Reading the Mahāvamsa

The Literary Aims of a Theravada Buddhist History

Kristin Scheible

Columbia University Press

Reading the Mahāvamsa

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Pub Date: November 2016

ISBN: 9780231171380

240 Pages

Format: Hardcover

List Price: $60.00£47.00

Pub Date: November 2016

ISBN: 9780231542609

240 Pages

Format: E-book

List Price: $59.99£47.00

Reading the Mahāvamsa

The Literary Aims of a Theravada Buddhist History

Kristin Scheible

Columbia University Press

Vamsa is a dynamic genre of Buddhist history filled with otherworldly characters and the exploits of real-life heroes. These narratives collapse the temporal distance between Buddha and the reader, building an emotionally resonant connection with an outsized religious figure and a longed-for past. The fifth-century Pali text Mahavamsa is a particularly effective example, using metaphor and other rhetorical devices to ethically transform readers, to stimulate and then to calm them.

Reading the Mahavamsa advocates a new, literary approach to this text by revealing its embedded reading advice (to experience samvega and pasada) and affective work of metaphors (the Buddha's dharma as light) and salient characters (nagas). Kristin Scheible argues that the Mahavamsa requires a particular kind of reading. In the text's proem, special instructions draw readers to the metaphor of light and the nagas, or salient snake-beings, of the first chapter. Nagas are both model worshippers and unworthy hoarders of Buddha's relics. As nonhuman agents, they challenge political and historicist readings of the text. Scheible sees these slippery characters and the narrative's potent and playful metaphors as techniques for refocusing the reader's attention on the text's emotional aims. Her work explains the Mahavamsa's central motivational role in contemporary Sri Lankan Buddhist and nationalist circles. It also speaks broadly to strategies of reading religious texts and to the internal and external cues that give such works lives beyond the page.
This is a fresh look at the Mahavamsa. Showing how imaginative practices of narratives—shape-shifting nagas, the imagery of light, and the veneration of relics—have shaped Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Kristin Scheible demonstrates that the Mahavamsa sought to construct and inspire a community of readers by prompting an aesthetic and religious response. Her literary sensibility illuminates this perceptive study.Maria Heim, author of The Forerunner of All Things: Buddhaghosa on Mind, Intention, and Agency
Scheible views the Mahavamsa as a piece of religious literature, in contrast to other scholars who have generally seen it through a historian's lens, or who have read it from a political or ethnic perspective as something intended to bolster notions of kingship and Sinhalese nationalism. Clearly written, solidly grounded in Buddhist scholarship, well attuned to theory in the fields of history, literature, and religion, and just plain insightful, this book is inspiring not only for what it has to say about an important Sri Lankan Buddhist text but more generally for our study of Buddhist literature as a whole.John S. Strong, author of Buddhisms: An Introduction
This groundbreaking book successfully provides a corrective to the study of Buddhism and Sri Lanka by going beyond the received, common interpretations of the great chronicle text, the Mahavamsa.Bradley Clough, author of Early Indian and Theravada Buddhism: Soteriological Controversy and Diversity
[An] excellent and timely book.Justin Fifield, Reading Religion
Acknowledgments
A Note on Transliteration and Translation
Introduction
1. Instructions, Admonitions, and Aspirations in Vamsa Proems
2. Relocating the Light
3. Nagas, Transfigured Figures Inside the Text, Ruminative Triggers Outside
4. Nagas and Relics
5. Historicizing (in) the Pali Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa
Conclusion
Notes
Bibliography
Index

About the Author

Kristin Scheible is associate professor of religion and humanities at Reed College.