The (Not So) Lost Buddhisms of India
From Douglas Ober's Cundill Prize-Nominated Dust on the Throne
Beginning in the nineteenth century, Buddhism captured the imagination of an eclectic range of people around the world—from African-American writers and British nobles to devout clergymen, socialist freethinkers, radical pacifists, and imperial adventurers. Within colonial India, a new generation of equally diverse figures forged their own Buddhist publics. These included migrant laborers, anti-caste activists, self-styled Hindu reformers, Indian Orientalists, Marxists, and Gandhian nationalists. Forming club associations, temples, and publishing houses, they discovered modern messages in ancient suttas (Sanskrit, sutra) and debated Buddhist histories in scholarly journals and popular magazines. By the 1950s, Buddhism was a source of immense national pride and critical to new understandings of the subcontinent’s past. It became integral to the techne of the postcolonial Indian state, part of diplomatic initiatives abroad and cultural celebrations at home.
Buddhism also brought about what is arguably the largest conversion movement in world history, when the Indian jurist and civil rights leader, B.R. Ambedkar, led some half a million dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”) to the religion in 1956. Despite these monumental interventions, modern Indian Buddhism is often disparaged as having little relevance outside Ambedkar’s followers, or among Himalayan Buddhists and exiled Tibetans. Even when these communities are acknowledged, most scholars treat them as anomalies, choosing instead to characterize India as little more than a museum of tattered Buddhist manuscripts and ancient ruins for scholarly study and curious traveler-pilgrims.
Contemporary historians tend to have a nuanced understanding of the rise and fall of Indian Buddhism thanks to an abundance of specialist literature on art, literature, sociology, philosophy, ethics, economics, among the many other sub-topics which are often further divided along regional and linguistic lines. Despite this, since the very founding of Buddhist studies and Indology in the early- to mid-nineteenth century, scholars have remained almost unanimous in dating Indian Buddhism’s disappearance to sometime between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. This “end” is precisely what enables the idea of a modern revival, thus marking a convenient starting point of the revival movement. With rare exception, the twelfth-to-fourteenth-century “end” of Buddhism is often denoted by terms like death, disappearance, or annihilation, rather than something more appropriate like collapse or downfall. By then, one learns, Indian Buddhism “was an endangered species” (Sarao 2002: 101), had “pretty much died out” (Strong 2015: 10), “virtually disappeared” (Gethin 1998: 2), or in the most common of phrases, it had “all but disappeared.” The timidity of all the above statements (“pretty much,” “virtually,” “all but”) is not a coincidence, since even the most eminent scholars propagate these narratives despite knowing that they are mere fictions. Two centuries of archaeological excavation and textual scholarship now point to a long, enduring, and “un-archived” Indian Buddhist afterlife that extends to the modern day.Even when these communities are acknowledged, most scholars treat them as anomalies.
A brief survey of just some of these Buddhist “afterlives” demonstrates the wider point. Sometime around 1776, a roughly two-foot-tall ruby- and turquoise-encrusted image of the Bodhisattva Tara was installed inside a temple complex on the banks of the Ganges in Howrah, near Calcutta. The “two-storied house of worship” with a central “gateway facing the river” (Bysack 1890: 50) was adorned with carpets and cloth banners shipped by Tibet’s Sixth Panchen Lama (1738–80) to the East India Company with the assistance of the Panchen’s Indian agent, the Shaiva yogi, Puran Giri (1745–95). The temple was never exclusively Buddhist. Hindu images and associated relics filled a separate chamber: it contained multiple Shivalingams and shaligramas. And yet, for a brief period, at least until the early 1800s, the crowned Tara image along with other similar ones, including Avalokiteshvara (Padmapani) and Cakrasamvara, were worshipped according to Buddhist rites by travelers from across the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau.
Although the construction of a Tibetan Buddhist temple in eighteenth- century-Bengal was a remarkable intervention in the religious landscape, a Buddhist presence in India was hardly uncommon. Toni Huber (2008) has traced the more than millennia-long history of Tibetan pilgrimage to Buddhist sites across India, including a detailed account of the Himalayan yogin, Garshapa Sonam Rabgye’s, visit to Bodh Gaya and Nalanda as late as 1752. Newar Buddhists from the Kathmandu Valley were no less active in their pilgrimages to Bodh Gaya. Nepalese Buddhist chronicles describe the visit of a Newar vajracharya (tantric Buddhist priest) to Bodh Gaya in the early to mid 1600s (Slusser 1988: 126). Such a tradition appears to have continued unabated. In the early 1800s, the famed Newar Buddhist scholar Amritananda Bandya (d. 1835), spoke of his childhood visit to the Maha Bodhi temple complex, the famed site in Bodh Gaya built over many centuries to mark and honor the Buddha’s enlightenment under the Bodhi tree (Hodgson 1827: 221–22). Buddhists from across the Himalayas and western Tibetan Plateau were not the only pilgrims either. As late as 1412 CE, a Ming dynasty envoy named Hou Xian (fl. 1403–27) traveled to Bodh Gaya (Ray 1993: 78). Architectural evidence from recreations of the Maha Bodhi temple in present-day Myanmar and Thailand suggests that Southeast Asian Buddhists may have continued making transcontinental journeys to Bodh Gaya as late as the fifteenth century (Brown 1988: 106–11). Eyewitness accounts confirm the continued presence of Burmese Buddhist pilgrims in north India throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century (Geary 2017: 48–50).
It is difficult to surmise why such developments have failed to impact the wider historiography. It is possible they were marginalized because the events themselves are seen as inconsequential to the “big” histories of the subcontinent. After all, when the Lahauli Buddhist mendicant, Garshapa Sonam Rabgye, visited Nalanda in 1752, he was unable to restore the ancient monument as a seat of Buddhist learning. He came, he saw, and returned home (and to history’s good fortune, accounts of his journey were preserved). All these visits do signify something of value. They are evidence of a steady stream of Buddhists from across Asia who sought out sacred spaces in the ancient heartland of Buddhism long after the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Then there were the Indian Buddhists who dotted the Gangetic Plains in the centuries after their religion’s so-called disappearance. Amidst a dwindling sangha and volatile political conditions, the Bengali monk, Shariputra (1335–1426), was installed as the “last abbot of Bodh Gaya” around the year 1400 (McKeown 2019). Documentary evidence in the form of Sanskrit manuscripts composed some fifty years later attest that scribes “with faith in [the Bodhisattva of Wisdom] Manjushri” continued to copy Buddhist scriptures in parts of rural Bihar (Shin’ichirō 2015, 2017). Such compositions were increasingly rare but not unknown. Indian teachers—monastics and non-monastics—who typically came from south and east India, like Shariputra, Vanaratna (1384–1468), Buddhagupta (1514–1610), and Krishnacarya (d. ~1640) traveled through India, Nepal, Tibet, and China as living votaries of Buddhist Sanskrit learning, Mahayana practices, and Vajrayana lineages.
Read collectively, these accounts reveal a bustle of ritual activity and pilgrimage at the axis mundi of the Buddhist world, which continued well into the colonial period. So, when the most seminal scholars repeat like a mantra that Buddhism had “all but disappeared” by the thirteenth to fourteenth century, their assertions cement into facts, diminishing our historical imagination and marginalizing what was a minor, but living, part of Indic religious life during the next several centuries. In a recent and important intervention on Buddhism’s “end days,” Arthur McKeown (2019: 19) argues, on the basis of little-studied Chinese, Tibetan, and Sanskrit sources, that the period between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries is a more accurate estimate of Indian Buddhism’s “demise” and that its decline was “neither drastic, dramatic nor cataclysmic but a more even downward slope with periodic resurgences.” McKeown’s work should encourage historians to rethink Buddhism’s putative death in the Gangetic Plains. His research, however, has a narrow geographical and temporal scope, and therefore discounts other areas in the subcontinent where these kinds of activities were equally evident and lasted just as long. That is, it has long been clear that Buddhism continued to be the center of a thriving public culture up through the present day in places like the Kathmandu Valley, Chittagong, the high Himalayas, and parts of north-east India.
Dust on the Throne: The Search for Buddhism in Modern India by Douglas Ober has been shortlisted for the 2023 Cundill History Prize.
Newar Buddhists from the Kathmandu Valley in Nepal, for instance, have, from the Gupta era onwards, followed Sanskrit Mahayana practices and deities alongside Vajrayana initiations while surviving in a wider Hindu world (Gellner 1992). As the anthropologist Todd Lewis (2000: 13) writes, this “small but vibrant oasis of tradition…disproves the often-repeated assertion that Indic Buddhism ever completely died.” Yet, almost all histories of South Asian Buddhism consciously and knowingly exclude post-fourteenth-century Newar Buddhism from their narratives. Certainly, one of the driving forces behind this is a nation-state paradigm in which present-day national boundaries are projected anachronistically into the past. Nepal is not a part of India, and therefore Newar Buddhism is “Nepal’s Buddhism,” not India’s.
The nationalist appropriation cuts both ways. While many Indians today are content to claim Ladakh as part of the Indian nation, and along with it, Ladakhi Buddhism as Indian Buddhism, this is largely a matter of political convenience. Few scholars would contend that Buddhist practices in Ladakh are closer to an imagined “Indian” Buddhism than those of Newar Buddhists. This kind of nationalist and territorial argumentation has seeped into other arenas of Buddhist history as well. In response to the idea that the Buddha was an Indian, the Nepali public has expressed outrage, demanding that it is Lord Buddha’s birthright to be recognized as Nepali! Nepal is not the only blind spot in the wider historiography.These “anomalies” in the historical archive also help explain the very jarring differences in the dating of Indian Buddhism’s decline.
Buddhism also survived as a living practice up through the present day in Chittagong, the coastal and hilly region in what is today south-eastern Bangladesh. Before Arakanese monks “converted” Chittagong Buddhists to an Irawaddy Valley–inspired mode of Pali aesthetics in the nineteenth century, the region was a fulcrum for Buddhist tantra and a significant conduit for the dissemination of Buddhist poetry in Persian, Bengali, and Arabic (Charney 2002: 218–21; Leider 2010: 145–62; D’Hubert 2019). Even as late as 1798, some fifty years before the region’s Chakma queen (rani), Kalindi (r. 1844–73), invited Theravadin Buddhist monks into the royal court, the East India Company surveyor, Francis Buchanan (1762–1829), was able to clearly identify the Bengali-speaking community’s practices and customs as tied to the Buddha (Buchanan  1992: 57–58, 98).
These were the same communities whose Bengali-language translations of Pali scriptures one century later would fire the imagination of intellectuals like Rabindranath Tagore. However, nationalist histories of India have no place for the Buddhism of Chittagong. The horrendous events of 1947 involved as much a Partition of the past as it did of borders and identities. A similar appropriation of history has occurred in Bangladesh, only this time with religious overtones, where a million-plus Bengali-speaking Buddhists in Chittagong find no place in nationalist narratives which privilege Muslim identities (D.M. Barua n.d.).
The marginalization of Nepal and Chittagong, like that of Sikkim, Kinnaur, Spiti, Ladakh, and other “borderlands” could be attributed to their geographical positioning at the periphery. However, there is ample evidence in the form of inscriptions and literary texts that document the persistence of Buddhism even in more “centrally located” and less-disputed Indian locales long after the fifteenth century. In peninsular India, there are signs of a self-conscious Buddhist presence that lasted well into the late sixteenth century and possibly even beyond. According to the Kalyani inscription erected in Pegu by the Burmese king, Dhammaceti, in 1479, a group of Burmese monks (theras) returning from Lanka were shipwrecked and ended up in the South Indian town of Nagapattinam. There, they visited a pagoda-shaped vihara taller than “Kanaka Giri” (Mount Meru) and worshipped an image of the Buddha in a cave constructed by the “Maharaja of Cinadesa (China).”
After the town’s “Chinese Pagoda” was demolished by the British in 1867 to make way for what is today St Joseph’s College, more than three hundred bronze images of the Buddha, Avalokiteshvara, Maitreya, Lokeshvara, Vasudhara, and Tara were uncovered. According to the art historian Vidya Dehejia (1988: 73), the discoveries evidenced “a generous patronage of Buddhism as late as 1700 A.D.” While little is known about the use and production of these images, it is clear from other sources that socially distinct Buddhist communities still populated the region through the late 1500s.
When one considers these developments and the near continuous flows of Buddhist pilgrims to Bodh Gaya up through the colonial period, the narrative around Buddhism’s disappearance begins to look quite different. And yet, most scholars write these histories off as anomalies. They appear to be incidental, erratic, trivial, and therefore “inconsequential,” as Gyanendra Pandey (2012: 38) would put it. These “anomalies” in the historical archive also help explain the very jarring differences in the dating of Indian Buddhism’s decline. To a minority of dissenting scholars like Vidya Dehejia (1988), Stephen Berkwitz (2010), Giovanni Verardi (2011), and Arthur McKeown (2019), all of this documentary evidence is proof that Indian Buddhism, despite its fragmented state, existed well into the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This radical discrepancy in the dating of Buddhism’s “disappearance” should raise alarm. After all, their difference of opinion with other leading scholars on this matter is not based on years or even decades, but on centuries.
From Dust on the Throne: The Search for Buddhism in Modern India by Douglas Ober. Copyright © 2023. Available from Navayana.