Samsaric salvation: prosperity cults, political crisis, and middle class aspirations in Bangkok

by Sophorntavy Vorng

Working Papers WP 10-14
November 2010
ISSN 2192-2357 (MMG Working Papers Print)

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A lifestyle of consumption and the struggle for upward social mobility are central aspects of everyday life for Asia’s emergent new urban middle classes, not least in competitive Bangkok. In this paper, I argue that the transforming nature of Buddhist religiosity in urban Thai society cannot be considered outside of the overarching framework of social and political aspirations. Thus, while the merit-power nexus linking position in the social hierarchy with Buddhist merit accumulated from past lives is a pervasive ‘official’ discourse and continues to be deployed for legitimatory purposes by Thai political elites vying for power, religious commodification and the proliferation of a wide variety of prosperity cults suggests not only a declining belief in orthodox Buddhist concepts like merit and karma, but also a market-driven shift towards material wealth as the most important basis for power and status in Bangkok. Meanwhile, the emergence of middle class reformist Buddhist movements has provided ideological bases for challenges to the established political order.

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