Accessibility of Nirvāṇa : the language and media of Sri Lankan Buddhist televangelists and their followers

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2023-04-20

Authors

Fedricks, Krishantha Gemunu Kumara

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Abstract

During the last two decades of upheaval in Sri Lanka (including civil war, ethnic violence and the current economic crisis), a new transnational movement of televangelist Buddhist monks, collectively part of the Mahamevnāva Monastery, has emerged encouraging followers to access nirvāṇa (liberation from suffering) in this lifetime. The movement encourages lay Buddhists to prioritize attaining nirvāṇa over material wealth and nationalist politics. To make the concept more accessible to a wider audience, the Mahamevnāva movement has built over fifty branch monasteries, known as asapu (hermitages) in urban settings in Sri Lanka and twenty worldwide since 1999. In their rituals, they use colloquial Sinhala instead of the traditional Pāli language and employ modern televisual technologies to create new ritual spectacles of nirvāṇa. This dissertation examines how Mahamevnāva Buddhists—both monks lay practitioners—are reforming Buddhist practice through innovative rituals and new linguistic and media forms to create a non-hierarchical, non-consumerist, non-nationalist religious movement focused on attaining nirvāṇa in this world. I furthermore explore how in doing so the movement has produced a new hierarchical form of nationalist religiosity for an urban middle-class of Sri Lankan Buddhists. This dissertation seeks to move beyond polarizing paradigms of either materialist consumerism or nationalist politics on the one hand and decontextualized religious liberation on the other, viewing it instead as a Post-Protestant Buddhist movement, a reformation of 19th century Protestant Buddhist practice through new techniques of mediation. Thus, this dissertation argues that non-materialistic religious identities can coexist with consumerist forms of media and nationalist language. In turn, the uptake of this accessible nirvāṇa, through new forms of media and linguistic registers of emerging ritual practices, contributes to a religious transformation and a new form of nationalism. Ultimately this research reveals that this religious reformation caters to the demand of modern individuals to access liberation amidst the embodied "evil" of neoliberalism, social hierarchy, and political uncertainty. As such, both new and traditional media formats make the previously inaccessible goal of liberation an attainable objective in this lifetime for trans-local and transnational Sri Lankan lay middle-class subjects.

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