Thailand's Theory of Monarchy

The Vessantara Jātaka and the Idea of the Perfect Man

By Patrick Jory

Subjects: Asian Studies, History, Buddhism, Religion, Asian Religion And Philosophy
Paperback : 9781438460888, 302 pages, January 2017
Hardcover : 9781438460895, 302 pages, June 2016

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Table of contents

List of Illustrations
Note on Transcription

The Vessantara Jātaka’s Place in Thailand’s Religious Culture
The Vessantara Jātaka as a Political Text
Barami: Foundation of a Theravada Buddhist Theory of Monarchy

1. The Vessantara Jātaka as a Performative Text
The Sacred Text
Texts Recited in Conjunction with the Maha Chat
The Aesthetics of the Recitation: thamnorng and lae

2. The Vessantara Jātaka and Early State Formation Dvaravati and Sukhothai
Scripture and Orality in Sukhothai
The Doctrine of the Perfections (barami)
Than: The Power of Giving
The Vessantara Jātaka, the Family, and Thai Social Relations
The Kingdom of Ayutthaya
Kingdoms of Lanna and Lan Chang

3. A Theravada Buddhist Theory of Monarchy: The Ruler as Bodhisatta
The Vessantara Jātaka and the Chakri Monarchy in Rattanakosin Period
The Vessantara Jātaka beyond the Thai Court
Thai Monarchs and the Ten Perfections (barami)
The Genealogy of the Buddha and the Lineage of Kings

4. The Colonial Challenge to Buddhist Monarchy
The Court’s Rejection of the Jātakas
Displacement of the Jātakas from the Story of the Buddha
The Decline of “Great Lineage” History
The End of the Bodhisatta-King
Court Politics, Reformist Buddhism, and the Question of Canonicity

5. Thai and Western Buddhist Scholarship in the Era of Imperialism
King Chulalongkorn’s Essay on the Jātakas
Western Buddhist Scholarship and the Jātakas
Relations between the Thai Court and Western Pali Scholars
The Persistence of the Jātakas beyond the Thai Court

6. From Jātakas to Thai Folktales
The Marginalization of Nithan
Official Translations of the Nipāta Jātaka and Paññnasa Jātaka
The Jātakas as “Thai Literature”
Folktale Editions of the Jātakas

Conclusion: The Modern Vessantara
King Bhumibol as the Modern Vessantara

Appendix: Outline of the Thirteen Chapters of the Vessantara Jātaka

Glossary of Thai and Pali Terminology Used

Discusses the origins and cultural history of the Theravada Buddhist ideals behind the Thai institution of monarchy.


2016 CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title

Since the 2006 coup d'état, Thailand has been riven by two opposing political visions: one which aspires to a modern democracy and the rule of law, and another which holds to the traditional conception of a kingdom ruled by an exemplary Buddhist monarch. Thailand has one of the world's largest populations of observant Buddhists and one of its last politically active monarchies. This book examines the Theravada Buddhist foundations of Thailand's longstanding institution of monarchy. Patrick Jory states that the storehouse of monarchical ideology is to be found in the popular literary genre known as the Jātakas, tales of the Buddha's past lives. The best-known of these, the Vessantara Jātaka, disseminated an ideal of an infinitely generous prince as a bodhisatta or future Buddha—an ideal which remains influential in Thailand today. Using primary and secondary source materials largely unknown in Western scholarship, Jory traces the history of the Vessantara Jātaka and its political-cultural importance from the ancient to the modern period. Although pressures from European colonial powers and Buddhist reformers led eventually to a revised political conception of the monarchy, the older Buddhist ideal of kingship has yet endured.

Patrick Jory is Senior Lecturer in Southeast Asian History at the University of Queensland and the editor of Ghosts of the Past in Southern Thailand: Essays on the History and Historiography of Patani.


"…the central contribution of Jory's innovative study [is] in providing invaluable historical context to the intensified absolutist royalism that has now become the official discourse of the country's national bureaucracy and authoritarian military regime." — Sojourn

"Essential." — CHOICE