Buddhism originated as an antinomial system facing the opposition of both vaidika and theistic Brahmans who socially identified themselves with the agrarian world. The two models of society generated in early historical India never merged and Buddhism was gradually and often violently reduced to impotence. It was Gupta rule that first checkmated the antinomial model of the Buddhists. Whereas in the open society traders landowners and tribals coexisted from Gupta times onwards pressure on kings and direct Brahmanical rule led to the requisition of land and the imposition of a varna state society.
Doctrinal debates which soon turned into ordeals were instrumental in the suppression of the Buddhist elite mainly formed by intellectuals of Brahmanical descent this being proof of a dramatic rift in the brahmanavarna. The Vajrayana which was the Buddhist response to this state of affairs originated and grew under Pala rule and expansionism and was characterized by a decisive opening towards the outcast and the theorization of violence. This set off a conflict whose scope and significance are still poorly understood. It was eventually the compromise between that caused the final downfall of Buddhism. The former were obliged to transfer political power to the latter but had a free hand in social repression.
The book draws mainly on Brahmanical sources both literary and iconographic which are abundant and insufficiently exploited as well as on archaeological evidence hardly ever resorted to.
As a member of ISIAQ Rome Giovanni Verrardi has carried out excavations in Afghanistan (Ghazni) Nepal (In Kathmandu and at the Asokan Site of Gotihawa) and China (Lyoyang) as well as extensive surveys and research work in India and Pakistan. He has been professor of Indian Archaeology and Archaeology of Central Asia at the Universita L Orientale Naples.
This book is not so much about Buddhism as about Indian History a general knowledge of which is taken for granted. It is a kind of advanced history of India aimed at discussing the mechanisms that started to set in motion the events that with increasing force characterized the Indian middle age until the thirteenth century and at examining the often elusive or disregarded evidence that document the weakening and collapse of Buddhism. I do not share the inclusive paradigm that assumes that in ancient India for all the recognized differences there was we speak here of the structured systems a single development model broadly shared by all the forces in the field. I see India as the only civilization of the ancient world that generated two opposing models of social and economic relations that coexisted for a long time in conflict whatever that attempts to reduce or mask the incompatibilities. Far from being a history with a low level of conflict it was highly confrontational. Despite the widespread tendency to underestimate historical discontinuities and create inclusive paradigms it is possible to deconstruct Indian history entering it through the visible fractures that mark its surface. These fractures are comparable to those encountered in volcanic souls where fumaroles and sulphurous deposits make one understand that an explosive magma is lying beneath. In many cases have unexpectedly widened allowing a vision that if not unprecedented is nevertheless note worthy.
The issues raised in this book are numerous but two emerge. I think with particular clarity. The first is that whereas the idea of state and society the Buddhists had in mind was compatible with the extremely varied people inhabiting the subcontinent, the Brahmanical model implied their forced incorporation into the well guarded perimeter of an agrarian society. It was not just a state society that especially from the Gupta Period onwards started being established in vast portions of India but a varna society and this made the difference. Its establishment caused the arising of an extremely strong
opposition, generally underestimated by historians. The varna state was opposed not only by the natives who, against their will, saw themselves downgraded to the lower peasantry ranks, but also by the Buddhist brahmanas who were in favour of a trading society less dependent on agricultural resources, and consequently less bound to the strict rules of varna and jãti. The second point is that the imposition of the rules of the varna state implied much violence. This appears most clearly in the non-brahmanised regions of central and northeastern India where, from the eighth century onwards, the followers of the Vajrayana decided to play the card of social revolt, but is already clear from the very beginning of the process: hence the central position that Gupta policy is given in this book. Intimidation and violence also caused a number of transformations in the religion of Dharma, where, rather early, a section of the ramana-s started organizing themselves according to a community model paralleling the Brahmanical priesthood and lifestyle.
The historical domain covered by this book is thus one where an antinomial model takes the shape of a religious system, Buddhism, which is bound, by ideology and violence, from within and without, to renegotiate continuously and dramatically its own antinomial position. In the course of the historical process, this resulted either in being suppressed or else in being cornered into subaltern positions. The antinomial stance of early Buddhist thought and early Buddhist communities condemned them to the impossibility of emerging out of their subaltern positioning throughout the whole of ancient and medieval history.
The large gaps that still exist in Indian history favour the persistence of a positivist approach. Positive data are in demand not just for filling these gaps, however, but because they have the unparalleled force of always being there, whatever the theoretical construct: The extraordinary force of philological research work, for example, derives from this. Nevertheless, data do change their position on the chessboard according to constructs, and while some of them come fully into focus, others end up in an indistinct periphery. My aim has been not so much to accumulate data, although a number of new facts are provided, but, rather, to reconsider them and rearrange them in the puzzle that the early historical and medieval history of India still is. Much though there is to explore within the inclusive historiographic model we have received, I think that new, decisive data are the product of new perspectives, and not the other way round. I hope this book can serve this purpose.
The great progress of Buddhist studies worldwide, aimed at constituting the ‘literary corpus’ of Indian Buddhism (Cristina Scherrer-Schaub) and largely focused on the recovery of texts lost in India but preserved in other traditions, has led to a perceptible decline in interest towards Buddhism in modem Indian scholarship and society. Western and East Asian scholars working on the corpus often have — there are naturally many remarkable exceptions — an episodic, incomplete knowledge of Indian history, and, in addition, they do not interact with Indian scholars as happened in the past. For their part, scholars in India have pulled out of the venture, their interests, and those of their country, lying elsewhere. In a sense, India is reverting to a pre-nineteenth century situation, when Buddhism was forgotten when not remembered with hostility. Yet it was precisely the great Indian intellectuals of the past, especially Bengali intellectuals, who, at least with regard to the facts discussed in this book, had a clear perception of how things had gone, and who preserved the memory of events that, in some parts of the country, belonged to a not too distant past.
As regards the ‘data archive’ of Indian Buddhism, the situation is partly reversed, but to nobody’s advantage. Archaeology has long since become the exclusive concern of Indian scholars, and this has created an asymmetry that contributes to deepen the gap between the parties and risks undermining the validity of the new evidence, zilocating it to the exclusive domain of nationalistic self-congratulation ___ tourist use. For all the criticism that today we reserve for the idea of Indian Buddhism created in the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century, its force lay in the close interrelationship which then existed between the literary corpus and the data archive. The restoration of the Pali Canon and of a certain number of Mahayana was remains closely related in everybody’s mind to the stupas of Saichi and the monasteries of Taxila. It was an extraordinarily powerful model, regardless of whether those associations were right or wrong. This unity is now broken. The data archive is broken in turn, because Indian scholars monopolies fieldwork but show little interest for the ichnographic section. Here non-Indian scholars are again more active, although often disinclined to come face to face with the darker aspects o(Indian history.
An important limitation to the understanding of both early and medieval Buddhism is the scarce attention paid by students of the religion of Dharma to the Brahmanical world a traditional attitude that has now become more widespread because of the shifting north and eastwards of philological studies. Yet we might provocatively argue that while it is possible to write a history of India that ignores Buddhism the more limited task of writing a history of India Buddhism that ignores Brahmanical India seems hardly possible. Nevertheless this is frequently done and the result is a partial if not mistaken view of the matter that risks affecting also the work of the most self confident, specialized fields of the research. Brahmanical sources be thy prescriptive texts literary works or religious mythical compilations like the Puranas contain a surprising amount of information on Buddhism Students of Brahmanical literature have taught us to read literary texts paying attention to the multiplicity of meanings and references particular to Sandhyabhasa and recently the idea has come to the fore that iconographies respond to the same subtle complex network of allusions and overtones. Nothing new under the sun some will say except that the teachings and methodology of the Warburg school have so far failed to establish themselves in Indian studies where the barrier interposed by the constant resorting to a symbolism nurtured by the ideas of the 1930s seems unbreakable. Though it is not only a question of Sandhyabhasa if the breach is now open by acknowledging the existence of instruments specific to India for understanding texts and images we can only rejoice. The task is intimidating because historians of religion should also contribute to this effort by offering us a more realistic view of the Brahmanical world.
The reference made above to the Warburg school suggests some considerations. Students of classical antiquities and of the Renaissance whatever their specialization may be know that colleagues are up to in bordering sectors of their own field of research and the wealth of such studies comes from a continuous dialogue between all the sectors, and many a scholar can competently address different sets of data. Some may say that in the case of ancient and medieval India data archives may say that in the case of ancient and medieval India data archives and literary corpora have too many empty boxes to allow us to proceed in this direction, desirable as it may be. I believe this is only partly true. When Aby Warburg began his investigations on the Italian Renaissance things were not much different from at least some periods of Indian history given the strong discontinuity in the history of Italy that we can symbolically fix to the year 1527. The Catholic Reform had strongly reshaped and in part deleted the past and it was now necessary to retrieve it using a methodology that broke that boundaries between disciplines. There are no cheap shortcuts here for those who use the tools of the Warburg school it would be unthinkable symbolisms either fuelled by texts or iconographies and above all to adhere to any form of reassuring (and authoritarian) inclusiveness. Historical modeling goes together with extremely careful distinctions.
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