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.