Friday, June 09, 2006

Gavampti and Razadarit Ayeidawpon

The first part of Razadarit Ayeidawpon [history of Lower Burma Mon king Razadarit (c. 1385-1421)] contains a more legendary history that connects the history of the Mon region to Buddhism.

Like the Burmese Chronicle, the legendary in the history of Razadarit Ayeidawpon only fades gradually as a more factual history takes its place.

The Gavampti tradition contributes to the initial legendary part:
After the Buddha attained enlightenment, 49 days afterwards, the Buddha was spending this time under a Rajayatana (Sapium baccatum) tree, he was offered honey-cakes by the two merchant brothers Tapassu and Bhallika.

The Buddha gave them "eight strands of hair from his head. These sacred hairs were enshrined in a stupa built on Sanguttara hill by the brothers and came to be known far and wide as the Dagon Hsandaw Shin pagoda (the Shwedagon pagoda). From there the Buddha left for Rajagaha city to accept food offertories" (San Lwin, 2).

Gavampti learned that his mother from a previous reincarnation was living in Thaton in Lower Burma so he flew there.

Gavampti told Sri Mahasoka, the king of Thaton, about the Buddha and the king asked him to invite the Buddha to come to Thaton so that he could pay respect to him.

Gavampti's mother from a former birth was living amongst a tribal people. Gavampti taught them and they became Buddhist.

Gavampti flew away from Thaton and requested the Buddha to go to Thaton.

The Buddha went to Thaton and taught the king and the people. The king and the people held festivities accompanied by charity for seven days.
After reading Ovid on the early history of Rome, my appreciation for the more legendary Mon and Burmese history has increased. I know for some people this would mark me as a cultural chauvinist, looking for confirmation of Burmese history in western sources. Burmese sources should stand autonomously all by themselves. Well I agree, partly, but some areas of world history have had tremendous amounts of attention paid to them for hundreds of years and historians can learn from their experience, they can witness a history of historians or of historiography, if you will, and perhaps avoid repeating the same mistakes

The influence of religion on Ovid and early Roman history was clearly great. For earlier periods the attempts to separate the sacred part of the history from the factual part often end up in a mess that becomes more a history of the historians than a history of the culture. You can get a good sense of how debates based on thin evidence can last for centuries and in the end are more evidence of the intellectual climate of the times (e.g. 19th century ideas that are now (rightly so) considered racist) when they were written by reading Tim Cornell's The Beginnings of Ancient Rome which covers the history of the historiography of the period covered by Ovid.

For centuries there have been tremendous amounts of scholarly resources committed to the study of ancient Rome because of it foundational status in western civilization. In a similar fashion, colonial era texts like Harvey's history searched for evidence of why the British were victorious, of why Burmese civilization collapsed and we continue to view Burmese history largely through these colonial era texts which is a shame. The only way this will change is if some financial resources are put into the support of scholars in this area like, for instance, Pat Pranke whose dissertation goes a long way towards revealing the religious history of Burma from the indigenous perspective.

Perhaps the more legendary parts of a culture's history just have to be accepted as what they are, intellectual history, and integrated in a more seemless fashion into the culture's history. The integrity and narrative unity (Aristotle's unities of action, time, and place) of the legendary can be maintained if it is treated as intellectual history that actually happened, rather than as fodder for demythologization exercises in the manner of Michael Aung-Thwin's "Mists of Ramanna" or "Three Shan Brothers" etc. Aung-thwin's critique of the Dhammazedi's Kalyani inscriptions often reads as thought Dhammazedi was involved in some diabolical legitimization conspiracy whereas it was the norm for fact and fiction to be woven together into a inseparable whole in historical texts.

Reading John S. Strong (2005) "Gavampati in Pali and Sanskrit Texts: the Indian background to a Southeast Asian cult" (IABS XIV, SOAS, London, August 30, 2005) as well as Strong’s work on Asoka is certainly a good way to start thinking about this intellectual-history-that-actually-happened side of history.