Abstract

In early postcolonial Burma, millenarian prophecies about the imminent arrival of Setkya Min, the world emperor, circulated. This exalted personage was expected to protect Buddhism, and usher in a golden age for Buddhism and Burma. In the late 1950s and the early 1960s, the anthropologists Michael Mendelson and Melford E. Spiro encountered a perplexing phenomenon — a few so-called royal esoteric congregations whose leaders behaved as kings and were treated as such by their followers. These leaders were held to fulfill the prophecies and thus to be impersonations of the powerful figure Setkya Min, a weikza, a future Buddha, and a righteous king.

Mendelson and Spiro understood these congregations as being continuous with the anti-colonial and even the pre-colonial millenarian rebellions. Until now, this interpretation has remained uncontested, probably due to lack of empirical evidence, since most scholars have assumed that these kinds of congregations ceased to exist long time ago. However, there still exists one such congregation in Burma, and was founded in the early 1950s. This article demonstrates how this congregation has waged a "battle" with supernatural means against what it perceived as the evil, anti-Buddhist forces to save Buddhism from extinction, and that it is just as anti-colonial and anti-Western as the anti-colonial rebellions. Moreover, the article argues that this congregation is similar to those studied by Mendelson and Spiro, and that these kinds of congregations should be understood as new Buddhist movements emerging in response to crises of authority and identity, to projects of modernization and nation-building, and to political turmoil in the postcolonial period. These congregations represented a quest for identity (individual, communal, and national), and are comparable to the other new religious movements that emerged in Southeast Asia in the postwar period.

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Additional Information

ISSN
2010-314X
Print ISSN
1094-799X
Pages
pp. 213-250
Launched on MUSE
2012-09-25
Open Access
No
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