Book explores colonial state and Buddhist worldview at turn of 20th century

Professor Alicia Turner scoured thousands of rarely used sources in researching her new book, Saving Buddhism: The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma, just published by the University of Hawai‘i Press.

Saving Buddhism book coverThe book explores the dissonance between the goals of the colonial state and the Buddhist worldview that animated Burmese Buddhism at the turn of the 20th 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.

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. In addition to the publication of this book, she is compiling an online database with York Digital Library to make these sources freely available for others to examine.

Alicia Turner
Alicia Turner

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.

Alicia Turner is associate professor of humanities and religious studies at York University in Toronto and the editor of The Journal of Burma Studies. She specializes in the study of Buddhism in Southeast Asia with an emphasis on the period of British colonialism in Burma/Myanmar. Her current projects include a collaborative project on U Dhammaloka, an Irish sailor turned Buddhist monk and anti-colonial agitator at the turn of the 20th century. She is also beginning work on the study of Buddhist networks from the margins in colonial Southeast Asia and a digital archive of Buddhist publications from this period.

For more information, visit the University of Hawai‘i Press website.