In Appreciation of Stanley Jeyaraj Tambiah: Teacher, Anthropologist, Scholar, Sri Lankan and Humanist Citizen of the World

I: “Professor Stanley Tambiah (1929-2014): A Remembrance,” by Chris Fuller, 24 January 2014, courtesy of THAMBI 11 In the sixties and early seventies, students in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge had the great good fortune to be taught by four outstanding scholars: Meyer Fortes, Edmund Leach, Jack Goody, and S. J. Tambiah (who didn’t call himself “Stanley” in those days).  My personal good fortune was that Tambi – as everyone knew him – was my supervisor (“academic tutor”) in my final year as an undergraduate in 1969-70 and in the early part of my PhD training, before he left for Chicago in 1973.  In this brief reminiscence, I want to pay tribute to him as an inspirational teacher in Cambridge in the period prior to his long career in the US. Tambi was originally invited to Cambridge as a visiting fellow by Leach and from 1964 to 1973 he held a lectureship in the Department. For the students of my generation, most of the intellectual excitement in the Department seemed to be generated by the arguments between Fortes and Goody on one side, and Leach and Tambiah on the other.  Of course, we didn’t always understand them, we didn’t realise that most anthropologists outside Cambridge thought that many of their disagreements were minor ones about kinship technicalities, and we didn’t know how their personal relationships were or were not affected by their academic disputes.  But what we did hear in our undergraduate lectures and graduate seminars was Fortes and Goody defending descent theory and citing African ethnography, while Leach and Tambiah defended alliance theory and referred to South and Southeast Asia. More excitingly, we heard Leach, supported by Tambiah, spreading the gospel of Levi-Strauss and structuralism, while Fortes and Goody were sceptical and broadly defended Radcliffe-Brown and functionalism.  To hear Leach in particular openly criticise Fortes’s theories, while Fortes wryly dismissed his objections, was all heady stuff for a group of green students. In October 1969 at the start of my final year as an undergraduate, I wanted a new supervisor.  Because my college had no social anthropology fellows, the archaeologist who was my director of studies had to find me a supervisor from another college.  In my second-year examinations, I had passed with mediocre marks and thought my prospects would improve with a better supervisor.  I didn’t really know anything about Tambi, but his lectures – unlike those of most of his colleagues – were always well prepared, clear, and interesting, so that I found him the most inspirational lecturer in the department.  I therefore asked my director of studies if I could have him as a supervisor.  Tambi was telephoned and he said no.  My director of studies told me to ignore this conversation and try to persuade Tambi in person.  At first he again said no, but after a few days he relented, told me to find another student because he supervised in pairs, and set up the first appointment.  Mike Sallnow, my friend and later my colleague at LSE, who died tragically young, was delighted to join me and, for the rest of the academic year, Mike and I met Tambi and wrote essays for him every week.  Tambi took us and our probably naive efforts seriously; he rarely wrote more than a brief comment or two on our essays, but he explained what was right and wrong in them, proposed alternative ways of thinking about the subject matter, made connections to different questions, suggested further readings, and demonstrated in a way that was entirely new to me how every significant topic in social anthropology had to be seen as an open-ended question to be discussed critically in relation to ethnographic evidence. The supervisions were a revelation.  In my final year as an undergraduate, I learned how anthropological arguments really should be constructed and acquired the skills needed to get first-class marks in the final exam, which allowed me to enter the PhD programme.  During this year, I also took Tambi’s course on South Asian ethnography.  It was the start of my interest in India, which Tambi encouraged when he became my PhD supervisor and suggested I should do fieldwork in Kerala.  Supervisions continued to be inspirational, although Tambi’s reluctance to spend much time writing comments on draft research proposals or letters to me in the field did become something of a problem.  But it was still very disappointing when he decided to move to Chicago and everyone in Cambridge, not just his own students, felt the loss. Tambi’s obituaries will rightly focus on his major publications about Thailand and Sri Lanka, and his long, distinguished career in Chicago and Harvard.  By those who were his students in Cambridge, however, he will be best remembered for his brilliant teaching; for my own part, I am sure that without Tambi I would never have had an academic career at all. I thank Tim Ingold and Jock Stirrat, fellow students at Cambridge, for their comments on this reminiscence.  Chris Fuller, London School of Economics II. “Vale Stanley Tambiah,”  by Rex, 21 January 2014 thambi 22It was with a genuine sense of loss that I read over the weekend that Stanley Tambiah had passed away. Tambiah was a model anthropologist, a person whose personal life and work exemplified everything that our discipline can and should be. He was an area studies specialist whose monographs on life in rural Thailand expanded our ethnography of this area. He was a theorist who knit together British and American theories of symbolism and ritual at a key point in anthropological theory. And he also became a public intellectual who published substantive work on pressing issues of the day in books and articles about ethnic violence in India and Sri Lanka. Above all, he will be remembered by his colleagues as role model of the generous scholar and human being. His generosity, kindness, and humility seemed to combine the best of all the different cultures he lived in, from English gentleman to humble Buddhist to Sri Lankan Christian. His loss gives us a chance to reflect on the values he lived and that we, in turn, ought to continue to follow. I only met Tambiah once, when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago. Although Tambiah had taught there for only three years a quarter century ago, I was shocked by how well he was remembered. People — even the persnickety people who filled Chicago’s halls — were enthusiastic about his returning to the campus. I was voluntold (as they say) to organize a dinner for him to have with the graduate students. It ended up being an incredibly punishing task for me, I had to find the restaurant where we would eat and drive Tambiah there. Problems began immediately: we were given ‘more money than usual’ to take him out, but not enough to actually take him out somewhere nice. I had no car, had not driven regularly in a decade, and had never driven in a big city like Chicago. The department secretary lent me hers (yes, Chicago people, another good deed by Herself) and I had ended up navigating traffic, sweating profusely, with a Luminary sitting contentedly in the car with me. Throughout all of this, one of the biggest problems was Tambiah himself. Although I attempted to cater to his needs, this proved almost impossible: in his presence I could do nothing wrong. Any kind of food would be acceptable. It didn’t matter if we got to the restaurant on time. We could have wine, or not, depending on what the students preferred. He was more interested in what we were studying than his own work. Gracious, quiet, and polite, Tambiah was almost too much of a gentleman. So you can see: I don’t study Buddhism, South Asia, or Southeast Asia, so I feel like I am not the right person to write a remembrance of him. But until a fuller appreciate comes along, this is what I will try to do. The outlines of Tambiah’s career have been conveyed by most of the googleable sources: he was born in 1929 in the Christian community in Sri Lanka and grew interested in anthropology there. He eventually found his way to Cornell, an area studies center, and earned a Ph.D. in 1954 by writing a dissertation on peasant communities in what was then Ceylon. After graduating, Tambiah began doing work with UNESCO in Thailand (1960-1963), and he eventually became a specialist in this area. Tambiah worked with many anthropologists on his Ph.D. (Lauriston Sharp, Morris Opler, etc.) in the course of his Ph.D., which dealt with issues raised by Robert Redfield. But I think a real turning point in his intellectual development came in 1963, when he began a ten-year stint as a reader of anthropology at Cambridge. It was there that he became influenced by Edmund Leach. At this point in his career Leach had finished up Pul Eliya, his ethnography of Sri Lanka, and was turning towards Lévi-Strauss. Leach was producing the essays that would later go into Genesis as Myth and Other Essays, and edit The Structural Study of Myth and Totemism. I think we can see Leach’s influence on Tambiah in Tambiah’s essays on classification, ritual, magic, and symbolism. In 1973 Tambiah came to the University of Chicago, as I mentioned, where he taught for three years. I think these years were also highly influential for him, since he helped contribute to the University’s strength in South Asian studies and conveyed a sense of the social-anthropological encounter with structuralism. At the same time, I think Tambiah was influenced by the linguistic-anthropological focus at Chicago, and American versions of symbolic anthropology. This influence is evident in his 1985 volume of collected essays Culture, Thought, and Social Action. His Morgan lectures of the previous year were eventually published in 1990 as Magic, Science, and Religion and the Scope of Rationality. Tambiah’s project was, roughly, to understand how it was that ritual was efficacious — this meant understanding how words did not just describe the world, but change it (how they were ‘performative’). It also meant understanding how people deployed classificatory systems and cosmologies in the course of everyday life, and how those shaped action. At the time, Tambiah was one of the many people creating what Sherry Ortner would call, in 1984, ‘practice theory’ by examining how cultural categories were used in action. He never achieved the fame of Victor Turner or Marshall Sahlins — I think he was too interested in ethnography to engage in high-level theorizing. What commanded attention was his powerful ethnographic analysis: not what he said about theory, but how he employed it. He would take this awareness of the cultural/symbolic/cosmological dimension of action with him to his analysis of the religious dimensions of ethnic tensions and mass actions in South Asia. In 1976 Tambiah moved to Harvard, where he worked until he retired in 2001. There, his interest turned back towards South Asia and ethnic violence, a long-standing preoccupation of his. He produced books in 1986, 1992, and 1996 on this subjects, working in both Sri Lanka and India. As he grew closer to retirement he also began work memorializing Edmund Leach, producing an exhaustive biography of his teacher in 2002. As I said, I don’t feel confident about my ability to speak about Tambiah’s work in South or Southeast Asia. But if you are interested in learning more about Tambiah, I highly recommend watching Alan MacFarlane’s 1983 interview with Tambiah. The good people at HAU have made one of his most well-known pieces, “The Galactic Polity in Southeast Asia” available in golden (completely free to read) open access — an important way to salvage his legacy, since much of his work was published in obscure journals and collected in edited volumes that are not easily (or cheaply) accessible. I would also recommend Tambiah’s memoir of Edmund Leach, which is, frankly, so well-done that it is the only thing you will ever need to read about Leach, a small masterpiece of rigorous intellectual history. For those of you with access to Culture, Thought, and Social Action, I’d recommend… well, really there aren’t any bad essays in that book. But “A Performative Approach to Ritual”, “Animals Are Good to Think and Good to Prohibit”, and “On Flying Witches and Flying Canoes” are good places to start III: “Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah: Anthropologist And Patriot,” by HL Seneviratne at  – where there also blog comments  Professor Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah passed away on January 19th, 2014. This is not a conventional obituary, but a brief account of his work, meant as a tribute to his scholarship. Professor Tambiah was both a versatile and influential theorist and one of the foremost contemporary social science scholars of Theravada Buddhism. This account, addressed to a largely Sri Lankan readership, focuses on the latter, with only passing mention of the former. Professor Tambiah’s studies in Thai Buddhism consist of, in addition to numerous scholarly papers, three outstanding works. The first, Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in North-east Thailand (1970), based on an extended stay in the rural and conservative northeast Thailand, is a detailed description and interpretation of Buddhism as practiced at the village level. Deviating from the views of certain Western textualist scholars who saw popular Thai Buddhism as a debased form, Tambiah demonstrates the relations of continuity and transformation between “Buddhism” and the “folk religion”.  While this may sound like the commonest view of these two religious practices in all Theravada cultures, the freshness of Tambiah’s analysis derives from its particular interweaving of insights from several different strands of anthropology, enabling him to make general statements about, for example, the relation between myth and ritual, and the magical power of words. 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. If Professor Tambiah’s first Thai study represents a view from the village, and the second from the capital city, the third can be described as a view from the forest. Titled The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of the Amulets (1984), it examines the relations between the polity in its widest sense — the political centre, the people, the society as a whole – and the forest monks, an important branch of the Thai Sangha. The most significant of the book’s many themes that include hagiography and millennialism is the paradox of the renouncer’s meditatively generated magical powers. Such powers are of no use to the renouncer himself, because he has no attachment to wealth or any other mundane benefits that these powers could generate. In contrast, these are of the greatest value to the laity. And the latter can obtain these benefits by (1) looking after the material welfare of the renouncers, and (2) possessing objects that are symbolic of or have been associated with the saintly renouncers. The preeminent of the latter are amulets stamped with the likenesses of particular saints, in pursuit of which city elites –military, banking and other– make uneasy journeys to the periphery of the land, where saints occupy cosmic mountains, and rebels seek shelter in the thick of the forest below. It would appear then that the supernatural powers associated with pre-Buddhist asceticism, devalued by the Buddhists and expelled from their monasteries followed the spread of Buddhism like a shadow and are constantly trying to re-emerge, here in a cult of amulets, there in the search for alchemy and everlasting life, equally constantly to be rebuked and repelled by the path of purity and inner peace. Amulets also play a role in millennial uprisings, and the book concludes with a general discussion on millennialism in Southeast Asia. At a grander theoretical level Professor Tambiah takes the reader to three conceptual citadels of sociology — Marcel Mauss on mana, the pervasive magical power of Polynesia and related cultures, Karl Marx on fetishism, and Max Weber on charisma. All three are illuminated. The last is particularly important because it is also a critique of Max Weber for failing to see the objectification of charisma in amulets and charms, while readily granting it for institutional structures. The theoretical sophistication these discussions reveal are further evident, among other publications, in Culture, Thought and Social Action (1985), Magic, Science, Religion and the Scope of Rationality (1990), Edmund Leach: An Anthropological Life (2002), and Bridewealth and Dowry (1973) that Professor Tambiah co-authored with his Cambridge colleague Jack Goody. Professor Tambiah’s Sri Lanka work falls into two distinct phases. Among work of the first phase is a study in kinship, where he demonstrated, among other findings, that polyandry in central Sri Lanka is related to land ownership, practised by small holders as a bulwark against fragmentation. Volume-wise, Tambiah’s work in this area is modest, but its impact was considerable, influencing as it did the thought of the Cambridge anthropologist Edmund Leach who in his path-breaking work on land tenure in Ceylon convincingly challenged the anthropological assumption of the autonomy of kinship, thus far securely enshrined in the discipline and gloriously reflected in the studies of the Tallensi by another Cambridge anthropologist, Meyer Fortes. Consistent with Tambiah’s findings, Leach demonstrated how kinship was secondary to landownership. While the first phase of Professor Tambiah’s Sri Lanka studies represents the ideal of the detached scholar, those of the second reflect a newer ideal, that of social concern, that has been gaining scholarly respectability in recent decades. Work of this phase is more voluminous and, while scattered in different publications including his book Levelling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia (1996), is best exemplified in two books, Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of democracy (1986) and Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka (1992). Given the ethno-religious and political scene in Sri Lanka, these works have made Tambiah a controversial figure in his home country to say the least. Buddhism Betrayed? was banned and Ethnic Fratricide has been unavailable in the country. In Ethnic Fratricide, Professor Tambiah demonstrates that the causes of ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka are not religious and ethnic differences going back to the island’s early history as some claim, but the stresses of recent origin rooted in economic stagnation with attendant unemployment and unequal distribution, demographic patterns, uncritical scholarship based on partisan hegemonic sources and a growing tendency towards authoritarianism. The book was published in 1986, and, looking back, it is indeed prophetic that Tambiah saw “ethnic fratricide” and “ dismantling of democracy” as two sides of the same coin. As far back as then, none would have imagined how thoroughly and with what salivating gluttony would democracy be dismantled two decades later, its key building blocks methodically taken down, one by one. Professor Tambiah’s second book on Sri Lanka, Buddhism Betrayed? attracted more open and vociferous hostility, not because anyone cared to read it, but because of false conclusions on glancing at the cover that depicted an oratorical posture of a popular monk. Central to the book is the distinction between two types of Buddhism: (1) that of the texts and their elucidations that enshrine the ethical values of Buddhism, and (2) that rooted in the chronicles written by monks, the main feature of which is the identification of Buddhism with the Sinhala people, the territory of the island, and a kingship dedicated to the protection of Buddhism. The religious revival of the 19th and 20th centuries, despite its potential, failed to foster the first kind of Buddhism, instead bringing to the fore the second kind, resulting in the abandonment of Buddhism as a moral practice in favour of holding it as a political and cultural possession, to be ritualized, exhibited, boasted about, celebrated, televised, exported and so forth, but not to be lived by. The identification of Buddhism with an ethnic group and a territory made it exclusive, demoting other groups to second class citizenship. Tambiah points out how this contrasts with the historical process of inclusion that characterized Buddhism, enabling new and incoming groups to be incorporated as equal citizens in a land that all shared. As pointed out by the distinguished anthropologist Gananath Obeyesekere, this is depicted in folk rituals performed up till now. Far from being a work that should be banned, Buddhism Betrayed? should be read by every literate Sri Lankan, for what it contains is a patriotic message. Tambiah is appreciative of the genuinely nationalist and anti-imperialist urge to assert indigenous culture, and the restorative nationalist and cultural project that came into being in the 1960s and 70s. Most disarmingly of his Sinhala Buddhist critics if only they read the book, Tambiah imagines a pluralistic Sri Lankan culture with a distinctively Buddhist stamp, a position that brings him close to thinkers like Martin Wickremasinghe. To brand him a separatist and a Tiger is as ignorant as it is absurd. Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah was a towering scholar and one of the very few such scholars Sri Lanka produced in the twentieth century. He was a sensitive human being and a humanist. He will be greatly missed by the scholarly community and friends who have enjoyed his company, his wit, his laughter, his generosity and his humility. SEE AMAZON COM for books by Tambiah =

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