The Buddha's Tooth
Western Tales of a Sri Lankan Relic
Series: Buddhism and Modernity
- ISBN: 9780226801735
- Published By: University of Chicago Press
- Published: October 2021
John S. Strong unravels the storm of influences shaping the received narratives of two iconic sacred objects.
Bodily relics such as hairs, teeth, fingernails, pieces of bone—supposedly from the Buddha himself—have long served as objects of veneration for many Buddhists. Unsurprisingly, when Western colonial powers subjugated populations in South Asia, they used, manipulated, redefined, and even destroyed these objects to exert control.
In The Buddha’s Tooth, John S. Strong examines Western stories, from the sixteenth to the twentieth century, surrounding two significant Sri Lankan sacred objects to illuminate and concretize colonial attitudes toward Asian religions. First, he analyzes a tale about the Portuguese capture and public destruction, in the mid-sixteenth century, of a tooth later identified as a relic of the Buddha. Second, he switches gears to look at the nineteenth-century saga of British dealings with another tooth relic of the Buddha—the famous Daḷadā enshrined in a temple in Kandy—from 1815, when it was taken over by English forces, to 1954, when it was visited by Queen Elizabeth II. As Strong reveals, the stories of both the Portuguese tooth and the Kandyan tooth reflect nascent and developing Western understandings of Buddhism, realizations of the cosmopolitan nature of the tooth, and tensions between secular and religious interests.