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Jörg Rüpke

“Lived ancient religion” offers a new perspective on ancient religion. It shares the priority on ritual of many studies from the late 19th century onward but reconstructs ancient religion not as a set of rules or coherent system but a dynamic field of change and tradition. The central notion is taken from contemporary religious studies. The concept of “lived religion” was developed in the late 1990s and has gained a growing reception ever since. Rather than analyzing expert theologies, dogma, or the institutional setting and history of organized religion, the focus of lived religion is on what people actually do: the everyday experience, practices, expressions, and interactions that are related to and constitute religion. In this way, religion is understood as a spectrum of experiences, actions, beliefs, and communications hinging on human interaction with super-human or even transcendent agent(s), usually conceptualized by the ancient Mediterraneans as gods. Material symbols, elaborate forms of representation, and ritualization are called upon for the success of communication with these addressees. The concept of lived religion has only recently been applied to the analysis of ancient religion. With a view to the dynamics of religion in the making, research based on this new concept critically engages with the notions of civic religion and (elective) cults as clearly defined rule- or belief-based systems. It stresses the similarity of practices and techniques of creating meaning and knowledge across a whole range of addressees of religious communication and in light of a high degree of local innovation. The emphasis is not on competing religions or cults but on symbols that are assuming ever-new configurations within a broad cultural space. The central notion of religious agency offers extended possibilities of imagination and intervention—of imagined, invoked, and even experienced divine support in real situations. In this way, the attribution of agency to divine actors provides appropriately creative strategies for the human agents (and sometimes even their audiences) to transcend the situation in question, whether by leading a ritual, casting a person as possessed, invoking means not yet available (as through a vow), or bolstering one’s own party with the favor of divine members. Religions, as seen from below, are the attempt—often by just a few individuals—to at least occasionally create order and boundaries through means other than a normative system imperfectly reproduced by humans. Such boundaries would include the notions of sacred and profane, pure and impure, public and private, as well as gendered conceptions of deities. Institutions such as professional priesthoods and the reformulation of religion as knowledge that is kept and elaborated by such professionals could constitute further features of crucial importance for sketching a history of such systems. This is religion in the making, though it casts itself as religion made forever. Acknowledging the individual appropriation and the production of meaning at play in these situations excludes the employment of only cultural interpretations, drawing on other parts of a dense and coherent web of meaning.


Supernatural wizards with magical powers to heal the sick and who inhabit the minds and bodies of men, women, and children, as well as defend religion from the forces of evil: this is not the popular vision of Buddhism. But this is exactly what one finds in the Buddhist country of Myanmar, where the majority of people abide by Theravāda Buddhism—a form of Buddhism generally perceived as staid, lacking religious devotion and elements of the supernatural. Known as “weizzā,” the beliefs and practices associated with this religion have received little scholarly attention, especially when compared with research done on other aspects of Buddhism in Myanmar. Reasons for this are varied, but two stand out. Firstly, because such phenomena have been labeled by scholars and Buddhists alike as “popular” and “syncretic” forms of religion, scholars of Buddhism in Myanmar have tended to focus their research on aspects of Buddhism considered orthodox and normative, such as vipassana and abhidhamma. Secondly, the academic study of religion has been slow to develop new interpretive strategies for studying religious phenomena that do not readily fit existing categories of what constitutes “religion.” These two dilemmas will be confronted by introducing and employing the framework of “lived religion” to examine the religious lives of those who engage the world of Buddhist wizards, as well as the experiences these individuals consider central to their lives—along with the varied rituals that make up their personal religious expressions. The reader is invited to think of religion dynamically, reconsidering the landscape of Myanmar religion in terms of practices linked to specific social contexts. After delineating a genealogy of scholarly approaches to the study of Buddhism-as-lived and the ways in which scholars have constituted the subject of their studies, the article will examine aspects of Myanmar religious life from the perspectives of those whose experiences are often misrepresented or ignored entirely, not only in Western academic works on religion but also in Myanmar historical monographs and other written, oral, and pictorial sources. In addition to increasing our understanding of the lived religious experiences and practices of the weizzā and their devotees, this approach to religious studies also enriches our investigation of the complex interrelationship between these experiences and practices and the wider social world they are enacted in. Acknowledging that any lens we study religion through offers only a partial truth, an improved religious studies approach to the weizzā and similar phenomena can get closer to the truths that people make in their own lives: thus, moving further from the contested boundaries that scholars and practitioners of religion place on religious worlds.