Khmer, Buddhist Literature in

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Until the twentieth century, most vernacular literature composed or known in Cambodia, including literature intended primarily for entertainment, articulated Buddhist themes concerning cosmology and history, moral and ethical values, ritual, and the biography of the Buddha. Thus, to a large extent, it is possible to argue that the history and development of Khmer literature in Cambodia is at once the history and development of its vernacular religious literature. Khmer literature is generally divided into the following periods: pre-Angkorian (seventh to ninth centuries); Angkorian (ninth to fifteenth centuries); middle or post-Angkorian (sixteenth to nineteenth centuries); French protectorate or early modern (mid-nineteenth to early twentieth centuries); and contemporary or modern (mid-twentieth century to the present).

The Khmer language belongs to the subgroup of the Austro-Asiatic language family that includes Mon and Khmer. Khmer writing, derived from Sanskrit, developed after the second century c.e. when Indian traders and migrants to the region began to introduce Sanskrit writing and literature, and Indian art forms, religious ideas, and ideologies of kingship and government. The first dated inscription in Khmer appeared in 612 c.e., roughly concurrent with several dated Cambodian inscriptions in Sanskrit. The dual use of both vernacular and Sanskrit inscriptions continued throughout the following centuries with the emergence of the Khmer kingdom of Angkor, which dominated the region between the ninth through thirteenth centuries. Pāli became important as a scriptural and literary language after TheravĀda Buddhism rose to prominence in the thirteenth century.

The processes of both Indianization and vernacularization in Southeast Asia, including the Khmer regions, have received a great deal of scholarly attention. Colonial era scholarship tended to view Southeast Asia as an empty but fertile ground in which a "superior" Indian culture was implanted and took root, giving rise to a whole new Indianized civilization. More recently, scholars have suggested that the absorption of Indian cultural motifs and ideas was possible because they were similar or complementary to existing indigenous cultural forms. Thus the process was perhaps not a wholesale Indianization, but rather a selective process of cultural borrowing and adaptation, with influences moving in both directions. Among the most important borrowings from India for the Khmer was the introduction of Sanskrit writing and literature. Archaeological evidence from pre-Angkorian and Angkorian periods shows that the Khmer utilized both Sanskrit and Khmer for inscribing their religious, literary, and political lives. The clear division of labor between the two languages has been much commented on by scholars: Sanskrit was nearly always the medium for expressive literary purposes such as extolling the virtues of the gods, while Khmer was employed for more documentary purposes such as listing donations of slaves to temples. Sheldon Pollock has theorized that the attraction of Sanskrit as a cosmopolitan language was aesthetic; it provided a powerful medium for imagining the world in a larger, more complex way. Vernacularization, the turn away from Sanskrit to the use of localized languages such as Khmer for literary production, began to occur in Cambodia after the fifteenth century. By this time, Sanskrit and Pāli loan words had been absorbed into Khmer and the Khmer had developed a literary idiom of their own for expressing cosmopolitan ideas, evident in the Khmer classical literature composed during the middle or post-Angkorian period.

The most profound example of the ways in which aspects of the Indian literary imagination were absorbed and adapted by the Khmer is that of the Rāmāyaṇa, known in Khmer as the Rāmakerti (pronounced "Ream-ker"), the Glory of Rām. The outlines of the story, widely known among the Khmer population since at least the time of Angkor, maintain some of the main elements of the Indian Rāmāyaṇa while at the same time adapting them in critical ways. Known in Khmer as Rām, the hero of the epic is rendered as a bodhisattva, thus transforming the story into the favorite theme of Khmer literature: the biography of the Buddha. The Rāmakerti appears as one of the most ubiquitous subjects of Khmer art; it is painted as temple murals, carved into bas-reliefs on the galleries of Angkorian buildings, reenacted in elaborate traditional dance forms, composed in literary versions, and retold in many oral versions, including shadow puppet plays known as spaek dhaṃ. At least one version of the text has also been used as a manual for the practice of tantric forms of Buddhist meditation in which the Buddhist adept follows the journey of Rām in his quest to retrieve his wife Sītā as a form of esoteric spiritual instruction.

While the Khmer Rāmakerti is generally considered to be the greatest work of Khmer literature, it is not the only one that is celebrated and influential. Equally beloved by Khmer have been versions of the Buddhist jĀtaka depicting the moral development of the Bodhisattva in his many lives as he moves toward buddhahood. The best known and revered of the Buddha's life stories, at least since the eighteenth century, are his last ten lives, appearing in Cambodia in a single compilation known as the Dasajātaka. The narrative of the Bodhisattva's penultimate life, the Mahāvessantara-jātaka (also called the Mahājāt), is the most popular of these jātaka, redacted in many different manuscript and later print versions. Jātaka stories were also rendered into sātra lpaeṅ, a genre of narrative poetry intended for entertainment which often contained long descriptions of magical battles and other feats performed by the Bodhisattva. This genre appears to have developed beginning in the sixteenth century as part of the process of vernacularization. Cpāp or "codes of conduct" constituted another prominent genre of vernacular literature in Cambodia known since at least the seventeenth century. Didactic poetry intended to transmit religious values and practical advice for living, the cpāp were composed in stylized meters (to aid memorization) and sung by parents or teachers to children.

By the latter half of the nineteenth century, prominent vernacular texts used in Buddhist education (but also known more widely through artistic representations, sermons, and stories) included not only the texts already mentioned, but also several works of Siamese composition that had been translated into Khmer versions: the Trai Bhūm (a cosmological text), the Maṅgalaṭṭhadīpanī (a narrative commentary on the Maṅgala-sutta), and the Paṭthamsombodhi (a biography of the Buddha). Also in evidence in monastic collections during the period were manuals (kpuon or tamrā) on ritual, medicine, and astrology. Buddh Daṃnāy texts, prophesies of the Buddha concerning the arrival of the Buddhist dhammik, or righteous king, circulated in written and oral forms. Folk stories loosely based on Buddhist themes were transmitted orally until the early part of the twentieth century when Buddhist writers such as Ukñā Suttantaprījā Ind, author of the ethics manual Gatilok (1921), began to collect and record Khmer oral stories. While French colonial scholars during the protectorate period were often critical of the "fanciful" nature of Khmer vernacular works, their objections have been countered by Khmer scholars. Keng Vansak, a Khmer literary scholar, has argued that Khmer writers have been concerned not with literal representations of reality, but rather with representing the moral experience of social life, which often presents human beings with "insolvable contradictions" between their aspirations for moral perfection and their situatedness in a world of social and political bonds.

Along with the works already described, Khmer Buddhists used vernacular versions of canonical texts. By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (and likely earlier), many texts based on Pāli canonical sources such as the jātaka and the Dhammapada were translated into a genre of texts known as samrāy, consisting of interwoven Pāli verses and their Khmer translations, followed by commentary in Khmer. Most of the samrāy that survive in existing collections of Khmer manuscripts date from no earlier than the nineteenth century, when monastic libraries were reconstituted following a long period of warfare in Cambodia. During the twentieth century, many Khmer samrāy originally composed on palm leaf were republished as print texts with little or no change from the originals. Although traditionalist members of the Khmer sanṅgha initially resisted the use of print for religious texts, by the 1920s monks and scholars turned to the use of print rather than palm leaf (sḷik ṛit) or accordion-folded mulberry bark paper (krāṃṅ) for disseminating their works. Among the earliest vernacular texts published in print in the 1920s were segments of the vinaya and the Siṅgālovāda-sutta. A full edition of the Pāli Tipiṭtaka, with Khmer translation, was finally issued in 1969 by the Buddhist Institute, although many Pāli texts had already been translated and published in single editions from the 1920s on. Although print is the principal medium for religious texts in Cambodia today, both palm leaf and krāṃṅ manuscripts continue to be used and venerated, though rarely produced. Scholars estimate that 98 percent of Cambodia's rich collection of manuscripts was lost or destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period (1975–1979).

See also:Cambodia; Southeast Asia, Buddhist Art in


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Anne Hansen