Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism

February 23, 2018 [books] #reviews #academic #india

Book: Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism
Author: Johannes Bronkhorst

Among all the ideas this book introduced to me, the one that I am going to spend a long time chewing over is the hypothesis that Brahmanism was just another religion in the Greater Magadha region; and that it played no role in the Indian polity under the Nandas, Mauryas and Ashoka and later rulers till the first centuries of the 1st millennium CE. A consequence of this hypothesis is the rejection of the idea of resurgence of Brahmanism in the 2nd half of the first millennium CE after some stiff competition with Buddhism. That’s because it was not a predominant feature in the landscape in the first place, and in fact only now did it spread all over the subcontinent and beyond for the first time.

Also as a consequence of the hypothesis, Buddha’s teachings were not a rebellion against Brahmanism (the earliest recorded sayings make no mention of Brahmanism). If it did rebel against an existing order, it could have been against Ajivikism or Jainism or other prevailing mores of Greater Magadha. The earliest epigraphical recording we have in the subcontinent in Sanskrit (Rudradaman I's Junagad rock inscription, 150 CE) was also the first one to make note of the varna system. None of the older indo-aryan inscriptions mention the caste system because it was not a feature of the society under the Mauryas and Ashoka and likely before that. Buddhism competed with Brahmanism and lost in the subcontinent, even while initially having the patronage of kings that Brahmanism did not have till later. And these final centuries BCE, when Brahmanism almost died, reshaped it into the form we know today, and spread all over South/East Asia. And what an extraordinarily successful transformation it was - an ideology that predominated in an immense area, from Vietnam and Indonesia to Afghanistan, a not tiny portion of the earth(a phenomenon that has been called the ‘Sanskrit cosmopolis’ by Sheldon Pollock).

This book tries to answer why Buddhism lost, why it had to adopt Sanskrit as a means of propagating ideas after successfully using Pali/Prakrit for half a millennium, and how that led to the reframing of how Buddhists in India saw themselves. An most excellent sort of detective work by Bronkhorst, and eminently readable to boot.

Lots to chew over. These are just my initial thoughts, will write a detailed review after I spend some time thinking about it.

P.S: The way Bronkhorst uses Brahmanism through the book is specific, and I will let him define it: “For all those who are not practising Brahmins themselves, Brahmanism is not, or not primarily, the religious culture which finds expression in the vedic texts. Brahmanism, as we have seen, implies for them a socio- political order. Rulers can adopt this order without “converting” to Brahmanism. Strictly speaking, Brahmanism did not make converts, at least not religious converts. It promoted a vision of society, and brahmanical influence will manifest itself through this vision as much as, if not more than, through the performance of sacrifices.”

This socio-political order is, of course, the varna system with a pre-eminent place for Brahmins at the top.

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