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



A Dependent Arising

Around the time of Indian independence in August 1947, a curious set of events transpired in the highest echelons of state power. The first occurred on 14 August, the day before the formal transfer of power, when a group of seventy-two women entered New Delhi’s Constituent Assembly and unfurled the newly chosen national flag. In a sudden change decided only three weeks before, the Gandhian charkha, spinning wheel, had been replaced by the Ashokan dhammachakra, dharma wheel, as the flag’s central symbol. The second event occurred a few months later, when the Central cabinet publicly disclosed the official state emblem of the new nation. This time the image chosen was that of the Ashokan Lion Seal from Sarnath, a site known both for the 1904–05 discovery of its half-broken lion pillar and as the sacred ground where the Buddha delivered his first teaching. The third, and arguably most definitive moment, occurred in January 1950 at the Government House in New Delhi, where a cadre of ministers, military officers, royalty, political elites, and journalists gathered beneath a massive, 1,800-year-old sandstone image of the Buddha to witness Rajendra Prasad take oath as the first president of the Republic of India.

Such connections to Buddhism may seem perplexing to many today. India is widely considered a secular state, albeit with a Hindu majority that has expressed increasing scorn for the republic’s non-religious foundation. Even further, at the time of Independence, Buddhism was considered “extinct” in India for nearly eight hundred years, and less than 1 per cent >of the population explicitly identified as Buddhist.1 But demography and entrenched theories are not always reliable indicators of cultural conscience.

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.

From the late-nineteenth century onwards, those who spoke of this new Buddhist resurgence invariably called it a “revival”. Their use of the term was based on a series of assumptions concerning Buddhism’s historical rise, decline—and now rebirth—in the Indian subcontinent over the past two-and-a-half millenia. According to these histories, roughly 2,500 years ago, a prince named Siddhattha Gotama (Sanskrit, Siddhartha Gautama), was born in Lumbini, a small hamlet not far from Kapilavatthu the capital of the Sakya kingdom, in what is today southern Nepal. Early Buddhist tradition records that this was the last of his countless rebirths: the culmination of a practice founded on moral conduct (sila), mental discipline (samadhi), and >wisdom (panna), perfected over many lifetimes. At the age of twenty-nine, Gotama renounced the luxuries of royal life, and traveled on foot across the Gangetic Plains in search of liberation from human suffering (dukkha). After six torturous years mastering yogic techniques and attaining the highest states of meditative consciousness (dhyana / jhana), he came to the conclusion that neither self-denial nor hedonism were meaningful paths.

While sitting under a bo tree in Bodh Gaya (in modern-day India’s Bihar), he “awakened” to the true nature of suffering and the path that leads to its cessation (nirvana). During the next forty-five years, he organized a community (sangha) of disciples, all the while teaching the dhamma to kings and queens, merchants and mendicants, farmers and criminals, all and sundry. At the age of eighty, he laid his head between two sala trees at Kushinagar (modern-day Uttar Pradesh), attaining mahaparinirvana or ultimate release from the cycle of life and death. In the centuries after his death, South Asian political and mercantile elites continued to support the community of monastics gathered in his name. There were many great patrons, none more luminous than the enigmatic Mauryan emperor, Ashoka (r. 269–232 BCE). Inspired by Buddhism’s message of universal equality and loving kindness, Ashoka renounced war and evangelized the Buddha’s Word (buddhavacana) across his empire and beyond. For centuries after, nearly all South Asians gave praise to the Fully Awakened One (samyak sambuddha). Even as respect for the great teacher of gods (shasta deva) gathered momentum across the rest of Asia, it gradually lost support in its homeland. While the precise reasons behind Buddhism’s decline in India remain debated, the scholarly community is fairly unified in its belief that by the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries, it had “all but disappeared”.2

Scholarship on Indian Buddhism, between its purported disappearance and modern revival, has grown significantly in recent years. Yet, it constitutes only a fraction of the literature focused elsewhere in Asia or on other periods of Indian history. The consensus is threefold. First, most Buddhists in contemporary India are dalits, who began converting to Buddhism en masse under the leadership of Dr B.R. Ambedkar (1891–1956). Second, just a century prior to this momentous turn, most of India’s ancient Buddhist spaces were decrepit, more likely to be visited by British antiquarians than Buddhist monks. Third, only after the founding of Anagarika Dharmapala’s >Maha Bodhi Society in Calcutta in 1891, did Buddhists from across the globe begin traveling to India in large numbers, thereby reinvigorating and reshaping ancient networks of pilgrimage and cultural exchange. This three-pronged narrative, however, belies a much more complex history.

In rewriting this narrative, Dust on the Throne makes four specific interventions. First, it contends that the theory of Buddhism’s “disappearance” from the subcontinent is little more than a useful fiction, deployed to wash over a more complicated historical terrain involving periodic Buddhist resurgences and trans-regional pilgrimage networks. Second, to the extent that Buddhist institutions declined in the subcontinent—and there is no doubt that they were decimated—it argues that their colonial revival was led as much by Indians and other Asians as it was by Europeans, who are still regularly credited with Buddhism’s rediscovery and revival (Almond 1988; Allen 2002, 2010, 2012). Third, the book shows that India’s modern Buddhist revival began nearly a century before 1956, when the Indian government celebrated “2,500 years of Buddhism” and when Ambedkar led half a million converts to the dhamma in an unprecedented public event. Fourth, it argues that the revival of Buddhism in colonial and early postcolonial India gave significant shape to modern Indian history, from the making of Hindu nationalism and Hindu reform movements, to dalit and anti-caste activism, Indian leftism, and Nehruvian secular democracy. By recovering the history of Buddhism in India by Indians of all stripes, the book offers a corrective to the pervasive Eurocentrism of so much anglophone scholarship on the subject. Dust on the Throne primarily studies the period from the early decades of the nineteenth century up through the middle of the twentieth, looking at the disparate colonial-era Indian figures and institutions whose efforts to revive—or suppress—Buddhism have largely gone unnoticed.3

Un-archived Histories and Useful Fictions

In retelling the history of modern Buddhism in India, we must first acknowledge what can and cannot be done. All histories are selective. Its writing comprises selection and criticism, framing and simplification. The very work of writing history involves erasure, just as remembering involves forgetting (Davis and Zhong 2017). As histories develop, so do theories that >structure narratives and create the conditions through which reasonable inquiries can be made. When confronted with data that does not fit into existing paradigms, historians have been known to disregard the evidence, uneasy with narratives that challenge the ones they invest in and create.

Reconstructions of the past, then, are full of what the historian, Gyanendra Pandey (2012, 2013), calls “un-archived histories”. An un-archived history is not a history that does not have an archive, but rather that which has been “un-archived”—marginalized, ignored, disenfranchised, and pushed out of reference or recall. “The very process of archiving,” Pandey (2012: 38) writes, “is accompanied by a process of ‘un-archiving’: rendering many aspects of social, cultural, political relations in the past and the present as incidental, chaotic, trivial, inconsequential, and therefore unhistorical.” 4 All cultures suffer from it, whether in the marginalization of working-class and peasant histories, the silencing of racialized and indigenous peoples in the Americas, or the erasure of dalit voices in South Asian historiography. The figures, institutions, and ideas explored in this book were at times, and to varying degrees, also prone to this kind of un-archiving. But their histories, long absent in the academy, have much bearing on the study of India, and of Buddhism more widely.

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.5 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”.6 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.7 Two centuries of archaeological excavation and textual scholarship now point to a long, enduring, and “unarchived” Indian Buddhist afterlife that extends to the modern day.

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).8 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).9 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).10 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).11 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 catacalysmic 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.

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).12 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!13 Nepal is not the only blind spot in the wider historiography.

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 [1798] 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.).14

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.15 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.16 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.”17 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.18

Similar evidence for the survival of Buddhism well into the sixteenth century is found throughout the Prachi Valley southeast of Bhubaneswar in Odisha. This region, abounding in massive Buddhist monuments and structures dating from the tenth to twelfth centuries, appears to have been the scene of a rather violent conflict in the early 1500s. According to both the Odia-language chronicle, Madalapanji, and Ishvara Das’s Bengali-language Chaitanya Bhagavat (c. 1580s), the Gajapati king, Prataparudra Deva (r. 1497–1540), perpetrated large-scale persecution of several hundred Buddhists around the year 1530. The leader of these “crypto-Buddhists,” as the scholar Nagendranath Vasu (1911: clxxvi) called them, was a nath siddha adept named Veersingh, who, under the threat of death, adopted external Vaishnava doctrines and adornments while privately adhering to Buddhist teachings. Despite Vasu’s concerns about whether these communities were “pure” and “authentic” Buddhists—hence the “crypto” moniker—what is less debated is Prataparudra’s persecution of a community understood locally as Buddhist in the early sixteenth century (Verardi 2011: 372–76; Mukherjee 1940: 53–54).

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.

One major source of disagreement among these scholars is less in the set of data being examined than in its interpretation. That is, this is as much a matter of how one defines what is Indian (or Indic) as it is a matter of how one defines Buddhism.19 A useful litmus test for gauging this vexed issue is the case of the sixteenth-century yogi, Buddhagupta-natha (1514–1610). Buddhagupta was neither an ordained monk (bhikkhu) nor the product of a major monastic institute (mahavihara), but a yogi who had studied with a number of other non-monastics (Waddel 1893; Tucci 1931; Templeman 1997). The accounts of Buddhagupta’s studies with Buddhist teachers in India, described in a colorful seventeenth-century Tibetan biography (namthar), are often dismissed on the grounds that his instructors belonged to wandering groups of ascetics (naths), which comprised both Buddhist and non-Buddhist (primarily Shaiva) communities (siddha sampradaya). Uncomfortable with these religiously plural arrangements, some scholars (cf. Huber 2008: 171–72, 205–07) have argued that Buddhagupta’s teachings were essentially tainted, having been mistaken as Buddhist by his all too gullible student, the Jonangpa Buddhist master and historian, Taranatha (1575–1635). That is, Buddhagupta’s Buddhist credentials, despite being (mostly) acceptable to Taranatha, fell somewhat short of the normative standards of what many colonial and postcolonial scholars considered “authentic Buddhism”.

The fact that Buddhagupta was shaped as much by Shaiva customs as by Vajrayana Buddhist norms is not to be dismissed. It speaks to Indian Buddhism’s precarious position in the early seventeenth-century world. Equally, none of this should make us blind to the fact that in that historical >moment, there still existed a few Indians who were seen as fully capable of teaching the words of the Buddha (Mallinson 2019). Now, the fact that most accounts of other Buddhagupta-like figures emerge from the pens of Tibetan rather than Indian writers may say more about Tibetan notions of Buddhism than about existing Indian attitudes. But the underlying point remains the same: simply because it does not look Buddhist to us today does not mean it was not seen as Buddhist then.20

Numerous scholars (cf. Lopez 1995; Almond 1988) have shown that the colonial figures who defined Buddhism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries associated it with a rational, textual tradition typically codified through Pali (and, to a lesser degree, Sanskrit) scriptures. Whether they were themselves Protestant Christians or not, these scholars tended to understand Buddhism in terms of Christian history. It was, in their eyes, a religion that not only fought against a caste-obsessed brahmanical priesthood (the equivalent to the Pharisees) but had also deviated from its “original” teaching, which had become (like the Catholic Church) bound by superstitious practices and “absurd” theological complexities. As they constructed the grand narrative of India’s Buddhist past, there was a palpable scholarly deference towards the “true” geographical landscape that Buddha Shakyamuni was believed to have traversed (Allen 2002, 2012). It is these factors that appear to be so closely linked to the enduring theory of Buddhism’s “disappearance” between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, for this was precisely the period when the kinds of Buddhism so privileged by colonial scholars—institutionalized, monastic, nikaya forms—disappeared. What remained were traditions of wandering yogis, outcastes, tribal practitioners of tantra and magic—forms of practice deemed “un-Buddhist” by the religion’s modern curators. When they encountered evidence that contradicted theories of Buddhism’s disappearance, they cleverly redefined their terms, thereby ignoring the relationships of patronage, lay praxis, and intra-religious discussion that continued well into later centuries (Davidson 2002). Despite Gregory Schopen’s (1991) important argument that studies of Buddhism in India have been driven by Protestant suppositions that locate “authentic Buddhism” within elite texts and monastic walls, there is a stubborn reluctance to extend the lens through which we understand Buddhism’s late Indic formations. In other >words, simply because Indic Buddhism after the fourteenth century did not meet the normative definition of what scholars and practitioners (European, Asian, or otherwise) felt a Buddhist was or should look like, does not mean that it died. The only way to substantiate such a claim is to view India as a hermetically sealed container, bounded by national walls that had yet to be built and religious divisions that had yet to crystallize with such concrete force.

The Architecture of the Argument

Buddhist revival in India was often discussed in the colonial period as if it was a singular monolithic movement. In reality, it produced a wide spectrum of interpretations and therefore requires a number of different lenses. Like the history of modern Buddhism more widely, Indian Buddhism’s modern formation was deeply shaped by global networks. Scholars who study these networks have demonstrated that changes wrought by the expansion of imperial power, international commercial interests, and the “death of long distance”—the communications and transportation revolutions wrought by steamships, railways, telegraphs, etc.—laid the foundation for an unprecedented era of global religious activity.21 In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was the expansion of British rule over the Indian subcontinent and the formation of empires and colonies across Asia that conditioned the nature and flow of these networks (C. Bayly 1998, 2004).22

The main body of this book is loosely chronological with each chapter exploring different facets of modern Indian Buddhism. Chapter 1 surveys the long history of Buddhism in India, as conceived of and remembered by Indians during the early colonial encounter. By looking at a variety of primary sources, including Sanskrit, Odia, Tamil, and Bengali texts (hagiographies, temple chronicles, Puranas, and scholastic manuals) as well as early nineteenth-century surveyors’ reports, memoirs, correspondence, and scholarly articles, the chapter provides concrete evidence of a robust memory of and conversation regarding Buddhism among indigenous scholars, literati, and ascetics up through the early decades of the colonial encounter.

>The second chapter highlights how popular Indian memories of Buddhists and the Buddha were re-evaluated in light of new epistemological interpretations provided by philologists and archaeologists in the second half of the nineteenth century. The stage for this discussion was provided by the dramatic shifts in Britain’s colonial education policies during the 1850s and the institutionalization of “scientific” methodologies. These gave rise to a new generation of English-educated Indians with critical “academic” interests in Buddhist material culture and ideas. How was the new interpretation of Buddhism received in the public sphere? The following chapter turns away from the specialized world of critical Indian scholarship and examines the public culture and religious networks and associations that propelled Buddhism’s popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Buddhist images and ideas had by then become familiar and commonplace to many Indians through popular literature, military service in Buddhist lands, and new religious movements. Knowledge of Buddhism, however, was not a mass phenomenon, being more likely to be held by literate upper-caste males in the urban strongholds of provincial capitals; although, Buddhist borderlands and hubs like Bodh Gaya or Darjeeling always proved important exceptions as did the movement among casteless Tamils in southern India. The pan-Indian popularity of works like Sir Edwin Arnold’s The Light of Asia (1879) speaks precisely to this phenomenon (Ober 2021; Ramesh 2021). The chapter follows these trends by turning to the interlinked but often competing views of Buddhism espoused by diverse groups like the regional monastic networks in Arakan, the Theosophical Society, the new Buddhist organizations led by dalits in southern India, the Chittagong Buddhists in Bengal, and the South Asian Hindu–Buddhist elites in the Maha Bodhi Society.

Chapter 4 shifts attention to the dominant Indian and, in particular, brahmanical–Hindu response to these developments. The modern Hindu appropriation of Buddhism—captured succinctly by the popular phrase, “The Buddha was born, lived, and died a Hindu”—was molded by sociopolitical circumstance. Driven by political pragmatism, a growing sense of pan-Asianism, and the rise of Hindutva ideologies, a number of Hindu groups and intellectuals immersed themselves in Buddhist teachings and practices. It was, however, the right-wing Hindu organization, the All-India >Hindu Maha Sabha, and its industrialist sponsors, the Birlas, that became the foremost patrons of Buddhist construction and publishing projects. This had wide-ranging and contradictory effects. The Maha Sabha and other Hindu associations’ support helped transform brahmanical Hindu attitudes towards Buddhism from stigma and exclusion to lukewarm adoration and unease. At the same time, they appropriated it for their own ends, characterizing it as little more than modern Hindu values, thereby erasing distinctive Buddhist qualities and, in effect, invalidating Buddhism’s very existence as a separate tradition (for an apt illustration of this, see Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s (1950) introduction to his translation of the Dhammapada). This process of Buddhist engagement via total amalgamation remains the dominant lens through which most Hindus understand the religion today.

However, not all Indians subscribed to the above view. Dissent was strongest among an influential group of Indian leftists and dalit intellectuals who felt that the rhetoric of a Hindu Buddha washed over a long history of distinctive identities and religious tensions. Set against a backdrop of emergent socialist paradigms and national debates on caste reform, the fifth and sixth chapters show how these two groups forged a revolutionary Buddhist ethos based on the ideals of socio-economic equality and anti-caste politics. Although the groups shared similar concerns for the suffering of India’s impoverished populations and drew from common pools of Buddhist thought, the political strategies they employed and ideological conventions on which they depended led them down different paths. From the subaltern publics of Lucknow, Madras, and Calicut arose an anti-caste Buddhist activism that later found voice in the mass conversions of Ambedkarite dalits from 1956 onwards. Concurrent political shifts in Congress politics and the Soviet Union led a number of Indian leftists to understand “pure” Buddhism as a kind of socialist humanism that could engender a world of radical equality and enlightened social beings. In the former anti-caste movement, being Buddhist was at the forefront of one’s non-Hindu caste-free identity, whereas in the latter leftist movement, attachments to religious identities, including Buddhism, were seen as revisionist and counter-revolutionary. And still, both movements considered Buddhism to be at the forefront of a modern movement for inclusion, equality, and a life well lived.

>Among those influenced by the colonial search for Buddhism was India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. The final chapter argues that visions of a Buddhist past, particularly under the Mauryan emperor Ashoka, had a powerful impact on Nehru and the members of his cabinet. The chapter delves into “Nehruvian Buddhism,” or the state’s promotion of Buddhism in both domestic and foreign affairs. 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 mass conversions of Ambedkarite Buddhists in 1956, followed by the exile of the Dalai Lama to India in 1959, and finally, the Chinese invasion of India in 1962, it continues to play a role in India’s external affairs to this day.

The beginning and end of the book are both marked by two symbolic moments. The first moment took place in 1839. That year, the ghost of India’s Buddhist past returned to the subcontinent through the translation and publication of a newly “discovered” Sanskrit Buddhist manuscript, the Vajrasuchi, whose sustained criticism of entrenched brahmanical Hindu norms did not go unnoticed. Over the next century, the Vajrasuchi, in all its many translations, became a staple of modern Indian Buddhist ideology. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the book ends around 1956, a year that for scholars of South Asia holds a much more obvious bearing. Not only did some half a million dalits convert to Buddhism in October that year, in a striking demonstration of unity and defiance, the event also coincided with a very differently imagined year-long celebration honoring “2,500 Years of Buddhism,” orchestrated by Prime Minister Nehru. These prominent events in the 1950s mark the end of this survey. After which, India’s encounters and conversations with Buddhism were gradually pulled in other directions.

Place-Making and Social Publics

Reconstructing the past is far from simple, even in places and times with detailed written records (Rahman 2010; Finney 2014). According to the British philosopher and historian, R.G. Collingwood ([1933] 2013: 82), the only solid things history possess are the “traces of itself,” the concrete relics in the >form of texts, art, objects, and so on. There may be visual, oral, and literary accounts to help guide our reading of these materials—the how, what, when, and where of history—but our ability to truly grasp the world in which they dwelled is to a large degree guided by human imagination. The more that imagination is informed, the more sophisticated our understanding can be.

Ordinarily, non-specialists do not engage in the sort of formalized historical reconstructions that Collingwood describes. Instead, history is typically conceived through what the anthropologist Keith Basso (1996: 7) called “place-making,” or bringing the past into the present. According to Basso, thinking about the past and our relationship to it, is probably the most consequential tool in the study of history. The past is always there, and even the most trivial of things can instigate the journey:

pThe restrictions on local travel are virtually nonexistent (memory and imagination, the most intimate and inventive of traveling companions, always see to that) … [and] getting there is quick and efficient (a quiet moment or two is usually sufficient to make the transition) (3).

In day-to-day place-making, deep histories may not be recognized at all, with most time spent dwelling on the familiar, mundane, and trivial. Yet, our surroundings, Basso tells us, carry the marks of time, and occasionally something does unsettle our habitual patterns of thought and move us to contemplate other place-worlds. The catalyst may be instantaneous, time changes and “ordinary perceptions begin to loosen their hold … [awareness] has shifted its footing, and the character of the place, now transfigured by thoughts of an earlier day, swiftly takes on a new and foreign look” (4).

This revitalization of places where memories are stored, that carry the mark of time, reveals the underlying conceptual shifts in the making of modern Indian Buddhism. In his memoir, written in the mid-1940s, Jawaharlal Nehru engaged in his own place-making:

pIn my own city of Allahabad or in Hardwar I would go to the great bathing festivals, the Kumbh Mela, and see hundreds of thousands of people come, as their forebears had come for thousands of years from all over India, to bathe in the Ganges. I would remember descriptions of these festivals written thirteen hundred years ago by Chinese pilgrims and others, and even these melas were ancient and lost in an >unknown antiquity …. To a somewhat bare intellectual understanding was added an emotional appreciation, and gradually a sense of reality began to creep into my mental picture of India, and the land of my forefathers became peopled with living beings, who laughed and wept, loved and suffered (Nehru [1946] 1985a: 131–32).

As Nehru traveled across India for thousands of miles, campaigning as a leading Congress politician, shaking the hands of strangers, and visiting India’s storied sites, memories of a long-gone past intensified his understanding of the land. When he traveled to Sarnath to visit the famous Deer Park (Mrigadava), Nehru invented a place-world swept by the ethical guidelines inscribed on the Ashokan pillar and where the Buddha spoke words of wisdom under the shade of a banyan tree. “Tell all the people,” the Buddha says in Nehru’s voice, “the poor and the lowly, the rich and the high, are all one, and that all castes unite in this religion as do rivers in the sea” (129). Within this familiar, yet distant realm, Nehru lingered, until, as Basso (1996: 6) explains, “it started to fade, as every place-world must.”

According to Basso, the places-worlds we visit are shaped by the “congenial places of experiential terrain: the terrain of one’s youth, perhaps, or of where one’s forebears lived, or of decisive events that altered the course of history” (3). Yet, building place-worlds is not only about reviving times gone by and reliving the past but also about revising them and shaping them in new ways. Place-worlds, in other words, may be constitutive of past historical moments, but their significance and meaning will forever be constructed, interrogated, and fashioned for someone actively imagining them. This process of creating place-worlds, of comparing contents, evaluating strengths and weaknesses, and pondering their significance is a regular, collective, social process, “as common and straightforward as it is sometimes highly inventive” (7).

This book tells the stories of individuals and communities who wished to make “the stuff” (7) of Buddhist place-worlds alive again. As the following chapters describe, this task could not be so easily accomplished. For if the place-maker’s main objective is to speak the past into being, to summon it with words and objects, and give it dramatic, living form, to produce an experience of place-worlds and not just speak of them, there was an even >greater number of individuals who sought to produce the experiences of place-worlds either wholly separate from Buddhist ones or impressioned with a different lens. That is, the process through which one place-world becomes more widely accepted than another may depend on how credible and convincing they seem, the charisma and authority of those who describe them, or even the political conditions under which certain accounts may be authorized, archived, and un-archived. This work aims to recover the complexity of this pivotal moment in modern Indian and modern Buddhist history.


1 The total number of Buddhists listed in the most recent census at the time was 232,003 (East India Census 1943: 6).

2 Some scholars lay the primary blame on the sangha’s own social failures and corruptions. Others point fingers at a resurgent and often antagonistic brahmanism. Most see the destructive raids of Muslim armies from the Central Asian steppe as the final culprit, although this thesis is becoming increasingly untenable. See, R.C. Mitra (1954); Sarao (2012); Verardi (2011); Truschke (2018).

3 With the exception of studies on Ambedkar, which typically see him as the starting point for Buddhist revival rather than part of a much longer genealogy, most critical studies have failed to consider Buddhism’s impact on colonial Indian publics. Some noteworthy book-length exceptions include: Aloysius (1998); Ayyathurai (2011); Surendran (2013). Prior to these works, the late Dinesh Chandra Ahir (1989; 1991; 2010) paved the way in collecting histories of Indian Buddhist revival. Although one of the goals of this work is to de-center the conventional stories around India’s Buddhist revival, including that of Ambedkar, the impact that the latter has had on modern Indian Buddhism is nearly as great as the sum of other parts. Some readers may be disappointed to see less space dedicated to Ambedkar in this work. What I hope the book shows is that although the immediate motives for Ambedkar’s journey to Buddhism was deeply personal, it also belonged to a broader historical movement in which South Asians of different persuasions were pushed to engage with the Buddha, whether they liked it or not. If we fail to appreciate this wider setting, our understanding of Ambedkar will continue to be impoverished.

4 Emphasis added. Readers familiar with Pandey’s argument, developed further in his book, A History of Prejudice (Pandey 2013), will recognize how my use differs slightly from his. Pandey’s primary interests are in those >aspects of life which are deemed so trivial, everyday, and ordinary by those who experience them, that they rarely warrant entry into historical archive.

5 For instance, one of the most popular introductory textbooks on Buddhism used in North American colleges and universities (Mitchell 2008: 153–58), uses the term “extinction” as its header for the final chapter on Indian Buddhism.

6 “All but disappeared” has taken on a meme-like quality in innumerable works, repeated by dozens of scholars like Gethin (1998: 8), Lopez (2009: 6; 2012: 34), B. Turner (2014: 193), Keown (2013: 78), and Keown and Prebish (2013: 418). In Sarao’s more recent work (2012: 6), he takes a more nuanced position and acknowledges that calling it a disappearance or death is not exactly an accurate characterization.

7 The doyen of modern Buddhist studies, Donald Lopez (2012: 39), writes, “there were no Buddhists living in India during the colonial period.” Similarly, in an otherwise excellent work that does much to illuminate Buddhism’s place in colonial India, the anthropologist, Steven Kemper (2015: 274fn102), reduces colonial India’s living Buddhist communities to a single footnote, calling them “infinitesimal” (and therefore not deserving of discussion). For a critique of modern scholarship’s stance on the “death” of Indian Buddhism, see McKeown (2019).

8 The history of the complex has been discussed in detail by Huber (2008: 193–231).

9 According to Sen (2017: 73), it is less clear whether this journey constituted a “religious pilgrimage”.

10 Of the several re-creations that Brown discusses, the two latest constructions are the Schwegugyi temple in Pegu, dated to roughly 1460–70, and the Wat Chet Yot in Chiang Mai, dated to approximately 1455–70 (Brown 1988).

11 The Sanskrit manuscripts copied included the Kalacakratantra (dated 1447 CE, from the village of Kerki, Gaya district) and Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara (dated 1436 CE, from Nalanda district).

12 In the twentieth century, many Newar Buddhists have turned away from Sanskrit Mahayana practices in exchange for Theravada-inspired models of Buddhism (LeVine and Gellner 2005).

13 The basis of the argument stems from the fact that the Buddha’s birthplace falls within Nepal’s national territory rather than India’s. We should remember, however, that Nepal was only recognized by the British colonial government as an independent kingdom in 1923. From the perspective of the Raj, it was effectively seen as little different from other Indian protectorates during the century prior (Mojumdar 1973: 191). This may help explain why some colonial scholars, like Sylvain Lévi, tended to see Newar Buddhism as part of a wider Indic Buddhism. For a concise overview of the debate, see Gellner (2018).

14 On the nation’s role in shaping historical paradigms, see Duara (1995); Anderson (1991).

15 For an insightful study of issues around the terms “periphery” and “borderlands” in the Indian context, see Baruah (1999, 2020).

16 Here, I rely on the Taw Sein Ko translation (The Kalyani Inscriptions 1892).

17 Hikosaka (1989: 177–98) dates the images to the end of the sixteenth century and is more ambivalent than Dehejia regarding their actual ritual use and production. Seshadri’s (2009: 130) thoughtful review of the literary and archaeological evidence at Nagapattinam led him to wonder “if there was any native Buddhist population at all in the city or whether all the vihara activities were mainly for inland and foreign transit merchants.” In a personal communication (29 June 2019), Arthur McKeown suggests these images were likely being produced for Shaiva communities and would have been heavily adorned with ritual vestments and fabrics to conceal their Buddhist identity. Ray (2015) has also provided a thorough examination of Nagapattinam’s maritime landscapes and Buddhist past. Her argument that the port’s Buddhist past has been marginalized due to broader historiographical trends focused on the expansion of agrarian states is well taken and serves as another explanation for why Buddhist histories from this region and period have failed to make bigger imprints in the historiography.

18 Some forty miles west of Nagapattinam, an inscription found outside a Shaiva temple in Kumbakonam district (taluk), dated 1579 or 1580, records the grant of land to the people of Tirumalairajapuram for a Buddhist temple (Tamil, buddar-koyil) as compensation for having to build a canal through the existing vihara’s property (Rao 1927–28: 215–17; Vriddhagirisan [1942] 1995: 31–32).

19 In some cases, the difference in interpretation stems from the examination of a different set of data, but for the most part the evidence for Buddhism’s post-fifteenth-century survival was well known to scholars writing after the 1930s.

20 As McKeown (2019) argues, both colonial and postcolonial scholars are well aware of these late Indian Buddhist masters, but in order to fit the data to the theory, they have continually redefined their definitions of Buddhism to denote only a strict adherence to institutionalized, monastic forms, thereby allowing them to dismiss Vajrayana Buddhist practices as inauthentic. This academic desire to define “authentic” and “inauthentic” forms of religion also speaks well to the Western encounter with Tibetan Buddhism. For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Tibetan Buddhism was seen as little more than “Lamaism”—a derogatory term. Yet, judging by the presence of Tibetan Buddhist centers in North America today, it has become one of the most “authentic” forms of Buddhism in the western hemisphere.

21 I am indebted to C. Bayly (2004); Jaffe (2004; 2019); Blackburn (2010); Green (2011); Turner, Cox, and Bocking (2013; 2020), for my understanding on this subject.

22 This model of networks and flows is by no means a rigid break with the past. Buddhist ideas, practices, and peoples have crossed Asia since its very inception through similar means (Frasch 1998; Sen 2003; Neelis 2011).