Prof. Stanley J. Tambiah: An Appreciation

The Social Scientists’ Association is deeply saddened to learn of the demise of Prof. Stanley J. Tambiah on the 19th of January 2014. Prof. Tambiah’s contribution to the field of Anthropology extends far beyond his island of birth and marks him as one of Sri Lanka’s leading social scientists and thinkers. His commitment to exploring difficult issues with sensitivity and courage has served as an inspiration to the generations of scholars who have had the privilege of working with him.

His publications include:

  • Buddhism and the Spirit Cults in Northeast Thailand. (Cambridge University Press, 1970).
  • World Conqueror and World Renouncer: a Study of Religion and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background. (Cambridge University Press, 1976).
  • The Buddhist Saints of the Forest and the Cult of Amulets: a Study in Charisma, Hagiography, Sectarianism and Millenial Buddhism. (Cambridge University Press, 1984).
  • Culture, Thought and Social Action (Harvard University Press, 1985).
    Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy. (University of Chicago Press, 1986).
  • Magic, Science, Religion and the Scope of Rationality. (Cambridge University Press, 1990).
  • Bridewealth and Dowry. (with Jack Goody) (Cambridge University Press, 1973).
  • Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka. (University of Chicago Press, 1992).
  • Leveling Crowds: Ethnonationalist Conflicts and Collective Violence in South Asia. (University of California Press, 1996).
  • Edmund Leach: An Anthropological Life. (Cambridge University Press, 2002)
  • Polyandry in Ceylon, with Special Reference to the Laggala Region. (Social Scientists’ Association, 2011).

Buddhism Betrayed?: Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka

While Tambiah’s writings on Buddhism in Thailand were valued among the academic community, his foray into Sinhala Buddhism in his book Buddhism Betrayed?: Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka which was published by the Chicago University Press in 1992, caused a furor in Sri Lanka. Inspired by sections of the ultra-nationalist Sinhala Buddhist community, the controversy over the book raged in the media and in Parliament for several months. The book was banned and Tambiah was demonized as a Christian Tamil. The cover picture of Bikkhu Sobitha Thero addressing a meeting in a militant manner caused further offense. Suddenly Tambiah not only became nationally known but also emerged as a ‘public intellectual’, taking on controversial issues and even replying in the national press to his critics. As a result of this sensational campaign against the book, it sold out and a second edition was published soon after.

Academics rallied to support him. Prof. H. L. Seneviratne wrote an article in the Lanka Guardian (Vol. 20, No. 1) entitled “Tambiah Betrayed: Glimpses into a Forbidden Text”, which summarized the contents of the book and critiqued the “Sinhala Buddhist extremists.” In addition 61 academics and writers signed a historic petition denouncing the intolerance of Tambiah’s detractors. The full text of the petition which appeared in the SSA periodical Pravada is reproduced below.

A Plea for Tolerance: In Defense of Prof. Stanley J. Tambiah's Buddhism Betrayed?: Religion, Politics…