Emotions and ethics in buddhist history: The sinhala thūpavamsa and the work of virtue


While literature is often thought to be a product of culture, the writing of history in medieval Sri Lanka was based on the assumption that texts themselves can produce changes in culture by making people into virtuous devotees. A study of the Sinhala Thūpavamsa, a Theravāda Buddhist chronicle written in Sinhala around the thirteenth century, provides new material with which to examine the ways historical narratives can be crafted to manipulate and transform the readers and listeners of a text. In this instance, the text gives rise to emotions that are productive of a moral subjectivity in those who encounter its narrative. By making persons feel that the Buddha and other virtuous agents in the past have performed deeds to benefit those in the present, the text causes devotees to view themselves as having been aided by others. The Sinhala Thūpavamsa works to constitute its readers and listeners as the moral subjects of another’s acts and thus obligates them to respond accordingly. More generally, religious histories can be complex literary works that offer the scholar much more than simply descriptions of past events. The Sinhala Thūpavamsa claims for itself the aesthetic capacity to effect certain emotional and ethical responses in an audience. These efforts to compose historical narratives appear designed to instill a heightened sense of oneself as a beneficiary of history who in turn is obliged to engage in the virtuous work of ritualised devotional practices.


Religious Studies

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