By Mary Storm, academic director of the India: National Identity and the Arts program
Through a new excursion, SIT’s India: National Identity and the Arts program explores the ancient and modern connections between India and Myanmar and the modern development of Myanmar as a nation state with a deeply religious society.
Myanmar has a long and complex history as a conduit for culture between India and Southeast Asia. Its kings were patrons, interpreters, and guardians of Buddhist culture. In more recent history, Myanmar has struggled with colonialism, independence conflicts, secular socialism, “Buddhist socialism,” civil war, and dictatorship. It is only recently — November 2015 — that the country experienced free elections.
Unity challenges lie ahead for a nation made up of many ethnicities, languages, and cultures. However, despite the country’s diversity, Myanmar’s binding identity has always been Buddhism, and Buddhism was always connected to the land of Gautama’s birth: India.
National identity is a recent phenomenon arising from the Enlightenment in the west and then western Romanticism’s ideas about “the people.” European ideas of national identity had repeated experiments: the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the burgeoning forms of state mythologies and nationalism that merged with fascism and finally culminated in the horrors of World War II.
In the recent past, the very idea of national identity has come under fire. We can see that drawing a line on a map does not create identity. What, then, is the future of Myanmar in a world where western notions of cultural unity, national identity, and democratic secularism are being challenged to evolve?
How do we reframe these notions and find identity roots that precede or bypass this essentially artificial European discourse? In other words, where, and how, did Burmese identity emerge?
This excursion explores the foundations of national-religious identity in Myanmar and its historic roots in ancient India. Buddhism left India presenting itself as a package deal to the rest of Asia. It offered not only the religious philosophy of Gautama, but ancient pre-Buddhist Indian ideals of kingship, government, economics, mathematics, engineering, architecture, medicine, grammar, writing, arts, and aesthetics.
With preparatory readings, discussions, and on-site lectures, students begin to challenge the ideas of what makes up a culture and a nation: Can civilization borrow or lend? What is globalization — is this something new or have cultures always adopted, adapted, and learned from each other? Can culture and nation merge and what is the difference in identity? What can Myanmar do to avoid ethnic tensions, to respect difference, and to avoid conflict? How can Myanmar look to its Buddhist culture to form healthy patterns of identity? What can Myanmar learn from India’s successful struggle to maintain a modern democracy?
During our spring 2016 program, our 13-day excursion visited the modern city of Yangon (Rangoon) to consider colonial heritage, then Bagan to study the unique and sophisticated expression of Burmese Buddhism, and then Mandalay to explore the expression of contemporary Buddhist culture. We visited Kolkata to look at the foundations of Indian and Buddhist scholarship, formed under British colonialism, and finally we paid a visit to Bodhgaya, the axial center of Buddhist sacred geography.
It was a particularly exciting time to be in Myanmar as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, serving in the newly created role of state counsellor since April, put together her cabinet and we began to see the political structure of a democratic country taking shape. The Burmese we met were happy to discuss these changes.
I look forward to our excursion in October 2016 as another chance to teach about the expansion of India culture and the history of Myanmar and Buddhism.
 The term Burmese refers to the majority population of the country of Myanmar or the culture of that country. Both Burma and Myanmar have been used interchangeably for hundreds of years. The term Burmese is used for the total population of the country, including minority peoples, such as the Shan, the Mon, and hill tribes.