Communities of Interpretation in the Study of Religion in Burma

By Schober, Juliane | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Communities of Interpretation in the Study of Religion in Burma


Schober, Juliane, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


In The invention of world religions, Tomoko Masuzawa explores how the colonial expansion of the West engendered epistemic regimes that were central to the formation of a modern European identity and that defined Europe as the 'harbinger of universal history, as a prototype of unity amidst plurality'. (1) Early colonial writings characterised the religions of 'others' such as 'Mohammedans', 'Hindoos' and followers of the Buddha as 'heathen', 'pagan', 'idolatrous', and otherwise far removed from the theological truths of the Christian world. Early descriptions of religion in Burma come to us through missionaries like the Barnabite Father Vincentius Sangermano who lived in Yangon between 1783 and 1808, but passed away in Italy in 1819 before his Description of the Burmese empire was published. (2) His account was based largely on the Burmese chronicle, Mahayazawin, as well as his own observations. Sangermano's descriptions express an insurmountable difference between self and other in terms that reflect his social location and colonial zeitgeist:

   From the nature of their government, which, as has been said, is
   above all measure despotic and tyrannical, it will easily be
   imagined, that the Burmese are distinguished for that servility and
   timidity which is always characteristic of slaves. Indeed every
   Burmese considers himself such, not merely before the Emperor, and
   the Mandarins, but also before any one who is his superior, either
   in age or possessions. (3)

In this passage, the subject of the study emerges at the conjunctures of larger historical patterns as interpretive communities constitute themselves in relation to historical moments and employ narrative strategies produced in such contexts. The question inevitably emerges, therefore, about the extent to which 'received ideas' shaped inquiries of later interpreters of religion in Burma.

This paper delineates a genealogy of interpretive communities and the ways in which they have constituted the subject of their studies. From the outset, it is important to note that the lens through which they apprehend their subject long predates the academic field of the study of religion. The historical records interpreting religion in Burma therefore predate any critical awareness of how such early descriptions were constructed or what representations they employed. The descriptions of religious practices in Burma are themselves of diverse and disparate origins: they were written by missionaries, explorers, colonial administrators and scholars and later by historians, anthropologists, political scientists and scholars of the Orient. Indeed, scholars of religion are largely newcomers to the interpretation of religion in Burma. Yet, the colonial encounters and their fortuitous nature that initially defined this field are not unique to the study of Burma. Nor are they unique to the study of how religions shape our perceptions of the world. (4)

Colonial apperceptions of Burmese religion

During the early nineteenth century, Masuzawa argues, the colonial attempt to catalogue and classify 'world religions' prompted a conceptual shift. It now was the task of scholars of the Orient, located in London, Paris and Berlin, to uncover the 'origins' of world religions and reconstruct their 'pristine truths' from the 'moral decline' they presumably suffered through the history of local practice. Although the religion of the Buddha came late to the orientalist invention of the 'mystic East', (5) the scholarly inventory of Buddhist texts had become a significant intellectual project of the West by the mid-nineteenth century. In The British discovery of Buddhism, Almond writes:

   Buddhism had become by the middle of the 19th century a textual
   object based in Western institutions. Buddhism as it came to be
   ideally spoken of through the editing, translating, and studying of
   its ancient texts could then be compared with its contemporary
   appearance in the Orient. … 

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