The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma
Alicia Turner’s Saving Buddhism: The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma is a work of impeccable scholarship which will appeal to those with interests in Buddhist studies, religious studies, and the history of colonialism in South and Southeast Asia. It describes the Burmese preoccupation with preserving the Buddha’s teachings in interplay with the colonial aims of preserving the British Empire. At the centre of the Burmese discourse, as described by Turner, was a sense of “collective belonging” (3), evidenced, not by an idea of nationalism, but that of an identity based around the Buddhist sāsana, the religion of the Buddha.
In its six chapters, including an introduction and conclusion, Turner emphasises the centrality of the sāsana throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As is the case with the modern discourse on identity in modern Myanmar, there was a stress upon the sāsana as the source of “merit,” which would avert danger, lead to a better rebirth, and the idea that the Buddha’s religion was under threat and that it needed protection. Allied to this is the notion that the decline of the sāsana must be averted.
A key to Turner’s thesis, and one of its great strengths, is in how she suggests that colonial discourse often rested upon achieving its aims through shifting definitions of the nature of religion to support its own purpose. This has the effect of marginalising the function of Buddhism, the sāsana, in a wider imposed context of the secular and religious (59, 72). Turner suggests that the category of “religion” is, in fact, misguided and a product of colonial rule; and that the notion of the Buddhist sāsana does not fit into this classificatory scheme (62). Her arguments become more complex, particularly in chapter 5, where much of the colonial debate is centred on a robust definition of the category of “religion” itself. Chapter 5 shows how the category of “religion” was adapted during the colonial period to embrace religious practices, and in turn, lessen the focus on the centrality of religious beliefs (134-35).
Turner describes this period under the three headings of the sāsana itself, the notion of identity and the definition of religion (5). Much of the value of this book is in its elaboration of Burmese identity in the context of its description and definition of religion, and in how the British adapted the definition of religion (59). She cleverly explains how there is a sense of service or gratitude in the idea that the receptors of the sāsana—the community of monks known as the Buddhist Sangha—must be preserved (8-9). Turner uses little-studied archival material to explain how various lay Buddhist groups and associations which were established during the colonial period to accomplish this (21, chapter 4). These previously hidden archives of material of Buddhist movements from the colonial period describe the call to morality by many of these groups, including groups promoting vegetarianism. These groups sometimes produced petitions claiming to offer “the Animal’s Petition to Buddhist” (92-3).
This is part of the discourse of Buddhist modernism— based upon lay participation in the understanding and propagation of Buddhism— upon which Turner has much of to say (chapter 4), including the idea that the laity filled the gap left by the removal of the Burmese monarchy.
In turn these groups, together with the Sangha, were involved in the preservation of the Buddhist textual tradition. As Turner explains, the disappearance of the texts were one of the central themes in the historically prominent theme of the decline of the Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha (34). Another central theme, described in chapter 2, is the literacy of the Burmese during the colonial period stemming from an established monastic education system. Although highly respected by the British, this literacy originated in the notion of the acquisition of merit in reciting the texts, and in the act of recitation as an established way to preserve the texts (51). Education then is not simply a way to generate knowledge, but also has profound religious implications. Although for the colonial British, the stated idea of education was the moral edification of the Burmese (57), Turner’s aim is to show different motivations in its use.
Turner suggests how the narrative of saving Buddhism, of preserving the sāsana, is an important theme in Burmese history and one in which the preservation of Buddhism connects various factors in colonial and post-colonial Burma. She describes the complexities of colonial interactions with culture and religion and correctly questions previous guiding themes in our understanding of culture, religion, society, and politics in Burma.
Paul Fuller is lecturer in religious studies at the University of Cardiff.
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