To be burmese is to be buddhist: Formations of buddhist modernity in colonial burma

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Most scholars accept the premise that Burmese nationalism emerged in response to the presence of British colonial rule. Michael Mendelson, 2 in particular, investigated the role of the Buddhist sangha in the decade before and after independence. This chapter seeks to nuance the different ways in which Burmese Buddhists—both monks and lay people—participated in the construction of an emerging nationalist sentiment and identity as a response to the challenges posed by colonial modernity. The narrative traces various conjunctures of Buddhism and colonialism to trace the formation of a Buddhist nationalist identity and underscore familiar themes in the colonial history of Theravada Buddhist cultures. Such themes include the waning authority of the sangha, its internal fragmentation, and the concurrent rise in the religious authority of the Buddhist laity. Factors that contributed to these developments in colonial Burma include the prolonged vacancy in the office of the Burmese monastic patriarch (thathanabaing) in upper Burma and efforts of internal self-reform among so-called Mindon sects that emphasized observance of the vinaya to ensure purity of monastic practice. Related changes included the growing popularity of meditation promoted by the Ledi Sayadaw 3 and efforts to propagate Buddhism in Burma and abroad. 4 The changing Burmese conceptions about Buddhist authority unfolded at their own pace in Lower Burma, where British colonial administration was established in 1825 and in Upper Burma which did not come under colonial rule until 1886. These formative developments of Buddhist modernity therefore accentuate regional and social differences in the Burmese engagement with colonial modernity and their constructions of colonial Buddhism. While secularist efforts eventually brought about independence from colonial rule, Buddhist formations responded to colonial modernity by envisioning and popularizing particular visions for the nation's future and independence from colonial rule.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationTheravada Buddhism in Colonial Contexts
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781351620376
ISBN (Print)9781315111889
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities(all)
  • Social Sciences(all)


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