Thailand: The Soteriological State in the 1970s

Gray, Christine Elizabeth

     This thesis examines "interregional kathin ceremonies linking men in Bangkok with the Lao-Thai populations of the Northeast . . . called khon isan or 'Isan people.'. . . The dissertation tells the story of the kathin ceremony, how it changed through the centuries and how it transformed the lives of Isan people. It describes how changes in the ritual system helped bring about major changes in Isan society, doing so in such a way that radical transitions seemed 'natural' and not 'forced' . . . the work of the gods rather than of men." It is "a study of the relationship between Buddhist ritual, kingship and capitalist development insofar as it concerned the Northeast" as well as "a study of kathin at royal temples [wat luang] performed by the king or his personal representatives. . . . The major thesis is the following: Buddhism, Buddhist kingship, and Buddhist ritual played a central role in advancing Western capitalist ideologies and practices in Thailand."
     The dissertation is divided into seven parts," the first of which deals with "Buddhism and the Western culture of capitalism." The study then "describes the creation and decline of the Thai royal tradition and the history of the antinomy problem. It presents a thesis concerning the Buddhist kingship: the persistence of the 'Hindu' belief that the king's wisdom is literally a function of the purity of his blood (biogenetic substance). Part 3 covers the period from 1932 to 1957 and describes the antithesis of previous royal traditions; commoners ruled the kingdom, racing for virtue among themselves and explicitly rejecting ideologies linking the king's prowess with the purity of his lineage. Part 4 describes the period from 1957 to 1968; the synthesis of previous historical movements and the reintegration of the monarchy into the power structure. It details exactly how the ritual system was restructured to promote the development of capitalism and the penetration of Isan markets.
     Part 5 discusses the kingship at its apogee, how the present king Bhumibol helped unseat the ruling elite of the 1960s by exercising hereditary interpretive prerogatives, thereby taking the lead in promoting capitalist development. It discusses the destiny of the present king and his dynasty, its relationship to the rise of bureaucratic and corporate Buddhism and/or the rise of modern Buddhist capitalism.
     Part 6 demonstrates how a major bank began to assume the royal prerogatives and its ritual strategies to gain the largest market share in the Northeast. It also describes how the bank's publicity department has begun to exercise the interpretive and ritual prerogatives of kings. Part 8 concludes the thesis with an account of criticisms of the ritual process that have surfaced in recent years, and an analysis and their significance for the future of the polity as a viable soteriological state.