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A Poet's View of Colonialism

September 17, 2013

Authored by: Stephen C. Berkwitz, Professor of Religious Studies at Missouri State University, author of Buddhist Poetry and Colonialism: Alagiyavanna and the Portuguese in Sri Lanka, available via Oxford Scholarship Online.


Image of author Stephen C. Berkwitz presenting a copy of his book


Author Stephen C. Berkwitz presenting a copy of his book, Buddhist Poetry and Colonialism, to Herbert Kumar Alagiyawanna, a living descendent of the poet Alagiyavanna, who assisted him with his research and treated him to the oral history of Alagiyavanna's life.
Image credit: photograph provided by Stephen C. Berkwitz. Used with permission. Do not reproduce without permission.

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One of the challenges for contemporary students and scholars of Buddhism is to carve out new perspectives from within which to understand how this religion developed across time and space. My own research interests have led me to undertake this goal by focusing my attention on Buddhist literature composed in a vernacular language—namely, Sinhala—that has been used in Sri Lanka by both monastic and lay authors for over a millennium. There are ample studies of canonical and philosophical Buddhist texts written in so-called “classical” languages such as Sanskrit, Pali, Classical Chinese, and Tibetan. Investigations into Buddhist works composed in dialects of commonly spoken languages are considerably less common, despite the valuable information they contain about the practice and transmission of Buddhism among the general public.

Buddhist Poetry and Colonialism draws attention to the genre of Sinhala Buddhist poetry within the historical and cultural contexts of the early spread of Portuguese colonialism in Asia. An examination of five poetic works written by Alagiyavanna Mukaveti (b. 1552), a Buddhist court poet and later Catholic convert, sheds light on the transformation of religion and culture under the expanding presence of Portuguese missionaries and soldiers in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Poetry, through its style and imagery, serves to supplement the historical record detailing one of the earliest, sustained encounters between Asian Buddhists and European colonialists. We learn that the early modern colonialism could disrupt the traditional relationships between kings and poets, spurring innovations to the aims and expressions of Buddhist poetry in the process. The shifting political spheres in which the poet Alagiyavanna lived and wrote had a noticeable impact on the verses he wrote about local rulers, the former lives of the Buddha, and the moral interests of his audience.

Having already had another book published on Oxford Scholarship Online (OSO), I am again happy for the opportunity to have my latest work made available on this online platform. OSO is a pioneer in publishing scholarly works as e-books in a manner that enables individuals and institutions to have access to them electronically soon after publication. As growing numbers of readers opt to use e-books for learning and research, it is important for me to have my books available on a reputable, password-protected website.

Buddhist Poetry and Colonialism: Alagiyavanna and the Portuguese in Sri Lanka is available in print and through Oxford Scholarship Online.

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