- Thailand's Theory of Monarchy: The Vessantara Jātaka and the Idea of the Perfect Man by Patrick Jory
Patrick Jory argues that to understand why the monarchy exercises enormous influence in virtually every aspect of life in Thailand we need to explore the religious sources of Thai conceptions of kingship. The theory of royal rule that Jory details in this lucidly presented study is that of the bodhisatta king, a monarch who is a "Buddha-to-be" aiming to attain ten royal "perfections" or barami, virtues that Buddhism teaches are the foundations of enlightenment and Buddhahood. In Theravada Buddhism a bodhisatta is one who vows to achieve enlightenment in a future incarnation through the accumulation of ten barami, virtues such as patience, perseverance and giving alms to the needy. While originally a quality of spiritually and morally superior beings, in Thai political discourse barami—from the Pali pāramī or "perfection (of virtue)"—evolved into a notion of religiously based charismatic authority and legitimate rule. [End Page 208]
Jory elucidates the theory of royal barami through detailed studies of the Jataka legends of the Buddha's previous incarnations. He argues that as a genre of Buddhist literature the Jatakas were the principal conduit through which the Theravada theory of monarchy was communicated to a mass audience for several hundred years. The central theme of the many Jatakas is the accumulation of barami by the bodhisatta or future Buddha over many incarnations, with the final achievement of the ten royal forms of barami enabling the bodhisatta to be reborn in his final incarnation as Gotama Buddha. The hero of the Jatakas was typically a king, prince or sage, and this identity thus provided a model of moral and political authority for rulers in the pre-modern Theravada world.
Jory focuses specifically on the Vessantara Jataka, the final of the series of 550 Jatakas and a tale that reflects the view that the perfection of the virtue of giving opens the way to the final attainment of Buddhahood. For centuries the Vessantara was the most popular Jataka in Thailand, performed in a ceremonial recitation called the Thet Mahachat or the sermon of the "great incarnation". Jory details how this Jataka provided a paradigm of the ideal ruler, why it was popular for so long and why it lost favour in the second half of the nineteenth century. His study is textually rich, well-illustrated and based on extensive analysis of primary sources, including illustrated manuscripts of the Vessantara Jataka not previously analysed in detail. Jory demonstrates the importance of the Vessantara Jataka to political culture in the Ayutthaya and early Bangkok periods, arguing that the theory of the bodhisatta king reflected in this story reached its apogee in the latter period (1782–1851). He then traces the decline and ultimate eclipse of the political influence of the Jatakas from the middle of the nineteenth century, when Western influence saw the Thai court—in particular Kings Mongkut and Chulalongkorn—adopt critical perspectives towards aspects of the Buddhist tradition, including the Jatakas. In 1904, King Chulalongkorn penned an essay denying the authority of the Jatakas and reclassifying their stories as folktales, in a move that Jory contends repudiated the basis of the concept of the bodhisatta king. [End Page 209]
Jory bookends his account of the former importance, decline and eclipse of the Vessantara Jataka, and the theory of the bodhisatta king, with introductory and closing chapters on the return of this theory in the reign of the late King Bhumibol and the political salience of that king's revision of another Jataka, The Story of Mahajanaka. Jory presents this revision as a thinly disguised allegory of King Bhumibol's own career, mixing ideas of the bodhisatta king in the original Jataka with ideas of the modernizing development-king on which Bhumibol styled himself. Jory contends that the rehabilitation of the Jatakas within the reinvented royalism of the Bhumibol era provided justification for the massive wealth of the monarchy. In...