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When Is a Theft Not a Theft? Relic Theft and the Cult of the Buddha's Relics in Sri Lanka

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This essay examines the phenomenon of relic theft in the Theravada Buddhist tradition of Sri Lanka. Having noted the relative paucity of scholarship on this topic, the essay first examines the canonical warrant for the practice of relic veneration in the Mahāparinibbāna-sutta, and identifies a fundamental tension that the cult of veneration poses for the tradition. Relics, as valued material objects subject to human manipulation and possession, would appear to encourage attachment. The canonical passages that deal with the cult of veneration simultaneously affirm the value of the practice, while warning of the danger that attachment to the relics poses. The essay goes on to note evidence, in the form of expanded relic lists in canonical sources, of the expansion of the relic cult and of the need to affirm the authenticity of new centers of sacrality associated with the enshrinement of particular relics. The essay then examines several accounts of relic theft in the Pali chronicle (vamsa) literature, noting that these accounts serve to simultaneously affirm the desirability of relics, and to account for the orderly movement of these valued objects from one location to another. Yet these accounts of relic theft are problematic in that they appear to endorse the practice of stealing, which is a violation of both lay and monastic Buddhist ideals. In response to this problem, the essay identifies two different models of relic theft, noting that one model is religiously affirmed, while the other is condemned. The essay concludes with a brief comparison of relic theft accounts in the Buddhist and Christian traditions.

Affiliations: 1: The University of Vermont Department of Religon 481 Main Street Bington, Vermont 05405, USA


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