Anya Bernstein. Religious Bodies Politic: Rituals of Sovereignty in Buryat Buddhism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013. 280 pp. ISBN 978-0-226-07255-5.
Address for correspondence: CNRS, Centre d’Études Himalayennes,
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Religious Bodies Politic: Rituals of Sovereignty in Buryat Buddhism is an original and timely contribution to our understanding of the transnational and political dimensions that Buddhism develops in a postsocialist context—in the present case, the shifting terrains inhabited over the last century, and in particular since the 1990s, by Buryat Buddhists between Russia and the larger Mongol and Tibetan Buddhist worlds. Drawing on recent conceptualizations of “bodies politic,” “sovereign bodies,” and “biopolitics,” Anya Bernstein focuses on a variety of settings in which bodies of living, dead, or reincarnated Buddhist practitioners become sites upon which politics of religio-cultural sovereignty plays out, and postsocialist economic, moral, and political transformations can be read. The central argument is that Buryats have had recourse to Buddhist varieties of “body politics” in their attempts to weather the political and social transformations over the past century and to articulate their relations with centers of political or religious authority (Russia/Tibet). The analysis is primarily anthropological and draws on a kaleidoscopic variety of historical and ethnographic sources: in each of the thematically quite distinct chapters, permutations of the central themes (transnational politics, capitalist and gift economies, Buddhist actors and bodies) are examined in multiple periods and/or locales. The author demonstrates a strong command of both thematic and areal literatures and has extensively read in both English and Russian (in the field, Russian, which is spoken by all Buryats, was the primary language of communication).