SOAS University of London

SOAS South Asia Institute

Samvega and the Uses of Fear: Hell Images in Burmese Temples, 11th-18th Centuries

Prof. Lilian Handlin (Harvard) and Dr Thein Lwin (Department of Archaeology of Myanmar and National Museum of Myanmar)

Date: 8 October 2019Time: 2:00 PM

Finishes: 8 October 2019Time: 5:00 PM

Venue: Russell Square: College Buildings Room: L67

Type of Event: Workshop


Hells are a long lasting component in the visual decor of Burmese constructions. They were a tool of societal conditioning, present in royal tool kits for a millennium. Their counterparts were the heavenly mansions stories about lives in happy realms. This thematic durability reflected the utility of the emotion of fear to keep potentially wayward subjects in line. But fear is a problematic emotion, alternately vilified but also praised by the revered Pali Taw and its commentators. As no society could ever do entirely without it, Burma was no exception.

The lecture shows how behavior modification aspirations linked to the world's two guardians - Hiri and Ottapa, innate in all humans. Conditioning assumptions were grounded in notions of human malleability and inborn responsiveness. Samvega and pasada, one generating the shock prompted by recognizing reality, the latter providing the antidote to the despair that recognition generated, were among this societal system's operational features. Evidence survives in royal orders and proclamations, donative inscriptions, temple decors and later on vernacular literature. Samvega occasioned by exposure to what Foucault called spectacles of the scaffold, was relieved by pasada elaborated by the dhamma and its commentarial adaptations. The Buddha's biography guaranteed that elaboration's authenticity and with it veracity of references to cosmic realms. The evidence shows how changing historical circumstances that altered the contours of the Gotama story to meet contemporary needs, also impacted conceptions of the immediate after life.


Registration is required of all participants.

Organiser: SOAS University of London

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Sponsor: European Research Council