Professor Tambiah’s second Thai study, World Conquerer and World Renouncer (1976) examines Thai Buddhism from the opposite perspective. Whereas the first study took, in Tambiah own words, a “worm’s eye view”, the second adopts a “bird’s eye view, (“bird” and “worm” incidentally conveying to us the subtleties of evocation characteristic of Professor Tambiah’s writing). World Conquerer is a complex work of detailed historical documentation and ethnography that runs into 550 pages. I can here mention only one of its major facets, the distinction between two different types of polity, “centre-oriented” and “centralized”. The traditional polity of Thailand had no fixed centre or bounded territory. It consisted of a multiplicity of pulsating centres whose fortunes waxed and waned. In this system of inherent instability, a conquering hero emerges periodically from some corner of the political universe, and succeeds in bringing a considerable expanse of territory under “one umbrella”, without ever gaining effective control, but claiming ritual dominion. This claim is made on the model of the ideal Buddhist ruler, the “wheel-rolling emperor” (cakravarti) who, according to myth, conquers the directions by rolling the auspicious wheel in each direction, only to renounce the territory thus conquered, giving it back to the local ruler who in return accepts the wheel-roller’s ritual sovereignty. Parallels with Sri Lanka are clear, as in the case of Dutugamunu, emerging from the peripheral south, and marching on victoriously to bring the whole island under “one umbrella”. Such periodic concentrations of power enabled the king to support the Sangha economically and organizationally, giving rise to a pattern of simultaneous rise or fall in political and ecclesiastical fortunes. The effect on the Sangha is paradoxical: the king’s enhanced power meant that he could ensure the Sangha’s hierarchical authority, but it also gave him the ability to control the Sangha, for example, by staging “purifications” (sasanavisodhana).
In contrast to this centre-oriented polity with ritual dominion but no effective control, and no bounded territory, a centralized polity came into being as the Chakri kings established themselves in Bangkok in the nineteenth century. Economic and administrative measures were taken to strengthen the country as a centralized state. Such centralization meant the introduction of a modern rational bureaucracy to administer the entire the country. These formal measures have been followed up with state sponsored “rural development” programmes led by monks and located in peripheral regions inhabited by tribal peoples who do not subscribe to Buddhism. Implications of the transition from “centre-oriented” to “centralized” for the tribal groups and other minorities are clear: they enjoy only so much cultural autonomy as the centralized state is willing to confer. Later, in his work on Sri Lanka, Professor Tambiah was to pursue this theme further.https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index. ... d-patriot/
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World Conqueror and World Renouncer is the first comprehensive and authoritative work on the relationship between Buddhism and the polity (political organization) in Thailand. The book conveys the historical background necessary for full comprehension of the contemporary structural relationship between Buddhism, the sangha (monastic order), and the polity, including the historic institution of kingship. Professor Tambiah delineates the overall relationship, as postulated in early Buddhism, between the monk's otherworldly quest on one side and the this-worldly ordinating role of the monarchy on the other. He also examines the complementary and dialectical tensions that occur in this classical relationship, the king's duty to both protect and purify the sangha being a notable example.