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Religious Bodies Politic

Rituals of Sovereignty in Buryat Buddhism

Publication supported by the Bevington Fund

Religious Bodies Politic examines the complex relationship between transnational religion and politics through the lens of one cosmopolitan community in Siberia: Buryats, who live in a semiautonomous republic within Russia with a large Buddhist population. Looking at religious transformation among Buryats across changing political economies, Anya Bernstein argues that under conditions of rapid social change—such as those that accompanied the Russian Revolution, the Cold War, and the fall of the Soviet Union—Buryats have used Buddhist “body politics” to articulate their relationship not only with the Russian state, but also with the larger Buddhist world.
During these periods, Bernstein shows, certain people and their bodies became key sites through which Buryats conformed to and challenged Russian political rule. She presents particular cases of these emblematic bodies—dead bodies of famous monks, temporary bodies of reincarnated lamas, ascetic and celibate bodies of Buddhist monastics, and dismembered bodies of lay disciples given as imaginary gifts to spirits—to investigate the specific ways in which religion and politics have intersected. Contributing to the growing literature on postsocialism and studies of sovereignty that focus on the body, Religious Bodies Politic is a fascinating illustration of how this community employed Buddhism to adapt to key moments of political change.

280 pages | 27 halftones, 6 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2013

Buddhism and Modernity

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Asian Studies: General Asian Studies

Religion: South and East Asian Religions


“This extraordinary ethnography follows a ritual traffic of bodies among Buddhists in the Russian republic of Buryatia and in their pilgrimages to India, to reveal some surprising consequences. Anya Bernstein discovers Buryat Buddhists engaged in an effort to recenter world Buddhism through reincarnation practices that produce spatial mobility in defiance of international borders. By refashioning secular space and creating new religious lineages rooted outside Tibet, they challenge both Chinese and Tibetan control over Buddhism’s reproduction. A brilliant and highly original work.”

Katherine Verdery, City University of New York

“Anya Bernstein’s work on the role of Buddhism before and after the rise of socialism is a truly pioneering work of scholarship. Her most interesting findings are those that revolve around the place of bodies in Buryat Buddhism, especially necropolitics. A close study of one particular lama’s body in reviving Buryat Buddhism introduces the resonance of other recovered bodies as crucial to the rebirth of Buddhism in Buryatia. Far from merely filling a gap in our knowledge of a social and religious world that most scholars hardly knew even existed, this book successfully illuminates what might at first seem a peripheral topic and region as crucial to our understanding of developments in religion and globalization today. Fascinating reading!”

Gray Tuttle, Columbia University

“This imaginative contribution is one of the few books that could be read equally well in a class on modern Buddhism and in Russian or postsocialist studies.”

Slavic Review

Table of Contents

A Note on Transliteration
Chronology of Events
1 Pilgrims, Fieldworkers, and Secret Agents: Buryat Buddhologists and a Eurasian Imaginary
2 Sovereign Bodies: Death, Reincarnation, and Border Crossings in the Transnational Terrain
3 The Post-Soviet Treasure Hunt: New Sacred Histories and Geographies
4 Disciplining the Monastic Body: Buryat Monks and Nuns
5 The Body as Gift: Gender, the Dead, and Exchange in the Chöd Ritual Economy
6 Buddhism after Socialism: Money and Morality in the World of Sa?sara
Epilogue Bodies, Gifts, and Sovereignty



American Academy of Religion: AAR Award for Excellence - Analytical-Descriptive Studies

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