Reading the Mahavamsa: The Literary Aims of a Theravada Buddhist History.

Author:Berkwitz, Stephen C.
Position:Book review

Reading the Mahavamsa: The Literary Aims of a Theravada Buddhist History. By KRISTIN SCHEIBLE. South Asia across the Disciplines. New York: COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2016. Pp. viii + 223. $60 (cloth).

In Reading the Mahavamsa, Kristin Scheible discusses two Buddhist texts that have occupied the attention of scholars for generations. The Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa were seized upon by Orientalist scholars in the nineteenth century as texts that related more or less reliable historical information about the origins of Buddhism and the ancient history of Sri Lanka. In the twentieth century, Sri Lankan and Western scholars examined these texts--the Mahavamsa, in particular--for possible antecedents for nationalist political ideologies and ethnic chauvinism in the post-Independence history of the modern Sri Lankan state. Scheible seeks to make an intervention into the scholarship on the early Pali vamsas by applying twenty-first-century scholarly interests on the literary features of Theravada Buddhist texts to the early "chronicles" or "histories." Her work makes ample use of what Steven Collins, Jonathan Walters, and I have brought to the study of Theravada vamsa literature, although Scheible makes the strongest argument for reading Pali histories as literary works that functioned to make its "reader-hearers" into a textual community of "good people" (sujana). Scheible distinguishes her work from earlier studies by seeking to re-mythologize and, to some degree, de-historicize the way we read vamsas. Her manner of reading focuses attention on features that most other scholars have downplayed or ignored--the mythical nagas (changeable, subterranean snake-like creatures) and the metaphors employed in narrative descriptions.

Unlike earlier scholars of the Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa, Scheible seeks to understand these texts on their own terms, relatively free of the traditions of interpretation that influenced how they were read and used by later generations of Buddhists and Western scholars. This move entails trying to bracket out the more political and sectarian readings of the Mahavamsa that appear in its later commentary vamsatthappakasini and that privileged the interests of the Mahavihara monastic order. We learn that careful readings of the Mahavamsa and Dipavamsa reveal expectations that ideal readers and hearers of these texts would be ethically transformed by the texts' well-crafted literary devices and placed in proximity to the enduring...

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