of the galactic polity at the centre, sought to extend their spheres of influence to incorporate ethnic groups and newly defined national boundaries in the periphery.

These historic, structural, and religious configurations have opened the way for recent Buddhist movements, documented best in Thailand but similarly emerging elsewhere in Buddhist Southeast Asia, to challenge profoundly conventional norms by which power and social status in Southeast Asian Buddhist galactic and modern societies had been constructed.(4) This essay argues that recent challenges to received forms of authority and legitimation no longer seek to reproduce or adapt the totalizing constructs of the galactic polity, their modified articulations of the modern nation-state, or other prevailing processes of legitimating status and power. Instead, they aim to replace them with alterative modes of constructing relations between Buddhism, society, and political power that contradict conventional sources of religious and political authority.

The new Buddhist movements redefine the role of religious community within society. This trend has promoted further laicization in religious matters and erosion of centralized monastic authority. It has also underscored the need for a socially relevant, contemporary lay ethic beyond traditional patterns and ritual patronage of the sangha.(5) The essay identifies features of the religious ideologies and ethics of these new Buddhist movements that, on the one hand, explain their resonance among the disenchanted modern urban middle class and, on the other, define lay communities in a manner that is antithetical to the conventional relationship between Theravada Buddhist society, state and religion.

In some fundamentalist or traditionalist instances, such as the Thammakai movement, the Thai sangha's involvement with modernization, and the totalizing patronage of the State Law and Order Council (SLORC) in Burma, the intention has been to direct their visions of "imagined" communitas towards the nation state. …

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