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Buddhism Deferred

Mangalika de Silva

By Ananda Abeysekera
University of South Carolina Press, 2002, pp. 271, price not stated.

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 10 October 2007

Abeysekera has given us a cogent political anthropological study of postcolonial ideological formations in the guise of an anthropology of religion in Sri Lanka. He explores these formations in chapters on the relation of theories of religion to culture concepts, the identitarian flux of postcolonial monkhood, the conjuncture formed between Buddhism and political parties, emerging religious identities in the confrontation with Sri Lankan modernity, religion, governmentality and rhetoric, the entry of religious norms into the quasi-secular political sphere and the ratio between political terror and religious identity. What is really at stake in this monograph is how debates about the definitions and character of Buddhism end up defining the postcolonial nation state and its majoritarian Sinhalese subject. These debates are described as a genealogy of highly contingent ‘appearing and disappearing’ discourses that get invested in and divested of fleeting authoritative indexicality. Thus his book raises important methodological and historiographic questions of how practices of authorization and deauthorization potentially leads to the construction of hegemony and political consent.   Abeysekera seeks to locate ‘contingent conjunctures not available to disciplinary canonization.’ He is concerned with how standards of debate and contestation internal to tradition are revised, formed and deformed. There is a systematicity to the revision dynamic that entails the argumentation and debating of discursive standards and epistemic boundaries, and genealogies of questioning religion and identity. He writes; ‘my task is to delineate the processes and techniques of revising, arguing and debating those standards, borders and questions about religious identity and difference, Buddhism and violence, civilization and terror. In seeking to do so, it may be obvious I find helpful the final Foucauldian formulation of the nexus among discourse, power and knowledge in terms of an interaction between techniques of authorization and domination’ (p. 24). However within this genealogical model of appearing/disappearing debates and discourses, can we identify a moment of conservation, even of reification in which the political field gets stabilized and is hegemonically secured for specific political forces or blocs? Certainly these political blocs of majoritarian religion and/or nationalism are discussed but the fleetingness of discourse that the author stresses belies how power is achieved and sustained through consciousness formation, subject positioning, material practices and mass consent. Abeysekera shies away from identifying such moments for iconoclastic reasons; he wants to deny a stable conceptual object to what he sees as an Orientalizing anthropology of Buddhism. Thus at the level of ...

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