In Thailand's Theory of Monarchy: The Vessantara Jataka and the Idea of the Perfect Man
(SUNY Press, 2016; in paperback from 2017), Patrick Jory
offers a compelling reinterpretation of religious text as political theory. The Vessantara Jataka is one of the most historically significant stories of Gautama Buddha's previous births. Rather than reading the jataka
as religious narrative or folktale, Jory convincingly resituates it at the centre of statecraft and ruling ideology in pre-modern Thailand. Tracking the jataka's rising popularity from the period of early state formation, he shows how its preeminence gradually came to an end with European empire in the 1800s, when the country's elites undertook to save Buddhism by recasting the religion and its larger traditions to fit with colonial forms of knowledge. Although the jatakas lost favour in the capital they remained popular in the countryside. Today their relationship to the Thai monarchy has been partly restored, with the idea of the perfect man embodied in recently deceased King Bhumibol.
Patrick Jory joins New Books in Southeast Asian Studies
to discuss gift giving, Southeast Asian conceptions of power, the idea of literature, superficially modernized monarchy, and the many uses of history.
Nick Cheesman is a fellow at the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University and in 2016-17 a member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org