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Of Beggars and Buddhas
The Politics of Humor in the Vessantara Jataka in Thailand
Katherine A. Bowie

New Perspectives in Southeast Asian Studies
Alfred W. McCoy, Thongchai Winichakul, Ian G. Baird, Katherine A. Bowie, and Anne Ruth Hansen, Series Editors

“A captivating and thought-provoking exploration of the Vessantara Jataka as it has taken shape and evolved across time and space in Thailand.”
Reading Religion

In the Buddha’s penultimate incarnation, he appears as the Prince Vessantara. Perfecting the virtue of generosity, he gives away all his possessions, and even hands over his two children to the beggar Jujaka. This story was once better known across Theravada Buddhist Southeast Asia than the life of the Buddha himself. In Thailand, regional retellings have included humor and sly antiroyalist themes, despite efforts by the Bangkok monarchy to suppress them. Focusing on Jujaka, Katherine A. Bowie traces variations of this famous story, noting changes from its historical emphasis on generosity in feudal society to new emphases on prosperity and tourism under capitalism.


Author, Katherine A. BowieKatherine A. Bowie is the Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She is the author of Rituals of National Loyalty: An Anthropology of the State and the Village Scout Movement in Thailand.



“Unique and wonderful book. . . . Elegantly organized and a joy to read.”
Bangkok Post

“Bowie’s encyclopedic knowledge of the literature about Buddhism and the political history and ethnography of Thailand allows her to show the interplay between humour, morality, narrative, and politics from different perspectives. . . . The result is a vivid and nuanced analysis that is at once entertaining (how could it not be given the emphasis on humour?), compelling, and provocative.”
Pacific Affairs

“Provides historical justification for a new reading of the Vessantara Jataka and offers delightful ethnographic descriptions of its varied performance in several regions of Thailand. An excellent addition to Thai studies and to the understudied field of Southeast Asian literature.”
—Justin McDaniel, author of The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magic Monk: Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand

“This fascinating, innovative study helps us grasp significant intersections of narrative, politics, and performance in Thai Buddhist culture.”
—Stephen C. Berkwitz, author of South Asian Buddhism: A Survey


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Also in the Series

Dreams of the Hmong Kingdom

Feeding Manila in Peace and War, 1850–1945
Daniel F. Doeppers

Of Beggars and Buddhas

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New in Paperback!
January 2020
LC: 2016017724 BQ
376 pp. 6 x 9
20 b/w illus., 1 table

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Paper $22.95 s
ISBN 9780299309541
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Casebound $64.95 s
ISBN 9780299309503
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