Religious Gifts and Social Transaction in Modern Asia

Title: 1213 | Religious Gifts and Social Transaction in Modern Asia
Area: Border Crossing and Inter-Area
Stream: Anthropology
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Amnuaypond Kidpromma, Lancaster University, United Kingdom (organizer, presenter)
Hiroko Kawanami, Lancaster University, United Kingdom (presenter, chair)
Ryosuke Kuramoto, University of Tokyo, Japan (presenter, discussant)
Mariko Hamaya, Kyoto University, Japan (presenter)


This panel aims to re-evaluate the idea of gift of Marcel Mauss and his notion that the religious gift is not free. The panellists in their ethnographic studies show how religious gifts are or not reciprocated, and how some social transactions involving gift-giving serve an important function to lubricate or create social relations in contemporary Asia. The work of Mauss has been critiqued by Western scholars; Jonathan Parry and Alain Testart among many others, who stated that religious offerings should be free and the donor-giver should not expect anything in return from a religious recipient such as a Hindu priest or a Buddhist monk. This panel, via detailed ethnographic studies in India and Myanmar, highlights the importance of social and religious transactions, and examine how Hindu and Buddhist practitioners instigate as well as mediate reciprocity via the medium of religious gifts.
The panel introduces emic perspectives from the standpoints of religious practitioners; Hindu ascetics, Vaishnava renouncers, and Buddhists monks, in order to explore how they perceive their transactions with society, and understand how they actively initiate, negotiate, and manoeuvre the flow of goods towards them, and at times asserting wider religious and socio-political influence as a result.

Panel Abstracts:
Nature of the Gift and Its Reciprocal Transaction as Practiced in Bengal Vaishnava Sahajiya Tradition in South Asia
This paper examines the religious gift and its socio-economic functions, and focuses on how the gift is circulated in the Vaishnava Sahajiya renunciant community in West Bengal. Ideally, an Indian religious gift should be free, transacted in a one-way linear direction towards the renouncers, in which donors do not expect any return-gift. However, the ideal of free gift disengages Hindu ascetics from the laity and perpetuates the persistent critique of renouncers being parasites of society. The Vaishnava Sahajiya renouncers mostly come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and make their ends meet by receiving religious gift (dan) given by their lay donors and devotees. Drawing on my ethnographic study, I argue that the gifts circulated among the renouncers of Vaishnava Sahajiya community and also between the lay community are not free, but in fact reciprocal. Vaishnava renouncers redistribute one-third of the gifts they receive from alms collections back to the wider community and the most common way to redistribute them is through devotional feasts (sadhu seva). The renouncers organise feasts on a regular basis and their lay donors expect them to return their gratitude through such public outlet. Devotional feasts are a platform for the renouncers to show their detachment from material items collected during alms. It also helps renouncers to gain wider social reputation in the community and become respected by their religious colleagues and lay donors.

Buddhist Offerings to Social Donations; Reciprocity and Interdependence in Myanmar
In this paper, I examine how religious offerings in Myanmar can result in multiple layers of ‘giving’ and ‘receiving,’ more akin to a circular movement of goods motivated by the goodwill of givers, passed on continuously in the moral sphere of merit-making. Buddhist monks and nuns express their gratitude to their lay supporters on occasions such as on their birthdays, by throwing large feasts and giving out presents. Students show their gratitude to teachers by offering them token gifts in reciprocation for the tutelage given them. Their mutual support is not expressed in a unidirectional flow or as a one-time transaction, but in the continuous reciprocity, which helps build on and further cement their concern for each other. I also examine how the arrival of foreign humanitarian aid and INGOs after 2008 in Myanmar has affected the transactions with the Buddhist monastic community. During relief operations, monks showed that they could perform important intermediary roles in acting as monastic beneficiary of donations as well as acting as monastic benefactor to the families of victims, playing an active role in transporting and distributing aid supplies. As a result, we see today that social donations and religious offerings have begun to converge conceptually, especially in the eyes of local donors who see both types of donations to be equally meritorious. However, considering its ‘third sector’ still underdeveloped in Myanmar, the paper poses a broader question of whether the Buddhist community could play a more active, but non-political role in the broader realm of ‘civil society’.

Attempts at "Homelessness": the Nonreciprocal Relationship Between Monks and Lay People in Modern Myanmar
In Theravāda Buddhism, monks are considered to be outside of the social order on account of their seeking “homelessness” (leaving the mundane world). However, no monks are able to live without a connection to society despite being prohibited from economic activity and production by the Vinaya (the code of monastic life). Begging, relying on Dāna (religious donations) from lay people for the material basis of their livelihood, is the fundamental aspect of monkhood. How then can a life of “homelessness” materialize? How do monks striving to “renounce” regulate their relationships with society? The purpose of this study is to present the trials and errors of some extremely conservative “forest monasteries” in Myanmar and their solutions to these questions.Firstly, I will refer to the anthropological research on the gift. What will be clear here is the fact that the attempts to pursue “homelessness” are endeavors to transcend the as described in The Gift by Mauss. Secondly, It will be revealed that in order to transcend the , forest monasteries do not simply separate themselves spatially, but also reject the very acts of “giving” and “receiving,” because such transactional acts will inevitably tie the monks to society and ruin the realization of “homelessness”. Thirdly, I will indicate that they have a unique belief that nonreciprocity benefits not only the monks, but also lay people as it enhances their faith and leads them into ‘profitable’ Dāna. Lastly, by analyzing the public reception of these forest monasteries, the success of attempts at “homelessness” will be evaluated.

Can Free Gift Make Friends? Considering the Role of Religious Gifts Among Hindu Ascetics in Contemporary India
Hindu ascetics are regarded as 'individuals-outside-the-world,’ who leave home behind and live a vagabond life. However, previous studies have provided that ascetics are not individuals defined as such who do not engage in any social activities. In fact, they form spiritual lineages and families based on guru-disciple successions, which function as an alternative community to the secular family. Although ascetic social institutions and ritual procedures are significant in re-constructing and maintaining relationships in the renunciant communities, the relationships created in transactions through dakṣiṇā or the monetary gift received by ascetics seems to be critical in sustaining their community. During the religious festival called Kumbh Melā in Haridwar and Uttarakhand Himalayas, disciples are expected to offer dakṣiṇā to their gurus and senior members as part of spiritual service. Although dakṣiṇā is a free gift ideally, it requires a return-gift from the recipients especially in kind. Based on a grounded ethnographic study at Kumbh Melā, this paper examines the importance and functions of dakṣiṇā and how it allows practitioners of the Daśanāmī order to transact among themselves. It will also highlight how dakṣiṇā works to make and maintain the foundation of a spiritual family and generating a feeling of intimacy. I hope to argue that religious gifts that circulate among ascetics are not only unilateral but also reciprocal, reinforcing their internal bond both socially and spiritually

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