A Change of Guard

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Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Decline and Fall of an Empire: Causes and Interpretations

King Jayavarman VII, first of Khmer Rulers believed to have adopted Theravada Buddhism and restored the Khmer Empire to its pre-Champa invasion. The King may also have been the first to have introduced various forms of public welfare system throughout the Empire on an unprecedented scale, whilst many of his stone monuments and carvings depict scenes of daily life of his beloved subjects rather than those of the Royal Court. Many monuments and statues at Angkor Thom today also confirm the co-existence of two of Cambodia's great religious strands i.e. Brahmanism and Buddhism. The pose shows the King in deep meditation at a stage of the practice where the serene expression or slight smile on the face would become palpable. However, some writers venture to suggest that the “enigmatic” expression betrays the uneasy relationship that may have vexed his person between the pacific teachings of the Buddha on the one hand, and the Empire's temporal preoccupations on the other, that usually yielded to the need for physical violence in some form - School of Vice

by School of Vice

“Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made”.

It is, perhaps, often overlooked that the historical Buddha himself was a Brahmin (Hindu) just as Jesus was very much a Jew. Both these influential figures had been the by-products of the religious traditions prevailing in their environments and emerged out of those environments somewhat disgruntled with the decaying and corrosive outgrowth of the moral, ethical religious standards found within the traditions to which they inextricably belonged. In this sense, at least, these figures were attempting to defend their ancestors' respective religious heritage and to ‘cleanse’ it of those corrosive influences that vexed their conscience and troubled their soul deeply vis-à-vis ordinary people's mounting misery. Jesus' trouble was that he took on an officialdom that was quite content and, powerful enough, to preserve existing arrangements as they were because such arrangements allowed them to keep on accumulating wealth at public expense, rather than caving in to the demands of a bunch of so-called religious "heretics" and "fanatics" like Christ and his followers. Moreover, although, Jesus (like most Jews) couched his sermons and teaching in religious terms, there was no concealing his sense of outrage and protest against the perceived injustices meted out to the common man by the ruling politico-religious classes of his time. There was religion in the mix of it all, but the immediate and real issues were undoubtedly socio-economic in focus. Jesus, like the Buddha (Gautama) is thus described by some as a social “revolutionary”, or even a "Marxist communist" of his time.

How and why any known empires of the past had fallen is a subject of endless debate and countless historical archives, much of such material has not come up with any irrefutable data or evidence beyond literary conjecturing of the historian or scholar who nonetheless convinces and shapes our perspective by the power of his/her elevated polemic and, or often esoteric discourses.

Determinism is not uncommon in history writing where perceived paralleled lines of events and convergences in human activities can be taken as evidence of a result of fundamental change in world-view or perspective. Why the Roman Emperor Constantine decided to adopt Christianity and granted that religion the status of state religion maybe open to discussion, but how and why Rome declined and eventually collapsed may transcend the widely accepted theory that Christianity had been the Cause of its downfall. By Constantine’s reign, Rome’s territorial expanse was not perhaps as extensive as the Empire once had been. This would seem to indicate that Rome’s ineluctable decline had, in fact, set in motion long before an alien religion of a once irritant and much ill-treated sect had risen to position of official prominence.  And where the pacific “minimalism” of the Buddha’s doctrine is frequently seized upon as evidence of perceived “docility” and “self-defeatism”, it is fair to note that no off-shoots of Judaism can be easily dismissed off in similar terms. The world wide influence of Christianity and Islam today betrays their proselytising zeal and the near fanatical streak of the ancient Hebrews. This explains why throughout their long period of exile the Jews as a people have always been able to access positions of power and influence, beginning with the Royal Court of ancient Egypt, and indeed, subsequently in many prominent seats of world powers where they continue to remain today. Sadly, it is partly this same tenacious streak of the Jews that had often led to their own suffering and the pogroms conducted against them in history, culminating in the great European Holocaust under the German Nazi who may have viewed them as serious obstacle or rivals to their Master Race ambition since the Jewish religion proclaims its own Jewish race as God’s Chosen People. One thing is certain: there is a long respectable fashion among (mostly Western) historians and scholars to blame most things of unwholesome nature taking place in European history post-Roman era on the Christians and Christianity! The European Enlightenment had been a watershed in human history; in mankind's consciousness and a profound influence in modernity's progress in all fields. But the Enlightenment had also been responsible for two World Wars, a few Holocausts, Hiroshima and Nagasaki in between and thereafter . . .             

Many prominent Philosopes or Enlightenment thinkers (Friedrich Nietzsche prominent among them) clearly had an issue with the widespread and deep-seated “reactionary” influence of the Christian Church as it had been in their times. Not only the Church instilled the Fear and Terror of the Divine in the masses through indoctrinated superstitions, it also presented itself as a major obstacle to scientific progress by persecuting those who questioned its orthodox, Church-God centric view of the world and the universe. However, as mentioned above, prior to Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Christians themselves had been the targets of much persecution and violence by the Roman authorities for centuries. This would appear to suggest that state-religion/clergy relations has been anything but a straightforward affair in the domain of politics and society where the currents of ethics, morality, worldly ambition and power relations merge, or compete against one another for supremacy. 

Not long ago, the decades-long authoritarian rule of Burma's military junta had led to that country's usually placid clergy to take to the streets en masse in protest. Tibet's Buddhist monks and nuns have long also been at the forefront of resistance against Chinese domination and oppression of the Tibetan nation. (Incidentally, some observers also attribute Tibet’s decline as a sovereign state to her historical adoption of Mahayana Buddhism). And, of course, in Cambodia the courage of monks like Ven. Luon Sovath has shown how difficult it is to separate religion from politics in view of the increasing trend towards authoritarianism and arbitrary violence levelled against marginalised and disenfranchised masses across the country. The circumstances that brought these religious “activists”  [whose own personal lives and ascetic pursuits would have been far better advanced through a monastic regime of 'withdrawal' from worldly affairs via meditation and contemplation] strikingly mirror those harsh realities that had once confronted the historical Gautama of ancient India and Jesus of Nazareth of over four thousand years ago.

We need not take everything said or written as sacred truth, let alone conjecture-driven opinions of western historians, or any historian for that matter. That human beings endure pain or injustice and derive some sort of therapeutic relief in apportioning blame on someone, the system, tradition, religion, race, or even human foibles as such, is the stuff of many a psycho-analysis theory. Not that any of these factors are beyond ‘blame’, but the onus is upon us as thinking, reflecting human beings to question and critically probe their veracity or projected validity. That duty to question or to ask and to seek out truth, of course, is one of the outstanding legacies the Buddha imparted to his followers, since the many-fold difficulties that enslave and imprison souls and minds can often be removed through constructive processes of scrutiny and investigation.

As for the influence of Buddhism having contributed to the fall of the Khmer Empire, it should be asked to what extent this particular philosophical influence had contributed to that decline, and whether it had completely supplanted or replaced the existing religious order upon its arrival in the Empire, and whether anything positive or conducive to humankind’s well-being had been attained at all once it had pervaded the fabric of Khmer society and mindset.

My understanding is that Khmer Buddhism - for good or ill - has not replaced Cambodia’s own indigenous Animism, or its own intellectual antecedent in Brahmanism. In fact, as I had suggested elsewhere, the dominant (there are other religions like Islam and Christianity in the country beside Theravada Buddhism) national religion of Cambodia is a product of gradual historical process that had seen the three pillars of religious traditions of Animism, Brahmanism, and Buddhism successively amalgamated or added on into what it is today: an eclectic and dynamic force that somehow survived countless adversities and misfortunes as well as the systematic purge waged against it by the Cambodian state in the seventies; the animus and hostility of its many critics today, not to mention some self-hating “Khmers” who desire nothing more than to see the defacement and pollution of every form of Khmer-ness. Observe how Khmer people engage in any religious activities, and evidence of the three amalgamated elements would become apparent.

So thoroughly has this unique religious influence stamped and infused Khmer personality and characteristics that any attempt to replace it with something else could only do wholesale violence to humanity and to that portion of humanity’s prospect for reproductive continuity and survival. The best and necessary effort would be to constantly ‘update’ and check its health status to see whether there is any room for alteration or improvement that will contribute to its growth and sustainability in an uncertain, changing world. As for perceived ‘docility’ and ‘defeatism’, unfairly associated with Buddhism, those with spiritual inclination and ‘wisdom’ might see their religious pursuit quite differently to how it is seen and grasped by the rest of us unenlightened beings, irrespective of our worldly accumulated knowledge. The Enlightened state or Nirvana; the realm or the Kingdom of God that ascetics and men and women of simplicity yet serious piety aspire to will always remain unfathomable to an earthly man that Emmanuel Kant once likened to a crooked timber out of which nothing straight has ever been made.


Anonymous said...

Great writing. Thanks to School of Vice for producing such an academically excellent piece of writing to this forum. Khmerization should publish more of this kind of excellence to this forum because the majority of readers of this forum are highly educated people. Well done.

Anonymous said...

Another profound article by School of vice.Thank you for your time.
You know that there is a saying. It start like this " The ones that clime high will eventually fall deep".It is a natural behaviour. Countries,companies and empires are a like,once they have enough wealth they are relax and enjoy life with their wealth and it lead to corruption and losing their strength and disciplines.Nothing on our planet could survive for ever.Today it is still America as the world supper power and richest country,but tomorrow it could be China.That is a way of our world.We are in a constant of natural selection mode.Spices exsting,countries are disappearing,empires collapsed,that the way it is.

Today we still have a small piece of land tomorrow we could be just a country in folk history to be told to young Khmer generation just like Champa's history.

"In war we prepare for peace,in peace we prepare for war.",by Sun Tzu 1500 BC.

True Khmer

Anonymous said...

I wonder what would King Jayavarman vii think if he was still alive and see his country is so small and his people are migrating abroad in hundred of thousands for slavery jobs?. Farmland are sold for Hanoi.Angkor Wat is run by Hanoi businessmen Xoc Kong?

True Khmer

Anonymous said...

Don't care who runs Cambodia, as long as they pay their taxes. If they don't pay their taxes, kick them all out, Khmer's included. But if they pay their dues, even the Viets are allowed to stay.

Anonymous said...


We thought you're smarter than that.
Can you come up with something better ?

Anonymous said...


You're a Yuon's slave !