A Sociology and Historiography of Buddhism: Some Reflections on Vesak



By Uditha Devapriya

By the 6th century BC, the centre of Indian civilisation had shifted to the Ganges Valley. Social and economic conditions had made possible the rise of several religions which posed as alternatives to Brahmanism. By the end of the 5th century BC, the number of these sects had come down. Among those that survived were Jainism and Buddhism.

The Gangetic Basin soon became the centre of the second urbanisation of ancient India, following the Indus Valley phase from 3300 to 1800 BC. This second urbanisation unfolded in two stages, the first going back to the 6th to 5th century BC and the second to the last few centuries of the first millennium BC. By the 7th century, before the rise of cities in the region, 16 small states had sprung up, bordering the Ganges Valley.

Alexander Cunningham, founder of the Archaeological Survey of India, retraced the route taken by the Chinese pilgrims Fa-Hsien and Xuanzang to the sites of several of these cities, including Mathura, Ahicchatra, Sankisa, Kanauj, Kausambi, Ayodhya, Sravasti, Kusinagara, Varanasi, Vaisali, Pataliputra, Bodhgaya, Rajagaha, Nalanda, Champa, and Tamralipti.

Within 150 years, these small “republics” or janapadas would decrease to four, while within the next two centuries they would collapse into one empire, Magadha. Bimbisara and Ajasattu, its most illustrious rulers, were among the most influential patrons of the Buddha, who spent much of his life there; the language he used was, after all, Maghadi Prakrit.

The story of Buddhism and its rise is therefore, at one level, the story of the economic and social changes unravelling throughout India. In the Mauryan Empire, Indian civilisation faced its first “universal monarchy”, while arguably its greatest king Asoka would adopt Buddhism as the state religion in the aftermath of a bloody, violent war.

Jean Darian notes that the rise of Buddhism emerged from two historical trends: the withering away of tribal republics and the formation of kingdoms, and the rise of a merchant class which was more conducive to the growth of empires than a priestly class/caste.

Prince Siddhartha with Mahaprajapati Gotami (Sarlis)

Buddhism hence did not emerge in a vacuum: there were conditions that stimulated its rise over not just those priestly sects but sects which, while sharing some of its key tenets, nevertheless emphasised a more ascetic and extreme lifestyle.

Indeed, Siddhartha Gautama’s first two teachers, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, were followers of these creeds: under Alara Kalama he attained the “Realm of Nothingness” (Akincannayatana), and under Uddaka Ramaputta he attained the “Realm of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception” (Neva Sanna Nasannayatana).

How did urbanisation come about, and what influence did it exert on Buddhism, a religion which in Sri Lanka finds its truest expression, as eminent writers like Martin Wickramasinghe and Gunadasa Amarasekara have observed, in the village?

The transition from the Indus Valley to the Ganges was accompanied and even driven by the emergence of a Vedic culture, the product of a semi-nomadic people who called themselves Arya, which European scholars, including William Jones and Max Muller, anachronistically linked to European culture. We know a lot from literary sources and at the same time so little from actual inscriptions about the nature and the character of these people.

The little we do know is that in their hands, the Ganges Valley, which Brahmanical and Buddhist texts referred to as the Majjhimadesaya or the Middle Kingdom, transformed from a fertile agricultural enclave to a highly developed civilisation. The valley was the site of a stratified society, which was divided into castes and occupational groups; its transformation into a highly urban civilisation compelled a breakdown in the traditional rural order.

Abanindranath Tagore, The Victory of Buddha

Buddhists texts attest to the commercialisation of life in the 5th century BC. The Jataka stories tell us of a “flourishing urban society” in North India. This spurt of commercialisation centred on Rajagaha, the capital of Magadha. A steady rise in the number of people in urban settlements there led to the rise of an urban consciousness and the formation of towns, markets, and trade guilds, including of woodworkers, ironworkers, leatherworkers, and painters.

The Magadha period saw much development in mercantile practices and skills, in the trade and transport of items such as silk, jewellery, and armour, and of a special ceramic called the Northern Black Polish Ware, which made its first appearance in 500 BC in the Ganges valley. D. D. Kosambi puts all this against the backdrop of Buddhism’s ascent:

“The 1,500 years of the full cycle of the rise, spread, and decline of Buddhism saw India change over from semi-pastoral tribal life to the first absolute monarchies and then to feudalism.”

It was under these monarchies that the faintest outlines of a market economy emerged for the first time in India. The rule of these monarchs was linked inextricably to the rise of a merchant class, among which were the famed sresthi, the financiers. These merchants contributed to the undercutting of the caste system. No longer tied to the land like their ancestors, they forwent on their allegiance to the rigid texts of the Vedas.

Not surprisingly, injunctions against and condemnations of city life run through traditional religious texts: cities are described as places “where the Vedas are not recited”, and householders completing their studies are warned against “spending too much time in the city”, since urban dwellers “cannot attain salvation, despite their austerities.”

The rulers, on the other hand, found in merchants a ready means of accumulating capital for large public works, which Marx and Engels noted as the distinguishing mark of Indian (and Asiatic) civilisation. To sustain this, they needed to free capital from the upper castes. At the same time, they required a polity, and a religious doctrine, which would discourage too much wealth accumulation, especially “in the hands of potentially rival groups.”

Buddhism was one among many creeds that witnessed this spate of urbanisation, but it was the most adaptable to these changes. It evolved from a long trajectory. The religious revolutions of the Gangetic Basin, which is where many of India’s religions evolved, can be traced to Ajita Kesakambali, a materialist philosopher who, in contrast to the Brahmins and the Vedas, believed that the body turned to dust and nothing else upon death.

Mara in a Gotami Viharaya mural

This evolved into still other sects. Of these, the Samkhyians were among the first to propound that the soul was distinguishable from the body. Alara Kalama was a follower of this creed. The Jains under Mahaviraswami adhered to a rigid ideology which forbade drinking “without straining or filtering” and in-breathing, since they could kill life-forms in water and in the air. Uddaka Ramaputta is considered to have been a Jain.

The achievement of Buddhism was its avoidance of both materialism and asceticism. The Middle Way, the “Majjhimapatipadawa”, suited a civilisation rooted in trade practices liberated from caste constraints on the one hand, and in a clergy and lay following which believed in staying away from accumulating too much wealth on the other. Buddhism’s innovation lay in its appeal to both streams, through its espousal of a “Middle Path.”

The founder of the doctrine, whose birth, enlightenment, and passing away we commemorate today, was in many respects a representative of the transitions of the period he was born to. While much of his life remains shrouded in mystery, there is certainly no lack of biographies, including the Pali Canonical texts, the Tripitakaya, Buddhagosa’s Aththakatha or Commentaries, and Asvaghosa’s Buddhacharitha.

His life story has long become an enigma. Orientalists and Pali scholars, including Carl Koeppen (Die Religion des Buddha und ihre Entstehung, 1857), W. Wassiljew (Der Buddhismus: Seine Dogmen, Geschichte, und Literatur, 1860), Hermann Oldenberg (Buddha: Sein Leben, seine Lehre, seine Gemeinde, 1881), and Edward Thomas (The Life of the Buddha as Legend and History, 1908), not to mention Edwin Arnold (The Light of Asia, 1879) and Hermann Hesse (Siddhartha, 1927), have published one biography after another.

These texts, including the Canonical ones, differ on certain points. Michael Carrithers, for instance, argued that the Sakyans were not strictly speaking kings, but were instead oligarchs “or councils of elders, or some mixture of the two”, or leaders of tribal republics that were yielding place to the Maghada Empire. At the First Buddhist Council after the Mahaparinibbana, the interpreters were divided over whether Gautama saw the “four sights” in one go and day or over several days: the “Digabhanakas”, entrusted with the study of the Digha Nikaya, supposedly made the case for the former view, while other groups favoured the latter.

Despite these differences and disagreements, the outline of Buddhism has survived to this date, and continues to exert a tremendous influence over Asia, in particular Sri Lanka. To admit that, however, is to understate the reality, for Buddhism inspired in the latter not just its marvels of architecture and art, but its very civilisation. Its tolerant character enabled it to incorporate and absorb facets of other cultures, including Hinduism and Christianity.

Newton Gunasinghe saw in the transformation of Buddhism from an urban theology in India to a folk religion in Sri Lanka an ideological paradigm shift, one which suited the dominant social patterns of both countries. Hence, from the emperor and urban-dweller Buddhism came to be patronised, in Sri Lanka, by the king, landlord, and peasant.

By the turn of the 19th century, when urbanisation made inroads through British colonialism, Buddhism in Sri Lanka faced its second awakening: the Buddhist Revival, led by Theosophists and “Protestant” in its outlook. Yet despite its urban trappings, even this remained bonded to the rural origins of the religion. As in the Ganges Valley and the Middle Kingdom of India, the teachings of the Buddha adjusted to their environment, and with that to entirely new patterns of life, without letting go of their cultural and civilisational roots.

Uditha Devapriya is a writer, researcher, and analyst who writes on topics such as history, art and culture, politics, and foreign policy. He is one of the two leads in U & U, an informal art and culture research collective. He can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.