The Ascendency of Theravada Buddhism in Southeast Asia

Book Review:

The author of this book, Prapod Assavavirulhakarn, is the Dean of the Faculty of Arts in Chulalongkhorn University in Bangkok. It is based on his doctoral thesis which was written at the University of California in Berkeley, but has taken over 20 years before it has reached publication (by Silk Worm Books, Bangkok in 2010).

Assavavirulhakarn’s thesis is wide-ranging and seeks to reappraise the methodologies and conclusions of previous scholars working on the religious history of the region. Or perhaps it is better to speak about regions, because a basic division can be made into the Eastern areas (approx. the Khmer and Cham areas and the Indonesian and Malaysian archipelago), where Brahminism and Mahāyāna was strong; and the Western regions, like Pyu (Lower Burma) or Dvāravatī (Central Thailand) where the main religion was Buddhism in some form or other.

In regard to the Western regions, which is the focus for Assavavirulhakarn’s work, we can say that up and till now the broad thesis was that an early form of Buddhism arrived following Asoka’s missions to Suvaṇṇabhūmi (Skt: Suvarṇabhūmi), which was subsequently replaced first by Sarvāstivāda, and then the Mahāyāna, before the Theravāda was (re)introduced from Sri Lanka around the 12th century.

Following Gregory Shopen, by relying less on the normative texts that have been employed to reconstruct this period, and more on archeology and the epigraphical and inscriptional record, Assavavirulhakarn questions all of this: first of all it is not at all clear that Suvaṇṇabhūmi was located in or around the Pyu or Dvāravatī regions, as has previously been argued. Some have suggested, on good grounds, that it was, in fact, a part of India. Certainly there is no archeological or inscriptional evidence from the region to support the identification, and we need therefore to be cautious about it.

The archeological record only starts around the 4th-5th centuries AC, and even then the materials that are found are hardly sufficient to identify a school like the Sarvāstivādins, which has been done simply on the grounds that some of the inscriptions are written in Sanskrit and that school is known to have used the language, although it appears to have been something of a lingua franca throughout the region.

But even more telling is the fact that in the Pyu and Dvāravatī regions there are more inscriptions in Pāli in the early period, than ever there are in Sanskrit, and some are in a mixture of the languages. It also doesn’t follow that if there are Sanskrit inscriptions, the language used as a basis for their Buddhism was Sanskrit – it may simply be that the verses and other quotations were known and had acquired currency in that form.

Assavavirulhakarn argues that there has in any case been an overemphasis on schools, and especially on the hegemony of the schools. Even if it could be shown that Sarvāstivāda was prevalent in the area, that would by no means rule out the possibility of there being other schools in the same region at the same time, because the Buddhist ethos, unlike the Abrahamic religions, is inclusive, not exclusive, and various religions, and more importantly various religious practices, abide happily side by side in the region.

Assavavirulhakarn is also unhappy with the way the term Theravāda Buddhism has been used, pointing out that the mass of the practitioners in these countries had no idea they were followers of that school until very recently. For them they were simply Buddhists, and even that didn’t mean they were exclusively Buddhist, as the peoples of the region have always used whatever practices they found useful in support of their daily life. Certainly if the term is used – as it has been used by Western scholars – to denote an original or pure form of Buddhism, it has never existed in the region at all.

When we come to the supposed introduction of Theravāda Buddhism from Sri Lanka around the 12th centuries there are even more problems: the term itself is never used, and was quite possibly unknown; the inscriptions of the Kings who accepted the envoys from Lanka show that the religion was most likely already present, and that the most that could be said is that it introduced a reform. And what the Sri Lankans brought anyway was a unified doctrine following the great reforms of King Parakramabahu I, in which all the schools in Lanka were merged. To be sure they were under the dominance of the Mahavihara, but clearly they accepted other practices also.

The author argues that the only place where the religion may truly be said to have been introduced at this time was in the Eastern regions, like Cambodia and the Cham area (Southern Vietnam), which did indeed abandon their old forms and convert to the new ones following the decline of the old Khmer Empire, and the increasing dominance of the Thai peoples on the area.

Altogether this is a very thought-provoking book, which makes us re-examine the basis on which the theories of the religious history of SE Asia have been written. In many ways it is simply destructive of the certainties of old, without having many new ideas to present in their place, but it is useful in this sense: without clearing away the overgrowth on the land, it is impossible to plant new seeds. That work he seems to be content to leave to his successors.


The Ascendency of Theravada Buddhism



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