Exposing Enlightenment: The 'Living Arahant' in Photography and Print

When and Where

Friday, March 03, 2023 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm


Tony Scott, DSR PhD Candidate


Pathbreakers: New Postdoctoral Research on South Asia at U of T

Exposing Enlightenment: The 'Living Arahant' in Photography and Print in Post-colonial Burma

The saint, prophet, liberated guru, or enlightened being occupies a powerful place not only in their respective religious spheres, but in the social lives of the cultures that create and maintain them. Yet how are these social categories “created” and through what means are their parameters delimited over the last century and a half as technologies of mass communication have transformed the epistemology of discourse? To approach these questions, this paper focuses on the “living arahants” of early twentieth-century Burma, examining how the narratives surrounding this supposedly enlightened class are negotiated and contested in the public sphere through the mediums of photography and print. By exploring the figure of the Mingun Jetavana Sayadaw (1868-1955), a Burmese scholar-monk and pioneer of insight, or vipassana meditation, it is argued that the application of these categories is not just a religious act, but profoundly political—determining who wields the power of definition itself.

Speaker: Tony Scott, Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science and PhD Candidate in the Department for the Study of Religion, University of Toronto

Discussant: Matthew Walton, Assistant Professor of Comparative Political Theory, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto; Co-founder of the Burma/Myanmar blog Tea Circle

Chair: Christoph Emmrich, Director of the Centre for South Asian Studies; Associate Professor, Department for the Study of Religion and Buddhist Studies, University of Toronto

→ Register here for the Zoom link


About Tony Scott

Working in the intersection of Pali commentary, meditation practice, and Buddhist statecraft, Tony’s dissertation focuses on a twentieth-century Pali commentary on the c. third century B.C. Questions of Milinda (Milindapañha). Published in 1948 by the Burmese scholar-monk and pioneer of modern insight meditation, the Mingun Jetavana Sayadaw (1868-1955), this commentary was controversial among the highest echelons of the monastic elite and the first independent government of Burma. With this case study, Tony is redefining mass-lay meditation movements and modern forms of religious exegesis as potent sites for monastic innovation and sociopolitical debate beyond government control and the purview of the neo-conversative monastic hierarchy. Tony is currently developing further projects on the narratives of enlightenment surrounding so-called “living arahants” in Southeast Asia, the manuscript history of insight meditation in the region, and the pan-Asian Buddhist networks that connected monastics and lay Buddhists in India, Burma, and Japan in the twentieth century.



Centre for South Asian Studies, Asian Institute Southeast Seminar Series, Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy