Saving Buddhism explores the dissonance between the goals of the colonial state and the Buddhist worldview that animated Burmese Buddhism at the turn of the twentieth century. For many Burmese, the salient and ordering discourse was not nation or modernity but sāsana, the life of the Buddha’s teachings. Burmese Buddhists interpreted the political and social changes between 1890 and 1920 as signs that the Buddha’s sāsana was deteriorating. This fear of decline drove waves of activity and organizing to prevent the loss of the Buddha’s teachings. Burmese set out to save Buddhism, but achieved much more: they took advantage of the indeterminacy of the moment to challenge the colonial frameworks that were beginning to shape their world.
Author Alicia Turner has examined thousands of rarely used sources-- newspapers and Buddhist journals, donation lists, and colonial reports—to trace three discourses set in motion by the colonial encounter: the evolving understanding of sāsana as an orienting framework for change, the adaptive modes of identity made possible in the moral community, and the ongoing definition of religion as a site of conflict and negotiation of autonomy. Beginning from an understanding that defining and redefining the boundaries of religion operated as a key technique of colonial power—shaping subjects through European categories and authorizing projects of colonial governmentality—she explores how Burmese Buddhists became actively engaged in defining and inflecting religion to shape their colonial situation and forward their own local projects.
Saving Buddhism intervenes not just in scholarly conversations about religion and colonialism, but in theoretical work in religious studies on the categories of “religion” and “secular.” It contributes to ongoing studies of colonialism, nation, and identity in Southeast Asian studies by working to denaturalize nationalist histories. It also engages conversations on millennialism and the construction of identity in Buddhist studies by tracing the fluid nature of sāsana as a discourse. The layers of Buddhist history that emerge challenge us to see multiple modes of identity in colonial modernity and offer insights into the instabilities of categories we too often take for granted.
Turner has used a vast range of archival material gathered over the course of many years of fieldwork in Burma and in libraries and archives elsewhere. The resulting analysis is not only intellectually engaging and convincing, but also empirically satisfying. . . . This book is a remarkable achievement, one that communicates across disciplinary boundaries within Burma studies and national boundaries that divide Buddhist studies. . . . it should be essential reading for any political scientist or historian who seeks to put the current climate in the country into context. The book is highly recommended for use in the classroom and by researchers who seek to understand the historical emergence of lay Buddhism and its place in the new Burma that is presently unfolding.
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. . . . 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.
Only on reading Alicia Turner's fascinating account of the colonial-era arguments, feints, accommodations, and adjustments turning on what 'religion' implied did I come to understand that in trying to suss out what prostrating myself conveyed about the relationships I entered into, I was treading (kneeling, actually) on well-worn ground.
Turner has written Saving Buddhism in an accessible, engaging style. . . . Turner’s work will be useful for students of Southeast Asian colonialism and Southeast Asian history more widely.
History usefully teaches us the instability of categories. Turner’s critical interrogation of the terms ‘religion” and ‘nation” in Myanmar’s case provokes a refreshing effect. A major contribution to ongoing studies on comparative colonialism, religious transformations, nation, and identity in mainland Southeast Asia, Saving Buddhism finally challenges us not to take things for granted.
It is a rare treat to read a book that explores an old topic—the impact of colonialism on Buddhism in Burma—and find a new, intriguing approach to the issue. The book would be useful in courses where colonial and global processes are being examined as well as courses that focus on the complexity of analyzing lived religions. It is accessible to middle-level undergraduates and above.
The power of this book comes from how it explicates the work of Burmese Buddhists in redefining religion in the colonial period. Turner shows us how to look behind the curtain of scholarship proclaiming the all‐powerful colonial Oz to find that it was not only British authorities and European scholars who were grappling to control religion, but also Burmese Buddhists.
Turner’s book is illuminating. Her interrogation of the terms ‘nation’ and ‘religion’ are refreshing, and her idea of the moral community as an alternative way to understand the emergence of a nation so defined by religion is thoroughly convincing. She shows how to write about the colonial period without turning every intellectual and cultural expression by a Burmese into a ‘response’ to colonial discourses.
Turner's book not only contributes to the study of religious transformations in mainland Southeast Asia but makes substantial contributions to larger scholarly conversations on Buddhist modernities and comparative colonialism. It will be required reading for everyone in the growing field of Theravada Studies.
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