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Pagodas and Prophets: Contesting Sacred Space and Power among Buddhist Karen in Karen State


This paper analyzes multi-layered religious practices among local Buddhist Karen on the plains of Karen State in Burma, within the context of the larger socio-political dynamics of Burmese Buddhism. The purpose is threefold: first, to give ethnographic details of the hybrid nature of religious practices among Buddhist Pwo Karen, thereby demonstrating how sacred space and power are contested, despite the strong hand of the state; second, to challenge the assumed equation between non-Buddhist minorities on the one hand, and Buddhists as a lowland majority aligned to the state on the other; and third, to raise an alternative understanding to predominantly state-centered perspectives on Theravada Buddhism. Field-based observations on the young charismatic Phu Taki and his community, as well as on the practice of pagoda worship called Duwae that has hitherto been undocumented are presented. These are examined in relation to the changing religious policies of the regime, especially since the policies of “Myanmafication” of Buddhism by the reformist council began in 1980.

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Daniel P.S Goh . 2009Chinese Religion and the Challenge of Modernity in Malaysia and Singapore: Syncretism, Hybridisation and Transfiguration.” Asian Journal of Social Science 37:107137.

B Matthews . 1993. “Buddhism Under a Military Regime: the Iron Heel in Burma”. Asian Survey 33:408423.

M. E Mendelson . 1961a. “The King of the Weaving Mountain.” Royal Central Asian Journal 48:229–37.

J Schober . 1997. “Buddhist Just Rule and Burmese National Culture: State Patronage of the Chinese Tooth Relic in Myanmar.” In History of Religions 36(3):218243.

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The Journal of Asian Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-9118
  • EISSN: 1752-0401
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-asian-studies
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