Folktales and the politics of humor: the case of the Vessantara Jataka in Thailand

Presented by ANU College of Asia & the Pacific

The meanings of folktales change over time.  The Vessantara Jataka is the most famous of the hundreds of morality tales (jatakas) about the Buddha's previous lives and was once better known among Buddhists than the Gautama Buddha's historical life. In his birth as Prince Vessantara, the Buddha perfects the virtue of generosity by giving away not only all his possessions, but also his wife and children. 

In this talk Professor Bowie highlights significant variations in the Vessantara Jataka's interpretations across three regions of Thailand over the past 150 years. Exploring the ribald anti-royalist trickster humor of the beggar, Bowie considers the differential role of the court in suppressing comedic recitations across these regions in the 19th century.  She concludes by noting the transformation of the story's former emphasis on generosity to one celebrating prosperity as Thailand develops from a feudal into a capitalist society in the modern era.

Katherine Bowie is the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has conducted extensive research in Thailand for over 40 years. Combining archival research with oral histories, interviews and participant-observation, her work explores Thai peasant history, political economy, social movements, electoral politics, gender and, most recently, research on anthropological approaches to Theravada Buddhism. Her latest book is Of Beggars and Buddhas: The Politics of Humor in the Vessantara Jataka in Thailand (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017). Professor Bowie is the past President of the Association of Asian Studies (AAS), and senior editor for the University of Wisconsin Press' Southeast Asia Series.

Patrick Jory is senior lecturer in Southeast Asian History at the University of Queensland, author of Thailand's Theory of Monarchy: The Vessantara Jataka and the Idea of the Perfect Man (SUNY Press, 2016), and current President of the Association of Mainland Southeast Asia Scholars.

Professor Bowie is in Australia with the support of the ANU Southeast Asia Institute, to deliver the inaugural keynote address of the Association of Mainland Southeast Asia Scholars to the Asian Studies Association of Australia biennial conference at the University of Sydney, 3-5 July 2018.