From the Jacket
This book examines the relationship of Buddhism to its locus, the expanding agrarian economy of the Ganga valley during the period 600-300 BC. It outlines the contours of the major social and economic groups that were the dramatic personae in this dynamic process, especially the gahapati, whose entrepreneurial role in the economy has not received the attention it deserves. The work explores the emergence of sharp differentiation between those in control of the means of production, who dominated the agrarian scene, and those marginalized groups whose labour was essential to the expanding economy but who remained vulnerable, being excluded from both economic and social power. It also examines the changing political environment and the gradual collapse of the gana-sanghas in the face of the expanding monarchical formations of the Ganga valley.
Buddhism's complex response to this changing economic, social and political context is the central concern of this book. It argues that Buddhism responded in a dialectical manner to the economy, society and power, conceptualizing in a more humane, if not 'radical', way the direction in which a changing society could re-order social and political relations.
Dr. Uma Chakravarti teaches History at Miranda House, University of Delhi. She held a research fellowship at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi between 1990-94. She has published several articles in the field of social history particularly on caste, labour and gender. Among her forthcoming publications is a book titled Gender, Class and Nation: The Life and Times of Pandita Ramabai.
The sixth century B. c. has left its mark on Indian history mainly because it witnessed an intense preoccupation with philosophical speculation. Among the various thinkers contributing to this unique phase was the Buddha, who more than any other historical personage born in India has compelled the attention of the world. Consequently, there is no dearth of writing on the Buddha and on Buddhism as a whole. But while an intimate connection between ideas and the societies which give rise to them would be readily conceded, there is a lacuna in historical writing, especially in the field of social history dealing with the major concerns of the Buddha, the society in which he lived, and the connection between the two.
The absence of such a focus of study is particularly noticeable because contemporary interest in Buddhism is in a large measure based on its social appeal. Within India Buddhism has appeared as an alternative to the hierarchical and inegalitarian ideology and practice of Hinduism. In contrast Buddhism is viewed as a system which was more sympathetic to oppressed groups and it has been considered an economic, political, and social solution to the problem of caste oppression. Buddhism in other Asian countries has also taken on the character of a socio-political movement in recent times. It has been described as a humanistic ethic seeking full embodiment in a socio-political community'. Despite this interest in the social dimensions of Buddhism there is no full-length study of the society in which Buddhism had its genesis or the social groups that constituted it. While it has become evident that early Buddhist society was rapidly changing and becoming sharply stratified the form in which that stratification was expressing itself needs to be analysed. Further certain broad generalizations regarding the close association between Buddhism and specific social groups" have to be tested mainly because the conclusions have not been founded on any rigorous analysis of the sources available for early Buddhist society. There is therefore considerable scope for a study that intensively analyses the nature of society in which Buddhism originated and shows the relationship between the two. This work is an attempt in that direction.
One of the major problems faced by a historian attempting an analysis of Buddhism and the society in which it originated is that of the stratification of the Pali texts. Very few secondary works show any regard for the relationship between a particular text and the probable period that it represents. This may have been because traditionally Buddhist texts as a whole formed the unit of study, as distinct from the Brahmanical texts. While this may have been a vi- able focus of study in itself, it has at least partially been responsible for the broad generalizations that followed from treating the Buddhist texts as a homogeneous unit. Texts ranging from approximately the fifth century B. c. to the fifth century A. D. are often capsuled by scholars into one category. In the initial stages of historical writing such an approach may have been justified, but the trend has continued even after the appearance of specialist studies, including the study of social history. More than any other branch of specialist studies this area requires a proper time perspective for the accurate analysis of social and economic categories. Thus Fick, Mehta, and Bosc all treat the evidence from the Vinaya and Sutta Pitakas and the Jatakas as reflecting the same society. 5 To some extent this confusion was inevitable, given the inadequate state of knowledge on the internal stratification of the texts. Although the pace of studies on the subject of stratification of the texts is far from satisfactory, some progress has been made in recent years. We outline below the present knowledge on the stratification of the Buddhist texts.
Rhys Davids, Winternitz, and Law" place the Vinaya and the first four Nikayas in approximately the same chronological stratum, and treat them as having more or less reached their present shape before the Mauryan period, although they do so for different reasons. This dating has been arrived at on the basis of the internal unity of the texts. Rhys Davids places the works mentioned above as having been compiled approximately a hundred years after the Buddha's death. An important factor in the pre-Mauryan dating of the Vinaya and the first four Nikayas of the Sutta Pitaka is the reference to seven selected passages of the Pali canon in the Bhabhra edict of Asoka. According to Rhys Davids, two of the titles are ambiguous, four others are from the four Nikayas, and the remaining one is from the Sutta Nipiita. Rhys Davids argues that the literature in which the passages are found are older than the inscriptions themselves. It has also been suggested that the fifth Nikaya of the Sutta Pitaka, which contains miscellaneous texts, does not appear to have been recognized by schools other than the Theraviida,9 and is there- fore likely to have been a later supplementary Nikaya.
More recent research has refined the work of Rhys Davids, Winternitz and Law but has confirmed the pre-Mauryan dating of the bulk of the Vinaya and Sutta Pitaka. Pan de has devoted considerable attention to the problem of the stratification of the Pali canon and places the Nikayas of the Sutta Pitaka, in particular, to a period when the sects, at least in all important doctrinal matters, were still one. Pande dates them before the convening of the Third Council in the third century B. c. Since the Vinaya does not mention the Third Council he suggests that it too had reached completion in the first two centuries after Buddha. However, Pande also points out that particular versions of the Nikayas contain much editorial retouching, addition, and expurgation. In addition, Pande has attempted to analyse the earlier and later strata within the Nikayas.
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