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Review: Theravda Transformed? Author(s): Edmund Perry Source: Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 117, No.

2 (Apr. - Jun., 1997), pp. 339342 Published by: American Oriental Society Stable URL: Accessed: 03/11/2010 10:13
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Two importantrecent books by Richard Gombrich (and GananathObeyesekere) on the "modernization" of Buddhism in Ceylon are examined. Among other commentary,Walpola Rahula'sspirited attacks on "innovation" are placed in context.


along in this review one should read these two books as a unit. They both treat the phenomenon of change in the Theravfda Buddhism preserved and practiced by the Sinhala people of Sri Lanka. Their account and their interesting explanations of changes in the Theravada from its origin in ancient India up to the "transforming" innovations recently introduced by Sinhala urbanites in and aroundColombo are renderedin a lucid prose and an engaging narrative construction that make their authors' scholarship accessible to Sri Lanka specialists, Buddhists and buffs alike. This literary excellence will make pleasurable the repeated close readings that are necessary for an ample grasp of the data and its interpretation presented here by Richard Gombrich and Gananath Obeyesekere. Gombrich, an Indologist at the University of Oxford, and Obeyesekere, a native of Sri Lanka who holds a professorship in anthropology at Princeton University, have already established their names as well as a canon of research literaturein the study of the religious life of Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka. One recalls at once such notable book-length examples as Gombrich'sPrecept and
Practice: Traditional Buddhism in the Rural Highlands

In Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo, Gombrich develops

of Ceylon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971) and Obeyesekere's Medusa's Hair: An Essay on Personal Symbols and Religious Experience (Chicago: University of Chi-

cago Press, 1981).

* This is a review article of: TheravadaBuddhism:A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. By RICHARD GOMBRICH. x + 237. London and New York:ROUTF Pp. LEDGE KEGAN & PAUL,1988. $55 (cloth); $15.95 (paper). Buddhism Transformed: Religious Change in Sri Lanka. By RICHARD GOMBRICH GANANATH and OBEYESEKERE. xvi Pp. + 484. Princeton: PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS, 1988. $49.50 (cloth); $16.95 (paper).

social explanations for "three major points of change" that have occurred in Theravada's history. He selects the Buddha'sfounding of this Sasana (religion) in India some 2500 years ago; its migration from India to Sri Lanka, where a redefinition of Buddhist identity happened; and within the last 150 years, a configurationof responses and reactions to the ProtestantChristian missionary accouterment to Great Britain's colonization of Sri Lanka, a development widely designated nowadays as "ProtestantBuddhism."It would be difficult to argue sensibly against the choice of these three instances of "major change" in Theravada, particularly since Gombrich gives a persuasive defense of his selection without claiming that these are the only instances of definitive change. There is similarly no compelling reason to challenge the basic assumptions of his concept of social history. He holds that the social historian'sprimaryresponsibility is to explain change while understandingthat the historian, like every other human being, cannot explain everything. He holds further that changes in a religion arise in response to problem situations within a society andare,hence, appropriate phenomenafor empiricalstudy and for causal explanation in social terms that may conflict with the metaphysical explanations proffered by the religion itself. He considers the agents and subjects of innovation in social history to be, typically, human individuals whose intended objectives evoke group patronage, althoughdisastersin natureexemplify notable exceptions and some intended actions result in unintended consequences. Gombrich acknowledges here (p. 25) the limited usefulness of a general definition of religion, as he did earlier in Precept and Practice (p. 11). He accepts religion defined broadly as a system of belief in and patterned interaction with superhuman beings. Gombrich



Journal of the American Oriental Society 117.2 (1997) tical readersinstructivelyas an expandedpreface to Buddhism Transformed:Religious Change in Sri Lanka. In this latter book, Gombrich and Obeyesekere "describe, analyze and interpretrecent changes in the religious life of Sinhala Buddhists"(p. 3, italics added), changes they encountered in the collaborated research project they began in the 1970s and sustained for more than a decade. Froma carefulreadingof TheravadaBuddhismone gets an informedhistorical perspective suitable for locating and assessing the numerousinnovations of belief and practice that Gombrich and Obeyesekere found among urbanmiddle and working class Sinhala Buddhists living in the nation'scapital, Colombo, and its suburbs. Such a reading will also acquaintone with the nuanced vocabulary and syntax of the social description, analysis and explanation employed in BuddhismTransformed. Part, if not all, of Theravada Buddhism was written later than Buddhism Transformed,and the sophisticated distinction it draws between "communal religion" and "soteriology" helps us to understand the two discrete components of "the religious life of Sinhala Buddhists" A analyzed in BuddhismTransformed. whole generation of investigatorshave noted that the religious life of these Buddhists includes something broader than Theravada Buddhism. In 1963 Michael Ames observed that "magical animism and Buddhism"coexist without being confused in one Sinhalese religious system (Journal of Asian Studies, 22.1: 21-53). He concluded that these two religious units "do not lie on one continuum, but on two intersecting ones" and serve respectively the worldly (laukika) and the supra-worldly (lokottara) interests of the Sri Lankan Buddhists (pp. 22, 40). The same year GananathObeyesekere himself published a study examining the composite characterof Sinhala Buddhism. He observed that some Buddhist intellectuals as well as Westerninvestigators are puzzled by finding "magic and a polytheistic pantheon" combined in practicewith Theravada Buddhism. He cautioned against equating Sinhalese Buddhism with Theravada and advised that it be seen instead "as a fusion and a synthesis of beliefs derived from Theravadawith other non-Theravadabeliefs to form one integrated tradition"("The Great Tradition and the Little Tradition in the Perspective of Sinhalese Buddhism,"Journal of Asian Studies, 22.2: 148). Other researchers have tried unsuccessfully to make sense of the combination of diverse and seemingly incompatible elements that make up the religious life of Sinhala Buddhists. In Theravada Buddhism and Buddhism Transformed Gombrich and Obeyesekere enable us to see that "spirit religion" and Gotama Buddha's recipe for individual salvation function commensally in a single organic rela-

reasons that this general definition of religion will not suffice when one investigates and writes the social history of a specific religion. To understandTheravadain its particularsocial contexts one has to probe beyond the marks that identify it as a religion in the general sense. One must determine what the Theravadins themselves define as their Buddhist identity, and as a scholar Gombrich determines to find for himself "what exactly is involved in being [this kind of] Buddhist" (pp. 15 and 25). He advertsto this question of specifically Theravada identity five times (pp. 74-75, 138-39, 141-42, 178, 194) in the seven chapters that follow the introduction. Although he characterizeshis achievement in this book as "essentially a presentation"of researchresults accomplished by esteemed "predecessors" (p. ix), he allows that "if this book breaks new ground it will mainly be in my treatmentof this question" of Theravada Buddhist identity (p. 23). Gombrich demonstrates exemplary professional etiquette in his generous acknowledgment of large dependence on other scholars, but knowledgeable readerswill readily discern that he has overstated his disclaimer to originality in this book. The concept of a social construction of Theravada'sentire history in a single essay is as highly original as it is ambitious. The introductiongives as brilliantand as unpompousa discussion of theoretical considerations as I have read anywhere, and the seven chapterspresentan unprecedentedconstructionof Theravada's story. This book exemplifies laudable originality in another sense, probably a consequence unintendedby its author. It constitutes a widely usable text in introductory courses in Buddhism. A listing of the chapter titles will attest this evaluation: "GotamaBuddha'sProblem Situation,""The Buddha'sDhamma,""The Sangha's Discipline," "The Accommodation Between Buddhism and Society in Ancient India,""The BuddhistTraditionin Sri Lanka,""Protestant Buddhism,"and "Current Trends, New Problems."As an introductionTheravadaBuddhism differs from the two most often selected at the present time. Walpola Rahula's What the Buddha Taughtclings closely to the Pali canon and commentariesin succinctly stating the definitive teachings ascribed to the Buddha, and N. Ross Reat's Introduction to Buddhism describes Buddhistreligion in its several prisms, not merely in that of the Theravada.Gombrich makes it easier than either of these for beginning students of Buddhismto grasp the meaning of the definitive teachings by presenting them in the sequence of a historical narrativeof Theravada's social contexts and by limiting their meaning to that given by the Theravadin. Irrespective of its merits as a prospective textbook, Theravada Buddhism can serve scholars and other cri-

PERRY: Theravada Transformed


tionship. For matters pertaining to life, death, and, in large measure,rebirth,Sri LankanBuddhists have a form of communal religion, the resources and options of "the spirit religion," which includes gods and other supernatural beings with varying powers and jurisdictions. For matters of a salvation that will enable an individual to transcendlife, death and rebirth,and hence to transcend the jurisdiction and aid of all natural and supernatural beings, these Sinhala Buddhists have the Buddha'sprogram for individuals as set forth in the Pali scripturesand promulgatedby the monks of the Sangha. Gombrich and Obeyesekere found that Sinhala Buddhist urbanites have recently innovated radical changes of beliefs and practice in both the spirit religion and the soteriological component of their religious life. The status and province of some of the gods have been redefined and this is reflected in the positions they are given at the Buddhist temples. Also changed in the spirit religion is the introductionof darkeraspects of some deities and the acceptedpracticeof black magic. Althoughtherearehints that the worship of the god Kataragama encroaches upon the Buddha'sexclusive provision for salvation, the Buddha remains sui generis and unquestionably first in the Buddhists' perception and ranking of the supra-naturals in their pantheon. The truly arrestingchanges are those reportedfor the Buddhist unit of the Sinhala religious life. Our two seasoned social scientists refer to these as "startling," "importantdeparturesfrom tradition,""the creation of tradition,"and eventually, since they are developments within and beyond ProtestantBuddhism, these changes constitute a "Buddhism transformed."In 1963 Michael Ames discerned that "Sinhalese Buddhism appearsto be facing a fundamentaltransformation" ("Ideological and Social Change in Ceylon," Human Organization, 22.1: 46). One does not have to be a Sri Lanka specialist to understandthat a transformationof Theravada has occurredwhen lay meditationcenters,patronizedgenerously by numerous lay people assuming responsibility for the promulgation of the Buddha's doctrine and seeking to realize nirvanathemselves throughtheir meditationregimen, rank equally with or take precedence over temples and monasteries in the Sinhala society. Rather than discuss and evaluate the significance of changes I find inI teresting in Buddhism Transformed, will reiteratesome observationsexpressed by Aggamahapandita Walpola Sri Rahula, the Chancellor of the University of Kelaniya in Sri Lanka.Across a monasticcareerthatspans most of this century,the Ven. Dr. Rahulahas opposed the provision for deity worship at Buddhist temples and has maintained that pristine Buddhism preserved in the Pali scriptures by monks in Sri Lanka is utterly rational and without

analogue among other religions. He has disparaged field research studies of Buddhism as dealing with matters extraneousto the substance of authenticBuddhism. In the Daily News, Colombo, Monday, April 22, 1991, the Ven. Dr. Rahulapublished an appeal entitled "Protect Buddhism from Pollution." He begins with the declaration that "in the whole history of Buddhism throughout the world, the oldest, most authentic and unbroken tradition is the Theravada"which began at the First Council "three months after the Buddha'sParinirvana."This "pureand genuine Theravada"was broughtto Sri Lanka "in the third century B.C." by MahindaThera, the son of EmperorAsoka of India. "Fromthat time up to this day, the Maha Sangha and the devout Buddhists of this country have preserved it." Although occasional "extraneous influences" have entered the culture, "all those pollutions were repulsed by a firm opposition from both the Sangha and the laity," as was the "attempt to introduce into this countrya MahayanaSect of the Japaneseclergy" as recently as 1990. Rahula names "various forms of pollution to pure Theravada teaching" that contaminate the current Buddhist scene in Sri Lanka. Although his list is much shorter, he cites practices and beliefs treated by Gombrich and Obeyesekere as ingredients of a Buddhism in transformation.He scolds those who "say all religions teach the same thing" when, in fact, the "similarities between Buddhism and other religions ... are peripheral and superficial," while "the difference is central,deep and fundamental."He berates those who advocate and practice "the new-fangled bodhipuja ... which is tantamount to taking refuge in a tree, a practice which the Buddha condemned,"and he laments that "these days one hardly hears of Buddha-puja."In his observation of the religious scene in Sri Lankatoday he sees that "what is flourishing is not Buddhism, but pollution, superstition, and ignorancein the name of Buddhism."Rahulascores those who "venerate and worship Sai Baba,"not only "in private houses," but also "in some temples led by Buddhist monks in yellow robes." Sai Baba performs magic "behind a religious garb, in a religious place," and "whether magic or miracle, his demonstrations"according to the Buddha'sown "attitudetowards magic and miracles"are "improper,unsuitable and unworthyof a religious man." Gombrich and Obeyesekere assess the veneration of Sai Baba as truly ominous, though noting carefully that it is at present only a minor phenomenon in Sri Lanka. They tell us that some Sri LankanBuddhists venerate this contemporary Indian religious leader as only a guru, that others worship him as a god, and that still others receive him as the boddhisattvaincarnationof the coming Maitreya Buddha. "When Sai Baba, both god and guru, is


Journal of the American Oriental Society 117.2 (1997) lished in the Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, 13.2 (1990): 139-51. For a study of some of the same Sri Lankan Buddhist movements, conducted more recently than that of Buddhism Transformed, it is instructive to read George D. Bond's The Buddhist Revival in Sri Lanka (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1988). As the word "revival" in his book's title indicates, Bond takes a more sympatheticview of the innovations, emphasizing continuity more than accretion, while Gombrich and Obeyesekere conclude that some of the innovations are rendered acceptable by rationalizing their continuity with what is only an imagined part of the obscured tradition.

identified as a Buddha,"theistic devotion, they reckon, has been cobbled "into the frame of orthodox soteriology" (p. 455), and that transformsBuddhism. Even from this brief comparison one can see that the Ven. Rahula regards the beliefs and practices of certain Sri Lankan Buddhists to deviate radically from the received Theravadatradition.The substance of his evaluation amounts to an insider's affirmation, even if not specifically intended, that Gombrich and Obeyesekere have described a Buddhist reality, not a matter extraneous to Buddhism, that exists in Sri Lankatoday. For what amounts to an insider's rejection of Buddhism Transformed, one can read Vijitha Rajapakse's review pub-