Dust on the Throne
The Search for Buddhism in Modern India
Douglas Ober


Contents and Abstracts
chapter abstract

The manuscript opens with a series of events that took place in the years surrounding Indian Independence in 1947 in which Buddhist symbols held primary place at the national level and yet, in recent decades have been largely forgotten or ignored. It uses them to highlight a central theme in the book: the way in which both histories of Indian Buddhism have been "unarchived." After explaining the concept, I outline the conventional narratives surrounding the history of India's Buddhist past and present. I ask what sense we can make of these claims about Buddhism's pre-modern 'death' and 'modern' revival in light of ample archival evidence that seems to undermine the conventional narrative. Having laid forth the book's central historiographical critique, the remainder of the chapter summarizes the subsequent chapters.

1 The Agony of Memory
chapter abstract

Chapter one begins by looking back at the long history of Buddhism in India, not so much as a historical artifact but as it was conceived and remembered by early modern Indian populaces. Through wide-ranging discussion of extant manuscripts (hagiographies, temple chronicles, scholastic manuals, puranas) alongside oral traditions, archaeological materials, surveyor's reports, memoirs and personal correspondence, I reveal concrete evidence of a robust conversation about Buddhism taking place among South Asian scholars, literati and ascetics on the eve of British colonialism. To frame the wider discussion, the chapter begins and ends with the unusual circumstances surrounding the 1839 publication of a Sanskrit text, the Laghuaka or Little Chisel. The Little Chisel reveals that not only had Indians not "forgotten" who the Buddha was (as colonial and postcolonial histories so often claim) but they also had a significant influence on the way that early European Orientalists interpreted India's Buddhist past.

2 Dispelling Darkness
chapter abstract

Chapter 2 highlights how popular Indian memories of Buddhists and Buddha were re-evaluated in light of new epistemological interpretations provided by philologists and archaeologists. The staging point for this discussion is the dramatic shifts in Britain's colonial education policies of the 1830s to 1850s and the institutionalization of "scientific" methodologies. To uncover this subtle but significant transition to a new mode of interpreting the past, the chapter examines depictions of Buddhism in an immensely popular Hindi - Urdu government schoolbook, Itihas Timirinashak (History as Dispeller of Darkness) published by a Jain intellectual in 1874 that went through more than 150,00 copies in its first fifteen years. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the precarious but significant roles that South Asians held in colonial institutes of higher education, archaeological surveys and the new scholarly societies dedicated to exploring Indian Buddhism in all of its varied manifestations.

3 Banyan Tree Buddhism
chapter abstract

The third chapter explores the proliferation of global Buddhist networks in late nineteenth and early twentieth century India and the often competing views of Buddhism espoused by them, particularly regarding other new religious movements and ideologies at the time. To frame the intersection of all these networks, it uses the metaphor of the Banyan tree, the distinctive fig native to the subcontinent whose aerial prop roots grow into thick trunks resembling their own grove of trees yet are connected to all other branches through complex pathways. By following the Banyan tree and those pilgrims, scholars and monks who traveled it, the chapter reveals the socio-political dynamics inherent in turn of the century India's most boisterous Buddhist or quasi-Buddhist groups and leaders, including Bhikkhu Mahavir, Ven. Kripasaran, Anagarika Dharmapala among others, as well as the Bengal Buddhist Association, Theosophical Society, Maha Bodhi Society, and Shakya Buddhist Society.

4 Brahmanizing Buddhism
chapter abstract

Chapter four shifts attention to the dominant Indian response to these developments. This response was conditioned largely by the advent of a new form of Hindu organization and politics that envisioned the past from a Hindutva perspective where the Buddhist past simply became part of a Hindu past—a phenomenon captured nicely by the still popular expression, "Buddha was born, lived and died a Hindu." Through an examination of Hindu nationalist temple architecture, urban planning, Hindu polemical texts and scholarly treatises, I show how and why new Hindu forces appropriated Buddhism between the 1920s and 1940s. While the modern Hindu appropriation of Buddhism was led by disparate groups, the chapter's primary focus is the rightwing Hindu organization, the All-India Hindu Maha Sabha and its industrialist sponsors, the Birla family, that were the driving force behind this effort.

5 The Snake and the Mongoose
chapter abstract

Not all Indians subscribed to the reinvented story of the "Hindu Buddha." While some Hindu leftists were vociferous in their critique of this narrative, dissent was strongest among Non-Brahmin and Dalit movements who felt that the rhetoric of the Hindu Buddha washed over a long history of distinctive identities and social oppression against Buddhist communities and low-caste populaces. Set against a backdrop of rising socialist paradigms, national debates on caste reform and subaltern movements, the chapter shows how Dalit intellectuals from the late 1890s onwards began forging a revolutionary Buddhist ethos based on ideals of socio-economic equality and anti-caste politics. To highlight this new social and intellectual milieu the chapter connects these earlier engagements with the vibrant counter publics of 1920s to 1940s Lucknow, Madras and Calicut that came to have such a critical (yet little recognized) influence on Ambedkar's turn towards Buddhism in the 1950s.

6 When the Buddha met Marx
chapter abstract

Chapter 6 explores how at the same time that figures like anti-caste activists and intellectuals like Ambedkar were envisioning Buddhism as a liberatory force capable of freeing India from the chains of caste, they were also considering its compatibility with the other great revolutionary force of the day, Marxism. Through an engagement with recent scholarship on Marxism in China, Mongolia, Russia, and Japan, the chapter uncovers a series of Buddhist networks in India that advocated various strands of Marxist ideology either as close alternatives to Buddhism or in conjunction with it. With a focus on the lives of two prominent North Indian Buddhists, Dharmanand Kosambi (1876-1947) and Rahul Sankrityayan (1893-1963), the chapter helps unravel the connections between Buddhist and Marxist doctrines and brings to light several unknown patterns of global commonality and interconnectedness in India's modern Buddhist history with that of Ceylon, Russia, America, and Tibet.

7 The Buddha Nation
chapter abstract

Chapter seven explores the ideologies and activities of what I call Nehruvian Buddhism, or the Indian postcolonial state's promotion of Buddhism in both domestic and foreign affairs under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. By integrating ancient rituals of devotion to Buddhist relics in diplomatic and state projects, Nehruvian Buddhism attempted to forge a new consciousness and identity, not just for India but all of Asia. While Nehru's use of Buddhism as a form of soft power was effectively dismantled by the Chinese invasion of India in 1962 along with the exile of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959, it continues to play a role in India's external affairs to this day. On the domestic front, it had less success after the mass conversions of Ambedkarite Dalits in the 1950s challenged the state's ability to speak for Buddhism.

chapter abstract

In my conclusion, I pick up from where I ended the final chapters– thinking about the continued legacy of Buddhism in a postcolonial India. The story ends in the 1950s with Nehru's and Ambedkar's conflicting efforts to build Buddhism into the nation: a Buddhist universalism or Indian nationalism, a sectarian Dalit identity or a secular value system? Indian Buddhism remains as fragmented as ever and Indian attitudes towards Buddhism remain no less so. The work ends by asking what Indian histories of Buddhism—and the unarchived histories that lay within—tell us about the world we live in today.