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The Khyentse Lecture in Buddhist Studies 2023


“If the term "Buddhism" is to be meaningful, it must be connected to people, to Buddhists, who [live] their lives as Buddhists in places.” (Cohen, 1998)

In my research I have for many years focused on Sri Lanka. To deepen my understanding of Sri Lankan Buddhism I have started more recently to explore the worldview and practical cosmology of Buddhists in Sri Lanka and the way they interact with their fellow living beings (seen and unseen) and deal with everyday fears and practical obstacles. Demons, for example, may need to be appeased and kept at bay to avoid an acute crisis. There are various options for managing demons: some call Buddhist monks to chant protective verses, others turn to a range of ritual specialists. The Bahirava puja is an example of the latter.

The documentary follows Shanta, a ritual specialist (kapua) and his two assistants as they work through the night making elaborate decorations, preparing the offerings, chanting and finally expelling demons and other invisible beings. The first offerings go to the god Shiva and the earth goddess Mahikanta, who owns the ground. Mahikanta commands the ten Bahiravas, a class of minor deities, who in turn command the demons and other invisible beings and protect the land. This ritual is performed before the foundation stone for a new building is laid.

Rita Langer

Rita Langer is Senior Lecturer in Buddhist Studies at the University of Bristol (UK). She has a PhD in Indology from Hamburg University. Her research focuses on Buddhist ritual and its origin (in South and Southeast Asia, particularly Sri Lanka), Buddhist material culture and food. Her approach is interdisciplinary combining textual studies with fieldwork. She has published books and articles on sermons, funeral chanting and ritual, and produced short documentary films on cosmology and food.



Photo by Rita Langer