I am interested in what we might call Buddhist intellectual histories of political thought. Too many existing studies of historical Buddhist politics, particularly in premodern Southern Asia, either rely on ahistorical state-centrism; tend towards the essentialist (an insistence that Buddhist thought “should” be found in canonical materials); or flat-out deny the very existence of “political philosophy” before colonial encounter altogether. These approaches are simply historically incorrect, and they contribute to our false sense of the inevitability of the modern (in all its unseemly guises: capitalist, statist, nationalist, sexist, colonialist, white supremacist…). I aim to problematise this picture, by demonstrating the wide range of complex, nuanced and often competing political visions constructed and contested by Buddhists throughout history. My dissertation – a micro-study of competing political ideas and practices in the kingdom of Poḷonnaruva, a central nexus in Buddhist networks across early second millennium Southern Asia – is one such attempt to complicate “Buddhist politics.” By taking seriously the political practices of the nobles, monks, and merchant guilds which dominated this period, particularly through their material and epigraphic outputs, we can better perceive the making and unmaking of Buddhist politics as lived performance rather than as textual remnant.
The analysis of gender is essential to this work. If nothing else, contemporary gender theory provides an incredibly rich theoretical apparatus through which to analyse the historical performance of other social roles, such as as “Buddhist kingship.” But this kingship was itself, I argue, a gendered phenomenon, one which relies on a hegemonic masculinity and its assumed relations to certain femininities. This in turn was complicated by the often-subversive political performances of Poḷonnaruva’s female monarchs – Līlāvatī and Kalyāṇavatī – and their attempts to grapple even with the fundamental question of gendered regnal titles (hence “Buddhist kingship” rather than “Buddhist sovereignty”). Buddhist Studies benefits greatly from considering these phenomena in light of contemporary gender theory, just as gender theory – so often based on insights gleaned from exclusively Euro-American archives – benefits from being brought into conversation with the rich dataset of Buddhist thought on gender.
Alongside this primary research, I’m also interested in devotionalism, millenarianism, and the cult of Maitreya in medieval Pali-oriented Buddhism. This interest arose out of my study of the 14th century Sinhala Anāgatavaṃśaya, a translation/adaption of the 10th century Amatarasadhārā, itself a commentary on the earlier Pali Anāgatavaṃsa. This text –like many from this period – promises that its readers will eventually be reborn in the company of Maitreya. My suspicion is that texts like the Anāgatavaṃśaya are best explained by being read alongside the works of their Shin contemporaries in Japan, Hōnen and Shinran, who sought the grace of another Buddha in what they explicitly theorised as an age of decline. Although both Maitreya texts in the Indian Ocean and Amida texts in Japan have been dismissed by colonisers and (some) scholars alike as fringe or populist deviation from “true Buddhism,” I suggest that their parallelism speaks to a natural and logical response to their respective concerns about decline. This work is very much in its early phases.