Panel 1 - Religion and Society

Friday, Nov. 13, 18:00 - 19:15 (US CST)
Saturday, Nov. 14, 07:00 - 08:15 Thailand

Register for Webinar

Erick White

University of Michigan
Saints, Kings and Spirit Mediums: Modern Thai Virtue and Charisma in Three Registers

Barami, understood as perfected moral virtue and charismatic aura, is central to Thai conceptions of cosmological status, religious authority, and moral legitimacy. Studies of its cultural definition, ideological elaboration and social performance have proven central in the study of Thai hierarchy, legitimacy, power and leadership. Classical (Tambiah 1984) and contemporary (Cohen 2017) scholarship has explored barami among Buddhist saints. Recently, the barami of kings has been examined from multiple angles (Stengs 2009, Jory 2016, Unaldi 2016). Barami, however, circulates among more than just monks and monarchs, and a wide variety of Thais are concerned with claiming it, cultivating it, or gaining access to it. Thus, spirit mediums who channel elevated deities (thep) in the Thai Buddhist pantheon assert that they also tap into and provide access to the benevolent, miraculous efficacy of barami.

Is the barami of monks, monarchs and deities identical, however? Current scholarship has neglected this comparative question since all references to barami rely upon a seemingly shared cultural set of discourses, concepts and metaphors. This paper will explore to what degree Thai understandings of virtue and charisma differ as one moves across the religious landscape and the social location of barami changes. How, if at all, does the identity, role, and status of the individual embodying barami influence Thai conceptions of virtue and charisma as a lived reality? In what ways, if any, do Thais distinguish between the proper moral uses, social consequences and performative presence of barami in light of who embodies or mediates access to it?

Nathan McGovern

The Prehistory of “Holy Things”
(สิ่งศักดิ์สิทธิ์) in Siam

One of the most important categories for understanding modern Thai religion is “holy things” (สิ่งศักดิ์สิทธิ์), which encompasses gods, spirits, Buddha images, Chinese temples, deceased kings and monks, and even a deceased country music star. “Holy things” are understood by contemporary Thai Buddhists to have the power to grant boons to those who promise an offering in return. The category of “holy things” is the product of the appropriation of a native Thai term by 19th century missionaries to translate the Western concept of “holy” or “sacred.” This term is saksit, which is derived from the Sanskrit words śakti and siddhi and was common in Siamese discourse (either as ศักดิ์สิทธิ์ or as สิทธิศักดิ์) for centuries prior to the colonial encounter.

In this paper, I will argue that the pre-colonial meaning of saksit/sitthisak was part of a broader discourse of saiyasāt (ไสยศาสตร์). Although this term has come to refer to the Western concept of the occult in modern Thai, in pre-colonial Siamese discourse it referred to Brahmanism/Hinduism. As such, the words saksit and sitthisak are never used in pre-colonial Siamese literature to refer to Buddha images or anything specifically “Buddhist”; on the other hand, they are frequently associated with Brahmans and ṛṣis. I argue that the origin of the term likely was in the Śaiva/Tantric valences of śakti and siddhi. By a twist of fate, however, saksit was appropriated in the 19th century for use in “religion” discourse, while other saiyasāt terms were appropriated for use in the discourse of “magic.”

Daphne Weber

Washington State University
Capitalism and Care: The Conundrum of Funding Thai Bhikkhuni 

The social movement of Thai female monks, formally known as bhikkhuni, engage in many social justice projects throughout their communities. For example, they visit female prisons to offer sermons and donate sanitary napkins to women in need. Most importantly, bhikkhuni pride themselves on their own ability to use personal narratives of illness, abuse, and death to offer informal counseling to lay people facing similar traumas. However, wider national and international bodies of Buddhist authorities do not recognize women as monks, making it difficult for bhikkhuni to acquire funding through traditional like the Thai government or other hierarchical religious entities. Instead, most of these ascetics must seek funding from international organizations, regularly attending conferences and writing academic papers to prove their social and financial worth to potential donors. The precariousness of caring for local community needs while catering to the interests of international funders shows how intersections of gender, power, and religion are made even more complicated by the realities of late capitalism. In this paper, I will explore how the bhikkhuni are split between two ethnical subjectivities. On one hand, the bhikkhuni are committed to providing moral and emotional support to local laypersons through religious guidance. On the other hand, the bhikkhuni must devote attention towards international funders to ensure the continuity of the movement. I argue this split undermines the true initiatives of the movement, as more international attention and support reduces support from Thai locals who believe Western affiliation is contrary to Thai ideals.

Mathis Lohatepanont

Impurifying Thaksin: The Politics of Elite Desecularization in Thailand

Thailand has experienced desecularization since the 1990s, as successive iterations of the constitution has included progressively stronger language on Buddhist patronage and funding devoted to the religious bureaucracy has increased. This paper argues that a key reason driving state secularization in Thailand is the ascension to power of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. Drawing on previous literature on Thai elite networks, it is argued that Thaksin posed a new and unique threat to the power network of the conservative Thai establishment. Unable to beat Thaksin at the polls, the conservative establishment turned to religious appeals in order to bolster the moral authority and political legitimacy of establishment leaders while simultaneously “impurifying” the religious standing of Thaksin and his allies. Thaksin was portrayed as an enemy of the monarchy, which in Thailand is a religiously charged institution, and a danger to Thai Buddhism. To counter Thaksin, the establishment explored the use of legal mechanisms based on dharmic notions of good governance, the use of the rhetoric of “good people” and intensified state support for orthodox Theravada Buddhism. The result was that the establishment was able to weaponize a sense of religious legitimacy against Thaksin’s electoral legitimacy, which weakened Thaksin’s standing at least among those already disinclined to support him. As such, this paper argues that Thaksin was a key catalyst that prompted elite-led desecularization in Thailand.


Kanjana Thepboriruk, Ph.D., (กัญจนา เทพบริรักษ์)
Chair, NIU Thai Studies Committee

Back to top