From Riches to Rags: how new clothes for the dead become old robes for monks

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Abstract

The process whereby existing rituals are taken up and re-envisaged is a well known phenomenon in ritual studies. The offering of a piece of white of cloth to the officiating monks during the Therava ̄da Buddhist funeral ceremony provides a particularly good example. This custom originates in pre-Buddhist funerary rituals, which included the symbolic covering of the dead body with a new, uncut piece of white cloth intended as a new garment for the deceased, but which was afterwards donated to the officiating priests. The present article examines how in the Buddhist funeral the donation of the cloth came to be associated with the monks’ ascetic practice of making their robes from discarded rags (pam. suku ̄la). A comparison of the lists of “rags” in the Therava ̄da and Mu ̄lasarva ̄stiva ̄da Vinayas and in the Visuddhimagga and Vimuttimagga, alongside a historical exploration of the attitude of the Buddhist laity towards monks who adopted ascetic practices, sheds new light on the significance of the pam. suku ̄la offering. Further, the manner in which an old pre-existing ritual is accommodated within a different conceptual framework provides a clear instance of the primacy of ritual continuity over ritual meaning.
Translated title of the contributionFrom Riches to Rags: how new clothes for the dead become old robes for monks
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)125-144
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of The Royal Asiatic Society
Early online date20 Sep 2013
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2014

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