An Ethnographer, A Medievalist, and a South Asianist: A Conversation

Over the last sixty years, scholars of religion have variously described their work in terms of both field and discipline. Since the decline of the Eliadian/Structuralist paradigm in the 1980s and 1990s, scholars have been increasingly likely to describe what we do in terms of specific subfields shaped more broadly by disciplinary unity (though even as I say this, I can think of ways that even these subfields are both unified and pulled apart by “discipline” – this is the joy and frustration of Religious Studies!).  We are fortunate, though perhaps not unique to have in the UVM Religion department several different broad disciplinary orientations in play at the same time.  Our faculty do philosophical, ethnographic, historical and comparative work.  This summer our two historians, Anne Clark and Ilyse Morgenstein Fuerst, scholars of Medieval Europe and Muslim South Asia respectively, each spent portions of their summers in specialized libraries doing research.  Since my research generally entails chatting up monks in Thailand and China, it wasn’t completely clear to me what that meant.  So I asked Anne and Ilyse some questions over email about what it was like to do their type of research.

 

What is an archive for you?

IMF: Great question. An archive to me is a collection—or series of collections—of rare material, which might be newspapers, photos or prints, maps, or books on a particular topic or from a particular area. But beyond a definition, to me, an archive immediately conjures a set of (obnoxiously lofty) sensations: the smell of old newspapers and manuscripts; the look of someone else’s handwriting; the feel of sometimes-crumbling, leather-bound volumes and whisper-thin onion paper; the sounds of dozens of other scholars scribbling notes in pencil, each uncovering something remarkable.

AC: In general I don’t think of myself as working in archives.  For medievalists, “archive” usually refers to collections of documents like wills, charters, deeds, commercial records, etc., and I don’t work on that kind of material.  I work with medieval manuscripts, which are books created before the invention of the printing press, so each book is a unique handmade artifact, distinct from every other book in the world. I think maybe it’s especially because I’m an American, living in a world where the built environment is perhaps 100 years old (my house is 118 years old and the Religion Department about the same) with few older artifacts as part of my daily life, that handling an 800-year old book is really a thrill.

What is the physical space where you were doing research? 

IMF: I was working in the British Library, and spent most days in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room, though sometimes needed to use the Rare Books Room.

AC: I worked in the Österreichische Nationalbibiothek (Austrian National Library), in Vienna, in its beautiful Department of Manuscripts and Rare Books. The manuscript reading room was originally the library of an Augustinian monastery, attached to one of the Hapsburg palaces. As with most medieval manuscript collections, there are levels are security to go through, designed to protect the manuscripts from damage or theft.

Could you be more expansive about the literal space? Light?  Dark?  Comfortable?  Crowded? 

IMF: The Reading Room had rows of workspaces—long tables with individual “desks” designated by a change in the wood grain, an individual lamp, a few outlets, a desk number, and a call button to get a librarian. The room was cold, and while the light was decent for reading, I wouldn’t call it bright—rare materials like cold and dark. (After all, the books’ comfort far outweighs the researchers’.)

AC: Except for very hard wooden chairs (!), all the other appointments were quite good: wi-fi access; electric outlets at every desk (don’t forget to bring your electric current converter), good lighting through huge windows as well as individual desk lamps. There were rules that I inadvertently broke, like not realizing I had been assigned a particular desk, but since the reading room was not filled to capacity, no one scolded me or told me to move.

What is the process of doing research? How do you start the day?

IMF: I’m an early bird by nature, so my day usually looked like: retyping handwritten notes from the day before in the cafe while I waited for the BL to open, then immediately getting to work in a reading room!

AC: Because my time in Vienna was limited, I arrived at the library when it opened, picked up the manuscript and got set up in the reading room.  I stayed pretty much glued to my chair, poring over the one manuscript I was researching.  I had on my computer a scan of a similar manuscript, and my main work was a careful comparison of the two, and making detailed notes about the differences between them.

How do you get books  - are you getting books?

IMF: The British Library has a system for requesting materials. Basically, I would search the catalogs, request an item (books, manuscripts, and collections of tracts or newspapers, usually), and specify when I’d like it to be delivered. But I arrived in London with a list of 10 must-have works, ranging from a tract published in 1813 in an Indian newspaper to a Persian manuscript to a set of prints related to the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion.

AC: I had written to the staff at the library in advance, so the manuscript, sometimes called the Lilienfeld Prayerbook, was waiting for me as soon as I checked in.  This is important to do, because not all materials are always available.  For example, I had also wanted to look at a related manuscript in Munich, the so-called Prayerbook of St. Hildegard, in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library), but when I had written ahead to inquire about access, I was told that it was not generally shown to scholars because of the availability of a photographic facsimile. This points to the dual role of the rare book library: to both protect and make available their resources.  The library took the big step of allowing the manuscript to be photographed and published to make it widely accessible.  Yet, for me to engage on a major analysis of the manuscript without seeing it “in the flesh” (and remember, the book itself is flesh, animal skin prepared into parchment), made me worried that I would miss something that couldn’t easily be seen in the photographs, and also makes me feel slightly tentative in writing about it.  And, truth be told, I wanted that flesh to flesh experience.

Is this a political process? Does it help to chat with the librarians?  To bribe them? 

IMF: This isn’t political at the BL, and bribing wasn’t necessary. Though, to be fair, befriending the librarians did help: I could bolt to lunch and not forfeit my seat even when the room was at capacity (and decorum would dictate getting up meant giving up), and occasionally it meant I could bend the 3 day rule ever so slightly (and I do mean slight: a few hours!).

AC:  Tom, maybe your experience in South Asia is showing here!  No bribes were needed in Vienna, although I was required to purchase a library membership (ten euros for one year).  And the staff was uniformly helpful, and fully comfortable with speaking to me in English so that I didn’t have to embarrass myself with pathetic attempts at German or sign language.

What are the materials you examine each day?

IMF: For the most part, on this trip, I was working with India Office Records, so my materials ranged from published, widely-circulated books to handwritten (Indic and Islamicate) language manuscripts and registers.

AC: My whole time was focused on one manuscript that I had researched in advance.  It is a twelfth-century illustrated prayerbook, primarily in Latin with Middle High German additions. This is part of my larger project about how the juxtaposition of texts and pictures in medieval prayerbooks may have been used by their owners to stimulate emotional experience in their devotional practices.

What are the constraints of the location?

IMF: In the reading rooms, one cannot have food or water, for obvious reasons. This broke my 4 cups of coffee a day habit, quickly! One also cannot remove materials from the room, but also only (for the most part) had access to each item for 3 days. So, I guess, days were long and caffeine-free.

AC: In addition to no food or drink, the library also prohibits use of pens, and monitors strolled by occasionally to ensure that the manuscripts were being carefully used.  We aren’t required to wear gloves, but there it is important to touch the books only minimally—just enough to set them up on the foam cushions provided and to gently turn the pages.

Do you enter the library/archive space knowing what you are going to read each day?

IMF: Sometimes! I tried to plan out what materials would arrive, and when. Days I needed to work exclusively with a Persian manuscript, for example, I planned for. Days that found me receiving a few ordered items—especially things I’d found via footnotes and in-text references—were a bit more surprising.

AC: I had a very focused plan to get through as much of that one manuscript as possible, but as with all manuscripts, you never know what you will find.  There’s always the moment of first opening, the excitement and slight fear that I may not even be able to read the handwriting, or that it will be damaged, or that there will be unexpected marginalia, etc.  So first I just look it over–the covers, the first and last pages, etc.  And I had particular themes and subject pages that I prioritized.  Also, because this was an illustrated prayer book, and my work investigates the relationship between text and image, I spent a fair amount of time looking closely at the pictures, and taking notes about them.

Sometimes when I interview someone, I have these moments where they say something I am not expecting, but it is exactly what I was hoping they would say (the reverse is also happens). In those moments, I can sometimes feel my heart racing with the excitement of the unexpected but sought for.  If you have found something you don’t expect, do you know immediately?

IMF: Yes and no! On the one hand, I had the sense that what I was looking at was really important or special, maybe even a true gem of a source. On the other, sometimes I’d look at a piece of writing and know it was important to my research, that it would become something I’d use and return to, but wouldn’t quite be sure how it fit into my overall project just yet.

AC: Sometimes I am so busy copying as much as I can, that the impact of it doesn’t always hit me at first.  Then it’s not till I’ve had time to do a more careful translation that I’ll discern the significance of even just a single word, or more likely, a pattern of words or phrases scattered throughout the whole work.

Field Notes

via: https://www.princeton.edu/ ~ferguson/h-ra-th.html

As I was tracking down sources for a manuscript in progress which examines scholarly productions of Muslim identities, law, and subjecthood in light of the 1857 Rebellion, I came across a series of seven op-eds in the London-based newspaper, The Times. These op-eds were written in December 1857 and early January 1858, and took on the issue of rebellion, religion, and education; specifically, they each called for the establishment of a publicly- and Crown-supported Oriental Institute, which would educate any and all British subject headed to India in the fields of Indian languages, religions, and histories. The public nature of the debate sheds light, I think, on issues of how common the ideas portrayed were; that this conversation is given space in a daily newspaper represents its intelligibility to its audience, and in turn, the ideas presented about religion, language, and empire might be read as commonplace.

These op-eds were not haphazard commentary, but rather a conversation about British India, language, and religion between heavyweights. Five of the letters were penned under the pseudonyms “Philindus” and “Indophilus” (both of which indicate a love of India). A fabulous archival day was spent realizing that “Philindus,” one of the pseudonyms, was F. Max Müller–the well-known scholar of religion and philologist. In these essays, he argued that, in the wake of the 1857 Rebellion, the teaching of Indian languages and religion was the foremost business of the Empire. In fact, he claimed that the rebellion might have never happened if agents of the Empire had been properly educated in the first place; he credited–or, perhaps, blamed–both a colossal lack of information about religious sensibilities and a lack of linguistic prowess for the rebellion. To illustrate, he wrote:

It was the ignorance of the language that prevented the officers of the East India Company from having any real intercourse with the natives, and taking any interest in their personal conversation. It was the ignorance of language which created a feeling of estrangement, mistrust, and contempt on both sides. (Philindus, “The Neglect of the Study of the Indian Languages Considered as a Cause of the Indian Rebellion,” Letter to Times, dated December 30, 1857)

The other pseudonym, “Indophilus,” belonged to Sir Charles Trevelyan, a British civil servant and administrator. Largely in response to “Philindus’s” original piece, he, too, argued that the appalling lack of British awareness led to distrust amongst “native” Indians, and specifically posited a seven-point plan to establish an Oriental Institute, a publicly- and Crown-supported college meant to educate civil and military service men, as well as clergy, doctors, and laypeople before they went to India.

Ultimately, Müller and Trevelyan disagreed on what ought to have been taught in the Institute they proposed: Müller insisted that Sanskrit would cover the majority of Indic vocabulary, but, additionally Arabic would be helpful to understand the Muslim minority; Trevelyan argued that modern, spoken dialects would be more pragmatic. Both agreed, however, that understanding language meant understanding religion, which in turn meant better management, more security, and a stronger British India. Their exchange was augmented subsequently by M. Monier-Williams and Syed Abdoollah, with both in support of an Oriental Institute. The former supported Müller’s Sanskrit-heavy curricula, and the latter took issue with the other authors’ suggestion that British professors would be ideal. Abdoollah suggested that proper native speakers–i.e., South Asians–be employed, and (in politic language) accused British professors of India and Indic languages of being far too distant to get the accents quite right.

The debate about how an institution of higher learning might be established–complete with rudimentary budget proposals and funding sources–is itself fascinating. But what’s most interesting to me in these essays is how “religion” was deployed. No two authors say quite the same thing, but overall, religion is: imbricated with language(s); required information for effective governance; not to be taken lightly; and, ultimately, to be at least partially blamed for the 1857 Rebellion, both in its immediate and latent causes. One of the events leading up to the Rebellion was the greasing of weapons with animal fat–an act offensive to both Hindus and Muslims. Müller concludes that had civil or military servicemen understood just how offensive this could be, the issue would have resolved itself before becoming one. He writes that Indian civil servants:

ought to know something of Mohamed, the Koran, and the spreading of Mohamedanism, something about the Vedas, about Manu, Buddha, and the Purǎnas before they undertake to act as governors and teachers of Hindus and Mussalmans. (Philindus, “On the Proper Mode of Teaching the Languages of India,” Letter to Times. Dated January 4, 1858. All spellings in original.)

Religion here serves as a primary identity marker, and a primary way by which “governors and teachers” might understand their subjects and pupils. Certainly this is a hallmark of both Orientalist and colonial depictions of religions and religious subjects and in some ways this is simply data that is similar to what scholars of South Asia, colonialisms, and religion have seen before.

However, what’s fascinating and worthy of note is where this information happened: this was a public conversation, written for an obviously literate and educated audience, but public nevertheless. It represents a discourse that linked religion, governance, and language publicly, as in not just for Ivory Tower dwellers, and not merely as a thought experiment. For public consumption, debate, and action. These essays, both individually and when taken together, are a call on Parliament (in some cases explicitly) as well as the general public to form an institution dedicated to teaching language, history, and religion in the service of the British Empire, and as a response to a rebellion. As I parse sources about religion, rebellion, foreign rule in India, and religious belonging, such a public conversation–by such important voices–helps me underscore and frame how widespread “Müllerian” ideas about language and religion may have been, and to what avail.

Street Sign. New Delhi, India.

Street Sign. New Delhi, India.

Given contemporary debates on the utility of humanities in the face of STEM’s rise, it’s easy to forget that religion–as a broad, complicated category as well as those traditions that might comprise it–has long shaped questions and decisions in policy and governance. The op-eds I found not only foreground the creation of an institution that has the sound of a modern land-grant university, but also the vitality and necessity of understanding religion to the British Empire in India.  We do not need to agree with Indophilus and Philindus in an instrumental use of religion in the governance of society (and certainly not colonized societies) to appreciate their concern for the importance of religion as a part of public debate and conversation.

Religion, public debate, famed scholars, Orientalism, and calls for new universities for the betterment of Empire and subjects alike. Just one great day in the archives.

From the Archives

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Thanks to UVM and the Peter J. Seybolt Faculty Fund in Asian Studies, I’ve been in London this summer, working in the British Library‘s vast collections. It isn’t my first time using the Library, and specifically, its India Office Collection (explore a fraction of this collection here); I’ve used my visits here to read Persian and Sanskrit manuscripts, records of the Mughal Empire and East India Company, and various other documents, prints, and pamphlets as I chase footnotes and weave my project(s) together.

It is nothing short of humbling to research at the British Library: beyond the processes involved in getting and maintaining access to the collection, this is the home of some of the world’s most important intellectual, cultural, political, and scientific stores. The original Alice in Wonderland? Magna Carta? Da Vinci’s notebooks? Check. Stunning illuminated texts, including Bibles and Qur’ans and medieval texts from across the world? Yup. Handwritten, one-of-a-kind manuscripts in every language I can think of–and languages I can’t entirely locate? Of course. Someone like me–an historian of religions, and specifically of religions in India–can spend countless hours in archives and libraries because I find books magical; the impact of the collection in which I am currently working is not lost on me, and it is imposing.

It is, then, no wonder that the Library’s Reading Room tag line is “Researching the world’s knowledge.” Certainly, they’ve got holdings that span time, place, and language, and, if my colleagues (my Reading Room-mates, as it were) are any representation of the patrons writ large, the researchers themselves span age groups, nationalities, and native languages.

Clear bags provided for researchers to use in the Reading Rooms.

Clear bags provided for researchers to use in the Reading Rooms.

My latest research focuses on the idea of Muslims as subjects of the British Indian Empire. Right now, as I’m in the thick of it, I’m reading texts by East India Company officers (Hindus, Muslims, and Brits), by muftis and qazis (Muslim religious experts), by Muslim and British political activists on all parts of the political spectrum; I’m reading minutes of Parlimentary hearings spanning 1780-1890; and I’m reading compiled histories of India and its religions written by the original armchair historians, themselves never having visited the Subcontinent (and, in some cases, never having learned an Indic or Islamicate language). I’m trying to get lots of sides to a what I think will turn out to be a great story; this is, at any rate, my sense of good research–a great story that speaks to issues beyond its own minutiae.

I’m researching multiple voices, in multiple languages, from multiple (though, historically speaking, cogent) decades and even centuries, from multiple locations–and I’m doing it all in London. I’m researching the world’s knowledge in London. The Empire’s legacies allow me to do this work, here; so while I research the legacies of imperial and colonial power upon religious actors, I, too, participate in this legacy. My participation is part of what it means to research the world’s knowledge: the story I might tell is not only one of historical events and ideas, but of how that historical moment continues to contour our present.

That’s the story I’m telling, and I’ll stick to it, until the information points me elsewhere. I’ll be posting more updates as it unfolds.

Coups and Conversations

On Thursday, May 22, I went to a wat (temple/monastery) in Eastern Bangkok to interview a monk. I had been to the wat a few times, trying to catch a monk sitting around bored, and open to chatting with a nosy foreigner. This is a strategy that I have been using on and off for the last few months. It makes the encounter seem a bit more spontaneous and more likely that a monk will speak freely about his thoughts on politics and whatever possible role he might have. However, I had reached the end of my patience with this particular wat. Martial law had been declared two days before, and I wanted to speak with a monk I had never spoken to about this. I went up to the samnak-gaan wat (ie the office) and explained that I was a researcher and would like to speak to a monk about the roles of Thai monks in society. The man working in the office said sure, and then he thought for a long time about who to get. He disappeared, coming back about fifteen minutes later with the only monk he could find. The monk seemed a bit embarrassed and a bit reluctant to talk, as if he had been coerced into talking to the foreigner (not impossible). However, he quickly warmed up, and we chatted for over an hour about his responsibilities, the place of the wat in the community, and his thoughts on martial law. In general he was not worried about the declaration. He said he thought this was probably a good thing because the protests which had been going on for six months had reached an impasse and martial law would calm things down and allow proper negotiations. About four hours later, General Prayuth, the head of the military got sick of these negotiations and decided to declare the caretaker government null and void, and ultimately the Senate and the Constitution as well. For the 14th time since 1932, Thailand had been subject to a military coup.

In very broad terms, the coup was the latest shift in a decade long conflict over the control of Thai society. The details are beyond the scope of a blog post (good reporting is provided by Thomas Fuller of the New York Times, and smart, clear op-ed pieces by both Michael Montesano and Duncan McCargo, also in the Times), but in very broad terms, this is a conflict over the relative influence of different stakeholders in Thailand as a democracy. It has often been cast in binary terms between the “red shirts” and the “yellow shirts,” with the former being associated with rural folk, particularly farmers of the North and Northeast, and the latter being associated with royalists, and middle and professional classes. The “red shirts” want to privilege electoral politics, while the “yellow shirts” have wanted to privilege the centrality of the monarchy. I am trying to use careful language here because most the red shirts also “love the king” and most yellow shirts also want electoral democracy (though their leaders should probably be seen as anti-democratic). The shirt colors are short hand for broad coalitions, because these were the colors worn by the different groups in mass mobilizations that have taken place over the last decade.

The origins of this coup go back to the last coup in 2006, when Thaksin Shinawatra was removed from office by the army, presumably because he was a threat to the king. Thaksin while a fairly greedy and thuggish politician is also the only prime minister to have made it through an entire term and be reelected in Thailand’s coup-happy history. Since 2006, Thai politics has been a real mess. Various Thaksin related parties and prime ministers have been thrown out of office, and/or banned from participating in electoral politics by judicial decision/coup. On different occasions, mass protests have shut down Bangkok’s airports and shopping districts and in 2010 there was a crackdown on a group of red shirts that had taken over the central shopping intersection in Bangkok, resulting in the death of around 70 protestors and a handful of soldiers and policemen. The most recent set of protests began late last year and were precipitated by an amnesty bill that the government (then run by Thaksin’s younger sister, Yingluck) put forward. This would have granted amnesty to the leaders of the government during the crackdown, the Democrat Party, and would also have allowed Thaksin to return to Thailand (he’s been in exile since being removed from power, and was convicted of corruption in absentia). While the government withdrew the amnesty bill, the yellow shirts (who no longer wear yellow but instead drape themselves in the Thai flag and blow whistles on the streets of Bangkok) ramped up their protests, causing the government to resign, occupying several key intersections of Bangkok for three months (under the catchy slogan, “Shutdown Bangkok, Restart Thailand”), and doing their best to block the election that took place of February 2 of this year. While they were largely unsuccessful in this, they were successful enough that it allowed the courts to throw out the legitimacy of the election. Throughout these protests, their key leader, Suthep, has called for the elimination of the government and the removal of the “Thaksin regime” in language that is often violent, misogynistic and frankly repugnant. He has called for the appointment of a “neutral” party to lead the country to “reform,” though beyond the removal of Thaksin and his sister, what reform might mean has been quite vague.

The coup has been less about violent repression, and more about stifling voices and dissent. General Prayuth, the coup’s leader, immediately arrested many of the political leaders, and has required that other political leaders, both elected and unelected, red shirt and yellow, academics and journalists report to the army for a “cooling off” period. This is officially meant to provide negotiations the opportunity to be successful, but most understand that it is meant to quell opposition. Small protests have occurred throughout Bangkok, and they have been met with an overwhelming presence of army and police, well out of proportion to their numbers or threat. Many people have taken the coup fairly phlegmatically, saying to me that this is “Thai style politics,” but many others have taken to symbolic modes of dissent: reading 1984 in groups of four (groups of five are proscribed); taking selfies of themselves doing a three-fingered salute taken from the Hunger Games; handing out and eating sandwiches in public. These have all been banned by the junta. The junta also shut down Facebook for about an hour a week ago – this really got people upset, and it was quickly restored.

To be honest, I don’t know how the people of Thailand or Bangkok feel about this. My evidence is anecdotal, but I’ve talked to a number of people, mainly monks, in the two and a half weeks since the coup. Some are willing to wait and see how it goes, others think it is simply a terrible turn of events. Two conversations with several monks in particular stand out. The first was a couple of days after the coup. I biked up to a wat, and as I was parking my bike, the monk came up as if he had been waiting for me, spitting mad, anxious to tell me how terrible and stupid the coup was and how much worse it would make everything. The second was a few days later at a university library. This monk was also not happy about the coup, but rather than being mad, he was sad and scared. “Many people disagree,” he said. “They cannot speak out. Big gun.” He moved his hands showing someone being grabbed. As he said this, his voice became quieter and quieter, not wanting to be overheard.

Department Newsletter

Each year, the department crafts a newsletter, in conjunction with the College of Arts and Sciences eNEWS and newsletters.

cropped-DSC_0034.jpgThe faculty and graduating seniors had a big 2013-2014! As you might imagine, professors gave papers, published new research, and taught innovative new courses alongside beloved standards. Thanks to Professor Todne Thomas, the department hosted Dr. J. Lorand Matory, a UVM Marsh Professor, for two weeks and many events in April. Our graduating seniors produced critical research projects in REL201, and two students–we couldn’t select just one!–received the Outstanding Senior Major Award.

Read in detail what we were up to all year: click here for our 2014 newsletter.

Religion@UVM 2014 Graduates

DSC_0011On Sunday, May 18, we celebrated and congratulated our Class of 2014 graduates! Many of these students had been with us from the beginning of their college careers; some had moved from the minor to the major; and others still figured out rather late in the game that they had (surprisingly!) taken enough credits to declare a second major in Religion. However they started, all of them finished strongly, and as a department, we are proud of their accomplishments, and eager to hear what they both take on and achieve next.

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Prof. Vicki Brennan with graduate Makenzy Smith

This senior cohort participated in the REL201: Senior Seminar, and wrote intensive research projects as part of their capstone experience. As in years past, the projects built upon both student’s individual interests and coursework experience in the study of religion–which means they produced projects that ranged in scope, method, and theoretical frameworks. While not exhaustive, here’s a sampling of the topics our graduates covered:

  • Buddhist monastic reform movements and nationalism in Thailand
  • analytical perspectives on Nigerian Christian deliverance narratives
  • UVM’s “Healing Touch” course and its place in the curriculum
  • Holocaust narratives and Jewish practice
  • social media, religion, and the NFL

The breadth of their projects certainly reflects the breadth of their interests, but it may belie, at quick glance, the depth with which these recent graduates approach the study of religion, in these projects and in their everyday conversations.

Colin Bradley with Prof. Richard Sugarman

Colin Bradley with Prof. Richard Sugarman

And while this statement itself seems a platitude, we’ve spent the better part of four years listening to them hash out their ideas! Believe us: these are students who cannot help but think religion. We hope they’ll keep in touch, we hope some of them will be featured as alumni bloggers soon, but we ask very little–only that they continue to think religion, with breadth and depth, in whatever comes next.

Buddhist monks and politics in Thailand

monks at pithi panyak

I have been in Thailand since the beginning of January conducting research into the political identity and attitudes of the Buddhist monks of the country. My research is organized around the problem of how monks and novices see themselves as citizens, and whether being a monk interferes with or works together with their citizenship. Buddhism is a central part of Thai national identity, with some 90% of the population presumed to be Buddhist, and ordination as a monk for at least several weeks is widely understood as being an important responsibility that Thai men should undertake (though many do not). Moreover, while Buddhism has not been established as the official religion of the country, the king is required to be Buddhist and “religion” (often though not always understood to be Buddhism) is one of the three central “institutions” of modern Thailand, along with the king and the nation (ie the people). Buddhism is thus central to “thai-ness,” and formally at least monks have a very high status in Thai society.

Yet this doesn’t always translate into the lives of individual monks, and it is the attitudes of individual monks into their status that I have been trying to understand. For example, while Thailand is a democracy (coup’s aside), and women were enfranchised several decades before they were in the United States, monks are forbidden from voting in elections. The rationale for this is that monks are in the center and above politics. If they have the right to vote, the argument goes, this will foster division within society, and that is seen as contrary to their primary role in Thai society. Many monks that I have talked to this spring do not seem to be particularly troubled by their disenfranchisement. Some have said to me, for example, that if they could vote, they were afraid that they would be the subject of lobbying by politicians, something they had no interest in. For the first month or so that I was asking monks about this, all of them told me about being “in the center,” and I thought that monks simply did not want to vote. Then one day, by chance, I asked a monk, “So, you don’t want to vote?” He looked at me as if I was silly. “I didn’t say that, I would be happy to vote if I could.” Since then, I have followed up my question about monks voting with questions about the individual monk voting. A somewhat different picture has emerged as a result. While none of the monks seems to want to take to the streets to push for enfranchisement, some 2/3 of them have told me they would like to vote if they could.

I am still in the process of coming to understand the implications of this.  Most monks in Thailand are Thai citizens; being a monk changes what they the can do as citizens.  It provides them with access to educational opportunities but changes how they can participate in the political process.  But it is unclear to me whether most monks think that they should have a voice in society – as monks.

In a few days, I will post some thoughts about the coup last week and the political protests of the last year that precipitated it.