Of Beggars and Buddhas: The Politics of Humor in the Vessantara Jataka in Thailand


From the sidelines of the Asian Studies Association of Australia’s biennial conference, where she presented the inaugural keynote address of the Association of Mainland Southeast Asia Scholars, Katherine A. Bowie joined New Books in Southeast Asian Studies to talk about Of Beggars and Buddhas: The Politics of Humor in the Vessantara Jataka in Thailand (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017).

At first, Bowie hated the Vessantara Jataka: a story in which women and children are objects to be given away so as to demonstrate the extraordinary generosity of the Buddha-to-be. But she reconciled her initially negative reaction with a growing awareness that the story could potentially offer counter-hegemonic and deeply humorous readings.

This awareness led her, through oral historical and archival work, to track the movement of the story across Thailand’s north, northeast and central regions. Along the way she found considerable divergence in how it has been told and received. In those parts of the country where Bangkok’s control has been greatest, the story’s subversive teeth have been blunted or removed, while in those farthest from the central ruler, villagers can at least recount its satirical contents, even if the full-blown bawdy vaudeville-style performances of yore, with monks as lead entertainers, are today largely a thing of the past.

Participating in the discussion as a special guest on this episode is Patrick Jory, whose Thailand’s Theory of Monarchy: The Vessantara Jataka and the Idea of the Perfect Manhas already featured on the channel.

Listen to the podcast here:

(Duration: 43:04 — 39.4MB)

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Guillaume Rozenberg (Trans. Ward Keeler), The Immortals: Faces of the Incredible in Buddhist Burma

Claudio Sopranzetti, Owners of the Map: Motorcycle Taxi Drivers, Mobility and Politics in Bangkok

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