Yangon (1850-1860)/ Role of Buddhism during the Second Anglo-Burmese War and the Residual Social Changes in the Society

“To be Burman is to be Buddhist, as the saying goes” (Steinberg, 2010, p.32). Buddhism was the primordial value of a Burmese society. “It is the rites of social passage; the functioning of education, the prestige and glory was related to the sangha, the Buddhist clergy, which was controlled by an administrative hierarchy with the thathanabaing (supreme patriarch) at the apex” (Steinberg, 2010, p.32).

The monks had a lot of respect from the villagers as education was monastically fostered at the village level. “The monarchs all reconstructed the Buddhist churches and the advisors were often monks, and some monarchs themselves had been monks” (Steinberg, 2010, p.33).

In order to have full control of the city, the British abandoned the formal monarchy structure and undercut the position of Buddhism. They eliminated the position of the thathanabaing, so that the sangha lost administrative cohesion (Pearn, 1939). The British introduced modern secular education in both English and Burmese, thus not only truncating one of the important monastic functions in many areas but forming alternative avenues of economic mobility that were not dependent on Buddhism. 

However, the monastery was still the heart of the community life. The monks had great prestige, and people offered appropriate gifts to the members of the sangha. Indeed, religion offers a deep source of urban identity that shapes other identity markers such as nationality, culture and ethnicity. Narayanan (2015) claims that “it is conceptualised in this volume as a form of both tangible and intangible heritage from actual built forms to practices and representations” (p.40). Burmese nationalism began to develop when the Burmese saw the inroads that Christian missionaries and institutions made on the population, especially those non- Buddhists among the minority groups, early Buddhist leaders saw the need to emulate Christians activity (Ware, 2016).

Religion and urbanism were closely associated in the context of Rangoon, yet it took the British about ten years to pacify the country and establish their authority. The gradual downplaying of Buddhism through the elimination of its structure of authority and the development of alternative means of education triggered the Burmese community to fight for their own identity and heritage. 

Bibliography

Pearn, Bertie Reginald. History of Rangoon. (Rangoon: American Baptist Mission Press, 1939)

Narayanan, Y. Religion Heritage and the Sustainable City. (London: Taylor and Francis. 2015)

Steinberg, David. Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know. ( New York : Oxford University Press; 2 edition, 2010)

Ware, Anthony. Religion and Urbanism in Origin of Buddhist nationalism in Myanmar/Burma: An urban history of religious space, social integration and marginalisation in colonial Rangoon after 1852. In Religion and Urbanism: Reconceptualising sustainable cities for South Asia. (Oxon: Routledge, 2016).

1 Comment on “Yangon (1850-1860)/ Role of Buddhism during the Second Anglo-Burmese War and the Residual Social Changes in the Society

  1. This discussion makes me wonder rather than undercutting the position of Buddhism in Burmese society , would it a better approach for the British to integrate Buddhist philosophy into their ruling system. Religion is often impossible to be unrooted in a culture and any attempt to so may easily result in blind revolts of the locals. Just like the Manchu people in Qing Dynasty, they tried to blend in with Chinese culture rather than conquering it, and that seems to be quite a successful attempt.

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