The fate of Indian Buddhism was not totally dependent on royal patronage. Buddhism had to devise ways to attract patronage from many segments of society, which forced it to enter into complex interactions with social institutions and processes. In that sense, it was never asocial. It had a complex social history. Papers in the present book hope to explore some aspects of the social history of Buddhism in some parts of early historic and early medieval India: western Deccan, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Bihar, Bengal and Odisha.
Dr. Birendra Nath Prasad is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, where he teaches social history of religion in India and Southeast Asia. His recent publications include Monasteries, Shrines and Society: Buddhist and Brahmanical Religious Institutions in India in their Socio-Economic Context (edited, Delhi, 2011); Archaeology of Religion in South Asia: Buddhist, Brahmanical and Jaina Religious Centres in Bihar and Bengal, c. AD 600-1200 (Delhi, 2021); Rethinking Bihar and Bengal: History, Culture and Religion (Delhi, 2021); and many peer-reviewed research articles in prestigious international journals such as Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (Oxford), Buddhist Studies Review (London), Religions of South Asia (London/Sheffield) and Berlin Indological Studies.
In any study of Indian Buddhism, one may begin with a fundamental question: can there be a 'social history' of Buddhism? In a significant section of existing historiography, it is generally believed that Buddhism, throughout its journey during the ancient and early medieval (c. 600 CE-1200 CE) periods, was never more than a soteriology of world-renouncing monks: it was largely concerned with nirvanic aims and neglected the laukika needs of its non-monastic devotees. This line of argument is further supported by the fact that Indian Buddhist monkhood was reluctant to formulate rites de passage and codes of social conduct for its non-monastic devotees (Jaini 2001: 144). Consequently, it could not enforce an exclusive 'Buddhist' identity for its non-monastic devotees on any significant scale in any part of India during the ancient and early medieval periods. It had to live in the shadow of Brahmanism. It must be added here that Brahmanism largely provided the ideologies and institutions for the maintenance of the social order in a major part of ancient and early medieval India.
Yet, Buddhism was not devoid of 'social history'. The construction of Buddhist monasteries and stupas required mobilization of resources on a substantial scale. Feeding monks and taking care of their needs also required resources.
These resources were to be provided by different segments of society. As has been argued elsewhere and as indicated by some papers in the present book, the fate of Indian Buddhism was not totally dependent on royal patronage. It had to devise ways to attract patronage from many segments of society, which forced it to enter into complex relationship with social institutions and processes. In that sense, it was never 'asocial' and had a complex social history. Papers in the present book hope to explore some aspects of the complex social history of Buddhism in some parts of early historic and early medieval India: western Deccan, central and north-western India, and early medieval eastern India (Bihar, Bengal and Odisha).
The first paper in the book, titled 'A Happy Combination? Buddhism and Urbanism on the Fringes of the Western Ghats' by Gethin Rees, analyses the complex relationship between Buddhism and urbanism on the fringes of the Western Ghats in Maharashtra. To have a fuller appreciation of this paper, one may need to review the larger debate on the nature of relationship between Buddhism and early historic urbanisation of the Indian subcontinent. It is generally believed that the emergence and growth of Buddhist monasticism in early historic India was deeply embedded to the process of early historic urbanization, state formation and evolution of a centralized empire. In an interesting study tracing the nature of the relationship between the location of Buddhist monastic sites, trade and empire and the role played by this triad in the spread of the Sangha beyond the Middle Ganga Valley, James Heitzman has argued that the foundation of the Mauryan Empire (c.320-185 BCE) and the resultant political and administrative unification of the larger part of the subcontinent resulted in the flourishing of long-distance trade. It has been argued that in an environment of expanding trade linkages and crystallizing state power, Buddhist monasteries, 'dependent' on royal and mercantile patronage, flourished in or around important urban centres or along the trade routes linking them (Heitzman 1984: 121-132).
Rees's paper in the present book analyses the emergence of Buddhist religious centres on the fringes of the Western Ghats against the backdrop of the expanding early historic maritime trade between this area and the Roman world. His paper indicates that some Buddhist religious centres emerged in the neighbourhood of important urban centres and derived their patronage mainly from the urban community. But there were other Buddhist religious centres located away from any known urban centre. Clearly, their support system was more complex than what is presented in the available scholarship.
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