Of Beggars and Buddhas

The Politics of Humor in the Vessantara Jataka in Thailand

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Kartherine A. Bowie
  • Madison, WI: 
    University of Wisconsin Press
    , February
     2017.
     376 pages.
     $64.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780299309503.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Katherine Bowie’s Of Beggars and Buddhas is a captivating and thought-provoking exploration of the Vessantara Jataka as it has taken shape and evolved across time and space in Thailand. Bowie’s anthropological approach to understanding this foundational Buddhist text provides valuable insights into how this story has come to symbolize so many different things to different people. In particular, her attention to humor and the characterization of Jujaka as a trickster sheds light on how this story reaches far beyond the purview traditionally associated with the jatakas, emphasizing its profound political implications and its surprising application in what Bowie calls a “weapon of the weak.”

Using a methodology that she compares to “pointillism,” Bowie paints a vivid and dynamic picture of the Vessantara Jataka in Thailand. In so doing, she reveals the myriad levels of meaning that emerge from the text when it is considered among diverse social, political, and economic contexts, as well as through the lens of comedy and the literary function of the trickster character. Through the employment of Bowie’s metaphor of pointillism, two particularly noteworthy elements of her project come into focus. First, Bowie brings her readers on a journey across time and space as she deftly connects the many blurry dots that represent the findings of her fieldwork in the three different regions of Thailand. Second, as with the admirer of a pointillist work of art, it is only after taking a step back and seeing the whole picture that the reader can thoroughly appreciate the beauty of the image before them. Upon doing so, it becomes clear that the individual details that comprise the story are greater than the sum of its parts, with both the jataka and Bowie’s work alike.

The first part of the work is organized geographically, beginning with the Vessantara Jataka as it is understood and represented in central Thailand, migrating next to northeastern Thailand, and finally to northern Thailand. This analysis highlights the incredible diversity of the story across these three very different regions of Thailand, providing a thorough and compelling explanation of how the story has been shaped by political, social, and economic influences. Specifically, Bowie illuminates the ways in which the vastly different political landscapes of each region have impacted comedic adaptations and performances of the story, noting that physical proximity to the Bangkok court correlates to the suppression of humor, and also plays a significant role in determining which characters and chapters are emphasized and which ones are eclipsed. Bowie’s findings show that the local recensions and performances of the jataka in northern Thailand are quite different from those of central and northeastern Thailand. She draws the conclusion that the marked emphasis on, and deeply comical portrayal of Jujaka is reflective of the “peasant imaginaire” of the northern villagers and that it gives rise to anti-royalist themes. The central and northeastern adaptations, in contrast, emphasize Vessantara and the theme of generosity.

Bowie’s foray into the implications of humor in the Vessantara Jataka in Thailand began with her disdain for it, and her determination that the message, and even the plot of the story, were categorically not funny. However, as the work unfolds it becomes clear that Bowie’s initial impressions of the story’s humor, or lack thereof, change quite radically as a result of her fieldwork. The humor of the Vessantara Jataka is increasingly apparent to Bowie and the reader as her investigation moves further north—and thus further from Bangkok’s control—however, the significance of this humor is best understood in terms of the milieu of the northern Thai villagers. As a region comprised largely of peasants, descendants of war captives, and debt slaves, Bowie shows the “peasant imaginaire” to be one characterized by mistrust, fear, and opposition towards ruling lords and government officials.

Bowie contends that existing separately from the “official transcript” of the Vessantara Jataka—which is more closely followed in central and northeastern Thailand—is a more subversive recension in which comedic recitations involve bawdy humor and subtly satirical portrayals of the greedy ruling class. This theory rests predominantly on her characterization of Jujaka as the trickster, which is supported by her findings that the trickster is a prevalent figure in Thai folklore and that Jujaka possesses the major characteristics associated with the trope of the trickster. Through this identification of Jujaka as trickster, Bowie highlights several fascinating features of the jataka. While on the one hand Vessantara is incontestably the protagonist of the story and the entire plot rests upon his embodiment of the perfection of generosity, viewing Jujaka as the trickster casts him as the true star of the show. The implications of this are extraordinary, as Bowie demonstrates how bringing Jujaka to the fore raises issues of social justice, equality, and the power of the people. As a significantly more relatable character for villagers of the northern region, Jujaka represents what Bowie calls a “weapon of the weak,” sparking a subtle but serious critique of the court.

Yet the question still remains—as with any ritual performance that is likewise marked by liminal characters and a reversal of hierarchieswhether the northern region’s critique of the social order actually leads to real change and subversion, or if it simply provides a demarcated time and space in which the peasants can laugh and cry and come together as a community? If it is the former, is it only a matter of time before the comedic performances of the northern region are suppressed as they were in the northeastern region? And if it’s the latter, who is really subverting whom? Bowie acknowledges a similar uncertainty in her concluding remarks, noting that the jataka’s future remains unknown, as texts are both products and reflections of conditions that are always changing. Though the shape that the Vessantara Jataka will take in a country—and world—that is rapidly changing is nebulous, Bowie makes it quite clear that by attending to the malleability and multiplicity of such stories, we come to a deeper understanding of what it means to be moral agents.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Alexis Bader is a doctoral student in Buddhist studies at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
May 5, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Katherine A. Bowie is a professor of anthropology and the director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of Rituals of National Loyalty: An Anthropology of the State and the Village Scout Movement in Thailand.

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