New Books Network

Katherine A. Bowie

Of Beggars and Buddhas

The Politics of Humor in the Vessantara Jataka in Thailand

University of Wisconsin Press 2017

New Books in AnthropologyNew Books in Buddhist StudiesNew Books in Peoples & PlacesNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in ReligionNew Books in Religion & FaithNew Books in Southeast Asian StudiesNew Books Network July 27, 2018 Nick Cheesman

From the sidelines of the Asian Studies Association of Australia’s biennial conference, where she presented the inaugural keynote address of the Association of Mainland...

From the sidelines of the Asian Studies Association of Australia’s biennial conference, where she presented the inaugural keynote address of the Association of Mainland Southeast Asia Scholars, Katherine A. Bowie, joined New Books in Southeast Asian Studies to talk about Of Beggars and Buddhas: The Politics of Humor in the Vessantara Jataka in Thailand (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017).

Bowie at first hated the Vessantara Jataka: a story in which women and children are objects to be given away so as to demonstrate extraordinary generosity of the Buddha-to-be. But she reconciled her initially negative reaction with a growing awareness of the possibility for the story to offer up counter-hegemonic and deeply humorous readings. This awareness led her, through oral historical and archival work, to track the movement of the story across Thailand’s north, northeast and central regions. Along the way she found considerable divergence in how it has been told and received. In those parts of the country where Bangkok’s control has been greatest, the story’s subversive teeth have been blunted or removed, while in those farthest from the central ruler, villagers can at least recount its satirical contents, even if the full blown bawdy vaudeville style performances of yore, with monks as lead entertainers, are today largely a thing of the past.

Participating in the discussion as a special guest on this episode is Patrick Jory, whose Thailand’s Theory of Monarchy: The Vessantara Jataka and the Idea of the Perfect Man, has already featured on the channel.


Nick Cheesman is a fellow at the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University. He can be reached at nick.cheesman@anu.edu.au