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Millennialism, Theravāda Buddhism, and Thai Society

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 March 2011


Theoretical Considerations

In this paper I am concerned with the explanation of a type of religious phenomenon I shall refer to as millennialism. I would, at the outset, underline the religious character of this phenomenon, since millennialism (also known under a variety of other names) is often viewed as a projection of psychological, economic, or political crisis experiences. I do not view religion merely as a projective system; rather I hold with Clifford Geertz that it is a “cultural system” which serves as both a “model of” and a “model for” reality. That is to say, I see religion serving both as a set of symbols that makes human experience ultimately meaningful, and as a set of symbols that provides an ultimate basis for human action.

Copyright © The Association for Asian Studies, Inc. 1977

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In 1972, Ford Foundation support enabled me to carry out archival research in Bangkok on northeastern Thai history, including the uprising discussed in this paper. In 1972–1974, while serving as a Fulbright exchange lecturer at Chiang Mai Univerthropology sity, I was able to gather additional information on millennialism in Thailand.

1 “Religion as a Cultural System” in Banton, M. ed.). Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion (London: Tavistock, 1966), pp. 146.Google Scholar

2 Once a millennialism has been established, others with religious background different from the original adherents may be attracted to it. This process, whereby a millennial movement is expanded, leads us away from a focus on millennialism per se and into a consideration of conversion, which is by no means limited to millennial movements.

3 The Ritual Process (Chicago: Aldine. 1969), p. III.Google Scholar

4 Ibid., p. 95.

5 See O'Dea, Thomas F., The Mormons, Chicago: Univ of Chicago Press, 1957.Google Scholar

6 “Medieval Millenarism: Its Bearing on the Comparative Study of Millenarian Movements” in Thrupp, S. L. (ed.), Millennial Dreams in Action (New York: Schocken, 1970), p. 32.Google Scholar

7 Buddhism and Society [hereafter B&S], (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), p. 182.Google Scholar

8 I shall use the better-known Sanskrit formsnirvāna, karma, and dbarma rather than the Pāli forms nihbāna, kamma, and dbamnia. In transliterating Thai words, I have indicated vowel length, but not tone. The consonants used for transcription are: -p-, -t-, c-, -k-, ph-, th-, ch-, kh-, b-, d-, f-, s-, h-, -m-, -n-, -ng-, 1-, r-, w-, y-. Vowels are: i, e, ae, u, o, ǫ, , oe, and a.

9 Y. Talmon, “Pursuit of the Millennium: The Relation between Religious and Social Change,” Archives Européenes de Sociologie, III (1962), pp. 125–48; quote taken from abridged version in Birnbaum, N. & Lenzer, G. (eds). Sociology and Religion: A Book of Readings (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1962Google Scholar), p. 246. Also compare Cohn (n.6 above), pp. 42–43; and Worsley, P., The Tram-pet Shall Sound, 2d rev. ed. (New York: Schocken, 1968), p. 223.Google Scholar

10 “Phu Thai Religious Syncretism,” (Harvard Ph.D. diss., 1967), pp. 122–23.

11 The Sociology of Religion, Fischoff, E. trans. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1963), pp. 113—14.Google Scholar

12 “Theodicy, Sin and Salvation in a Sociology of Buddhism,” in Leach, E. R. (ed.), Dialectic in Practical Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1968), p. 21.Google Scholar

13 Merit and Power in the Thai Social Order,” American Anthropologist, LXIV (1962), p. 1248.Google Scholar

14 Phillips, H. P., “Social Contract vs. Social Promise in a Siamese Village,” in Potter, J. M., Diaz, M. N., and Foster, G. M. (eds.), Peasant Society: A Reader (Boston: Little, Brown, 1967), p. 364Google Scholar.

15 Hanks (n. 13 above), p. 1256.

16 Cf. Spiro, B & S, pp. 124–28.

17 Cf. Conze, Edward, Buddhism: Its Essence and Development (New York: Harper, 1959), pp. 116–17Google Scholar; he asserts (mistakenly, I believe) that the doctrine of the coming of Maitreya never held a great place among Theravādins.

18 Mendelson, E. M., “A Messianic Buddhist Association in Upper Burma” [hereafter “MBA”), Bulletin of School of Oriental and African Studies, XXIV (1961), p. 575.Google Scholar

20 See Sarkisyanz, E., Buddhist Backgrounds of the Burmese Revolution (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1965), pp. 4348CrossRefGoogle Scholar passim.

21 Rabibhadana, Akin, The Organization of Thai Society in the Early Bangkok Period, 1782–1873 (Ithaca: Cornell SE Asia Program, Data Paper #74, 1969), pp. 4647.Google Scholar

22 These comments on popular acceptance of the king as the person with the greatest karmic legacy are based on research carried out 1962–1964 in villages in Mahāsārakhām province, NE Thailand; see my “Peasant and Nation: A Thai-Lao Village in a Thai State” (Cornell Ph.D. diss., 1966).

23 Cf. Mendelson, “MBA,” p. 564. AlsoSpiro, B & S, pp. 163–64; and Burmese Supernaturalism (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1967). p. 24Google Scholar. I am also indebted to F. K. Lehman (personal communication) for elucidating the meaning and etymology of this word for me.

24 Theodore Stern, “Ariya and the Golden Book: A Millenarian Buddhist Sect among the Karen,” JAS, XXVII (1968), pp. 297328.Google Scholar

25 Ibid., p. 307.

26 This observation is drawn from field notes I compiled while engaged in research in Mae Sariang district, NW Thailand in 1967–1968.

27 See Mendelson, E. M., “MBA”; “Religion and Authority in Modern Burma.” The World Today, XVI (6), 1960, pp. 110–18;Google ScholarThe King of the Weaving Mountain.” Journal of Royal Central Asiatic Society, XLVIII, 34 (1961), pp. 229–37;Google Scholar “Buddhism and Politics in Burma,” New Society, XXXVIII (1963), pp. 8–10; “Observations on a Tour in the Region of Mount Popa, Central Burma,”France-Asie, XIX, 179 (1963), pp. 780–807; “The Uses of Religious Scepticism in Modern Burma,” Diogenes, XLI (1963), pp. 94–116; “Buddhism and the Burmese Establishment,” Archives de Sociologie des Religions, IX, (1964), pp. 85–95. Also Sarkisyanz, (n. 20 above); Spiro, B & S, pp. 162–87; and Kitsiri Malalgoda, Millennialism in Relation to Buddhism,” Comparative Studies ofSociety and History, XII, 4 (1970), pp. 424–41.Google Scholar

28 See Stern (n. 24 above), and Peter Hinton , “The Karen. Millenarism, and th e Politics of Accommodation to Lowland States, “in Keyes, C. F. (ed.), Ethnic Adaptation and Identity: The Karen on the Thai Frontier with Burma (Philadelphia: ISHI, forthcoming).Google Scholar

29 In 1968. during my research in Ma e Sariang, NW Thailand, the district Buddhist abbot showed me a tract which told of the imminent coming of Phra Sī Ān—i.e., Ariya Maitreya. In 1973 I obtained several pamphlets describing a Maitreya cult in Thonburī, the twin city of Bangkok. Newspaper accounts in 1974 (Thai Rat, 9 & 10 Feb; The Bangkok Post, 10 Feb; Sayām Rat, 11 Feb) carried a story about a husband and wife living in Kumphawāpī, District, Udn Province, NE Thailand, who claimed that Phra Sī Ān had already been born. In Sept 1976, I received (fro m Edward Fallon, a graduate student from the Univ. of Wisconsin, engage d in research on NE Thai history) a booklet entitled Phra Sī Ariya Mēttraiya (Phra Sī Ān), comp. by Un Mahāchōkchai (Khǭnkāēh, 1976); it describes a woman in Chiang Khan District, Lōēi Province, NE Thailand , who ha s been accepted by numerous villagers in adjacent areas as being an incarnation of the Maitreya Buddha.

30 Worsley (n. 9 above), p. xii.

31 While I have not pursued the question, it may be that gold leaf serves as a medium whereby the “merit” of persons and the Buddha himself can be tapped. Interestingly, the abbot of the temple in Nakhn Pathom province mentioned above impressed gold leaf on the palms of his clients before writing his yantras.

32 The story is taken from “Rang Phra Khru Wat Chalong,” (Concerning the Phra Khru of Wat Chalong), which is contained in Prince Damrong, Nithān hōrānkhadī (Historical anecdotes), (Bangkok: Phrae Phitthayā, 1961 [orig. published 1935]), pp. 12–21.

33 See. for example, my discussion of the prolonged efforts (which finally succeeded) on the part of the Siamese government to bring the most famous monk of recent northern Thai history, Khrū Bā Sīwichai, into the Sangha hierarchy (”Buddhism and National Integration in Thailand,”JAS, XXX (1971), pp. 551–68; also Amara Bhumiratana, “Four Charismatic Monks in Thailand,” Univ. of Washington M.A. thesis, 1969).

34 Prince Damrong, Thiao tarn thāng rotfai (”Travels along the Railway”) (Bangkok: Volume Distributed for the Cremation of Nāi Samruat Phanphriyā, 1954), pp. 119–20.

35 The major primary source for this uprising is the set of documents collected in a file kept by the Thai Ministry of Interior, and now available for study through the Nat'l Archives in Bangkok [hereafter NA-B]—catalogued as M.2.18, ”rijang [>bi bun” (Concerning thephi bun), under the Ministry of Interior (krasuang mahātthai) records of the 5th reign (reign of King Chulalongkorn) . A short account of the uprising, by Prince Damrong Rajanubhab (who was Minister of Interior at the time and who figures prominently in the archival records) appeared in his book Nithān … (n. 32 above), pp. 352–58. Tōēm Wiphākphacanakit, whose father was a Siamese official in the Northeast at th e time of the uprising, has given a detailed account in his Prawatsāt Īsān (History of the NE) [hereafter PI], (Bangkok: Samākhom sangkhomsāt hāēng prathēt thai, 1970), vol. II, pp. 557–87. Some additional details can also be found in two local histories compiled by northeasterners: Bunchuai Atthākn, (comp.), Prawatsāt hāēng phāk īsān lae mahāsārakbām hung t n (Some aspects of the history of the NE and Mahasarakham) [hereafter PIM], (Mahāsā-rakhām: Cremation Vol. for Nāng Pathumā Atthākn, 1962), pp. 76–77; and Phra Thēp Ratana Mōlī (comp. & ed.), Urangkba nithān: tamnān phra thāt phanom phitsadān (Legend of the breast-bone [relic]: Chronicle of the Thāt Phanom Shrine, expanded), (Nakhn Phanom, 1965), pp. 101–102. It is quite likely that further research will uncover yet other local chronicles containing accounts of the uprising.

Phaithūn Mīkūson's study, Kānpathirūp kānpokkbr ng montban fsān samai thī phracao horomwongtbōē kromlitang sanphasitthiprasong song pen kbāluangyai (Ph.S.2436–2433) (Provincial reforms in Monthon Īsān during the period when Prince Sanphasitthiprasong was High Commissioner) [hereafterKKMI], by far the best secondary source, has made extensive use of the archival materials, as well as some other primary sources; first published as a thesis (Bangkok: M.A. thesis, College of Education, Prasamitr, 1972), it has subsequently been published in two other versions: (Bangkok: Banna-kit Thrēdding, 1974) and (Bangkok: Ministry of Education, Instruct'l Unit, Dept. of Teacher Training, Instruct'! Documents #149, 1974). References cited herein are to the original version. Tej Bunnag, “Khabot phū mī bun phāk īsān r.s. 121,” (Millenarian revolt in NE Thailand, 1902) [hereafter KPI], Sangkhomsāt pgrithat (Social science review) [Bangkok], V (1967), pp. 78–87 is a stimulating article which draws upon archival data and on Tōēm's and Prince Damrong's accounts. Tej's “The Provincial Administration of Siam from 1892 to 1915” [hereafter “PA”], (D. Phil, thesis, Oxford Univ.. 1968) also contains some discussion of the uprising (see pp. 271–73, 276, 280), as well as providing an excellent detailed analysis of the political changes that provided the context within which the uprising took place.

In “The 1901–1902 ‘Holy Man’s Rebellion,” Journal of the Siam Society, LXII (1974), pp. 47–66, John B. Murdoch has provided an analysis of the uprising based on Tej's article and on an earlier version of my study presented here. He has also taken into account some published French sources that treat the uprising as it occurred in French-controlled territory: Bernard Bourotte. “Essai d'histoire des populations montagnards du Sud-In-dochinois jusqu'a 1945,”Bulletin de Societe des Etudes Indochinoises, XXX (1955), pp. 1—133; J.J. Dauplay, Les Terres rouges du plateau des Bo/ovens (Saigon, 1929); Paul le Boulanger, Histoire du Laos Francais (Paris: Librairie Plon, 1931). To date, no one has examined any French archival source for possible data on the uprising in either Thailand or Indochina. Yoneo Ishii, in his brief paper “A Note on Buddhist Millenarian Revolts in Northeastern Siam,”Journal of SE Asian Studies, VI (1975), pp. 121–26, has focused on the cultural ideas underlying the uprising; and I have taken up a similar theme in my “Power of Merit,”Visakha Puja B.E. 2316 (Annual publication of the Buddhist Assoc. of Thailand, 1973), pp. 95–102, as well as in this present study. I am also aware that a doctoral dissertation by Kennon Brazeale at Oxford contains an analysis of the uprising, but I have not had access to this study.

36 For further discussion of the traditional political structure of society in pre-modern NE Thailand, see Tōēm, PI, vol. II, pp. 387–401; my Isan: Regionalism in Northeastern Thailand (Ithaca: Cornell SE Asia Program, Data Paper #65, 1967), pp. 14—17; my “Domain. Kinship, and Political Control on the Khorat Plateau,” (Seattle, 1972, mimeo); and my “In Search of Land: Village Formation in the Central Chi River Valley, Northeastern Thailand,” Contributions to Asian Studies, IX (1976), pp. 45–63.

37 Mm Amǭrawong Wicit (M.R.W. Phatom Khanēcǭn, comp.), “Pbongsāwadān huam ang montbon īsān” (Chronicle of the provinces in the NE circle) in Pracbum pbongsāwadan phāk 4 Lie pratcat thǭngtbī ccingwut mahāsārakhām (Collected chronicles, Part IV; and local history of Mahāsārakhām Province), (Mahāsārakhām: Cremation Vol. for Phra Sārakhāmmunī. 1963), p. 102. Mǭm Amǭrawong, a Siamese official posted to Ubon, compiled his chronicles in 1904; they were first published in 1915. AJso see Tej, “PA.” pp. 102–03, and Phaithūn, KKMI, p. 20.

38 Mǭm Amǭrawong (n. 37 above), pp. 136ff.; Phaithūn, KKMI, pp. 40–43.

39 Bunchuai, PIM, pp. 72–73; Phaithūn, KKMI, pp. 53–55; Tej, “PA,” pp. 138–40.

40 Tōēm, PI, vol. II, p. 471; Phaithūn, KKMI, pp. 55, 57–58.

41 Tej, “PA,” pp. 191, 195–206; Tōēm, PI, vol. II, pp. 463–65; Phaithūn, KKMI, p. 67.

42 Phaithūn, KKMI, pp. 75–76; he observes that Prince Sanphasit especially excluded “artisans” and “rich persons” in order to stimulate economic development. “Rich persons” were determined by the number of large animals (cattle, buffaloes, horses, elephants) owned.

43 Ibid., p. 94.

44 Ibid. , pp. 95–96.

45 Ibid., pp. 77–78.

46 Ibid., p. 75.

47 Bunchuai, PIM, p. 69; Phaithūn, KKMI, pp. 43–44.

48 See my “In Search …” (n. 36 above).

49 NA-B, V, M.57/15. “Rang phra yānarakkhit wā duai rātchakān nai monthon Tsān” (Concerning Phra Yānarakkhit speaking about administration in Monthon Īsān), 10 Feb-3 Sep 1902.

50 Phaithūn, KKM1, pp. 47–49.

51 Ibid., p. 107.

52 NA-B, V,M.2.18/11, letter from Prince Sanphasit to Prince Damrong, 11 July 1903; also see Phaithūn, KKMl, p. 98. Prince Damrong—in a letter to Prince Watthanā, High Commīssioner of Monthon Udn (NA-B, V,M.2.18/3, 28 Apr 1902)—was of the opinion that those who spread the message about the coming of the phū mī bun were followers of Ong Kāēo, a claimant to the status of phū mī bun who lived in French Laos. Murdoch (n. 35 above, p. 55), who has drawn on French sources, identifies Ong Kāēo as an Alak tribesman from southern Laos. Phaithūn, KKMl, p. 79, drawing on Siamese sources, identifies him as a local Lao official of Sarawane who had a Siamese title. While Ong Kāēo was certainly a major figure in the uprising in both French Laos and in NE Thailand, he does not appear to emerge until about two years after the first indications of the millennial ideas have begun to be reported in NE Thailand.

53 Phaithūn, KKMl, p. 100 gives the titles of the four documents as: (1) nungsu Phrayā in (Lord Indra's book), (2) nungsū thāo Phrayā thanimikarāt (Book of Lord Dharmikaraja), (3) nangsū pbū mī bun (Book of the meritful persons), and (4) tamnān ph nmụang krung (Local accounts of the capital).

54 I have consulted versions of the message as reported in the following: a letter from Phrayā Suriyadētwisēt Rutthasathiwichai, a Siamese special commissioner sent to investigate the causes of the uprising, to Prince Damrong (NA-B , V,M.2.18/11, 30 Aug 1902); excerpts from and summaries of documentary sources reported by Phaithūn, KKMl, pp. 100–02, and Tej, KPI, p. 78; composite versions reported by Tōēm, PI, vol. II, p. 559; and Bunchuai, PIM, p. 76.

55 Phrayā Suriyadētwisēt (NA-B, V. M.2.18/11). Other dates given include the 8th day of the waning 1 of the 8th month, year unspecified (Phaithūn, KKMI, p. 100) and the middle of the 6th month, year of the Ox [2 May 1901] (Tōēm, PI, vol. II, p. 559).

56 Yaksa (Thai, yak), “giant demons.”

57 Phaithūn, KKMI, p. 101.

58 Ibid., pp. 100–01.

59 Bad karmic deeds (bāp) refers to acts defined by the Buddhist dbarma as producing ill consequences.

60 Tat kcim w'āng u'ēn, lit., “to cut (oneself) loose from karma and free (oneself) from anger.”

61 Sacralized water ( nām mon) consists of water over which ritual mantras have been chanted.

62 Tōēm, PI, p. 559. In another version of the message it is said that “Maidens who still have no husband should go about to find a husband. The bride price will be figured at one at and one salōt only. If a maiden is unable to find a man who is unmarried, then it is permissible to become the wife of a man who is already married. But (in this case, one) must pay four at to the original wife as the price of buying her husband. If (maidens do not take husbands), the yaksas will eat them.” (Phrayā Suriyadētwisēt in letter to Prince Damrong, 30 Aug 1902; NA-B, V, M.2.18/11).

63 NA-B V, M.57/15, letter from Phra Yānarakkhit to Prince Damrong, dated 20 Feb 1902; Phaithūn, KK/WI, p. 105.

64 Tōēm, PI, vol. II, pp. 560–61.

65 Ibid., p. 564; also see Phaithūn, KKMI, p. 106.

66 KKMI, p. 108; Phaithūn speculates that instead of meditating while in caves and in the hills, he was actually plotting rebellion with others.

67 Ibid., p. 93.

68 Ibid., pp. 93, 106.

1 NA-B, V, M.2.18/3. telegram from Prince Sanphasit to Prince Damrong, 26 Feb 1902.

70 Phaithūn, KKMl, p. 106.

71 Ibid., p. 107.

72 Ibid.

73 Ibid., p. 112; see also Tōēm, PI, vol. II , p. 565.

74 Phaithūn, KKMl, pp. 114–15, 186–89.

75 Ibid., pp. 115–16; elsewhere (p. 120), he says that 288 men were captured at B. Saph. Tōēm ( PI, vol. II. p. 564) says that 300 men were killed and 400 captured there.

76 Phaithūn, KKMl, p. 120.

77 Ibid. Ong Kāēo continued to give the French trouble until 1910, when he was finally killed by trickery (Murdoch, n. 35 above, p. 60).

78 Tōēm, PI,vol. II, pp. 574–75.

79 Phaithūn, KKMl, p. 67.

80 Ibid., pp. 118–19.

81 Tōēm, PI, vol. II, p. 577.

82 Tej, “PA,” p. 273.

83 Tej, KP1, makes too much. I believe, of the poverty of the northeastern populace being the ma- jor cause of the uprising, and also of the importance of economic aid being the major successful effort in effecting a reduction of millennial tendencies.

84 Phaithūn. KKMI, pp. 93, 95, 122; Tej, “PA,” pp. 272–73.

85 KKMI, pp. 96–97.

86 The connection between curing cults and polit- ical movements needs much more attention gener- ally than it has received to date.

87 Tōēm, PI, vol. II, p. 551.

88 Ibid., pp. 579–87.

89 Bunchuai, PIM, pp. 94, 96–98.

90 Ishii (n. 35 above), p. 126; he has taken his information from Thai Ni, Nāyokratthamontn khon thī 11 kap 2 phūnam patiwat (“The nth—Prime Minister and three leaders of the coup d'etat”) (Bangkok: Phrāē Phitthayā, 1964), pp. 546–49.

91 See note 29 above.

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