I have been studying the social dynamics of ancient Buddhism for decades now. This religion has irrevocably shaped the shared history and social structures of this subcontinent in ways we haven’t yet been able to fully grasp. In this context, reading Douglas Ober’s Dust on the Throne: The Search for Buddhism in Modern India, was a revelation. We often think that we have a more straightforward understanding of the modern story of our world. Ober, whose book was shortlisted for the 2023 Cundhill History Prize, busts these easy assumptions and shows us how the Buddhist revival in India over the past two hundred years has a much more complex history than we knew. I conducted this interview with him over email:
Dust on the Throne pursues a most unusual line of enquiry or so it seems to me as a scholar of early Buddhism who was interested in its social dimensions, including the origins of the Buddha’s followers, which is not a subject most scholars are really interested in. You tell the story from the nineteenth century onwards which is very valuable. How and why did you undertake this line of inquiry during a time when interest in Buddhism in academic circles seems to have declined in India?
There wasn’t really a defining moment but I suppose it emerged out of two separate but related developments. First, long before I started my PhD, I had spent a lot of time in South Asia, mostly in Nepal, Bhutan, northern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. In those days, I was quite interested in Buddhist practice and history so I often sought out sites where there were either Buddhist communities or traces of a Buddhist past. Those experiences centred my understanding of Buddhism – seeing it as something that was transnational, grounded in everyday lives, and connected deeply to the past.
The second development occurred when I started my PhD at the University of British Columbia. It began as a project on the history of Tibetan refugees and Himalayan Buddhists. But as I began digging deeper into that past, I realised there was a large gap in the historical narrative, from the time that Buddhism supposedly disappeared from India in the 12th to 14th centuries to its modern revival with Ambedkar’s conversion in 1956 and the arrival of thousands of Tibetan Buddhist refugees just three years later. I had read a lot about the British discovery of Buddhism in colonial India but it seemed to me that something was missing in that story.
Was the “revival” of Buddhism a consequence of the search for what I might call an oppositional imagination, another way of being, another way to shape the future of India from the stultifying society it seemed to have become? Did your research lead you to see the revival of Buddhism as a recognition of the search for an alternative imagination?
Yes, absolutely. The way in which Buddhism came to be re-imagined in the colonial era was a stark contrast to the way that it had been remembered by previous generations in India. After Buddhism’s decline, the memory of it was preserved in oral traditions, manuscripts, and art, but so much of this memory was conditioned by a kind of Brahmanical disdain, or at best ambiguity towards the Buddhist past. While the influence of these Brahmanical views varied from region to region and community to community, they coloured the views of many people.
That changed in the 19th century when Indians of all walks of life encountered the Buddhist past through archaeological and textual sources. As Indians re-discovered the lost grandeur of the Ashokan pillars, read little-known Buddhist texts, and travelled to ancient Buddhist sites like Bodh Gaya and Kushinagar – where Buddhists from across the globe were also beginning to once again congregate – they began scrutinising the past and what they had been taught about it. It reminded people that time is not linear, but instead a fluid continuum, where the past, present, and future coexist. As all of this unfolded – and as it continues to for many people today – it sparked new imaginations of the past.
Your first chapter opens with the re-discovery of the Vajrasuci, the Buddhist polemical text on caste which is a strong critique of the Brahmanical position on caste hierarchy. The insistence of the Brahmin, translation-collaborator Subajee Bapu that his rebuttal of the Vajrasuci must accompany the text indicates clearly that Brahmins knew of the dangers of publishing this text and how it would lead to debates on caste in the future. Yet the elites who were very invested in treating Buddhism and Hinduism as one came to dominate the public imagination, especially in the writings of S Radhakrishnan, Annie Besant, and luminaries of the Buddhism revival project including the radical Anagarika Dharmapala. Did all this come as a surprise to you during your research process?
So much surprised me in researching this book. I had not anticipated the ways figures like Radhakrishnan, Besant, Gandhi, and others appropriated Buddhism. For Dharmapala, it’s unclear what he really felt about the relationship between Hinduism and Buddhism. His goal was to gain Buddhist control over the Maha Bodhi Temple complex and he played the political winds as he saw fit, presenting a different Buddhism for almost every constituency. Sometimes he argued Buddhism was a part of Hinduism. On other occasions, he argued the opposite. But from an early period, he threw his hat in with Hindu elites (mostly Bengalis) as he was convinced that their growing enthusiasm for the Buddha would lead to a common cause. This enabled Dharmapala’s Maha Bodhi Society to gain recognition and support from many of the country’s nationalist elite but it also alienated the growing masses of oppressed castes that would eventually gather around leaders like Iyothee Thass or Ambedkar.
Did you find that the re-discovery of Buddhism also consciously becomes the mythos of the reforming strand of Indian elites’ claim for a modernising impulse and thereby a claim about the greatness of India’s past?
Yes, many Indian elites saw Buddhism as a system of ethics and morality that could help usher India into the modern era. It was envisioned as an important part of India’s civilisational heritage that needed to be recovered. All nations need a past, and as the modern Indian nation began to take a more cohesive form, many elites were quite proud to call the Buddha their own. He was, in their view, the first great ethicist and someone whose teachings were more philosophy than religion, more science than dogma. They were proud of the fact that an Indian dharma had so profoundly shaped the history of Asia. There were some important exceptions to this though. The reform-minded Arya Samaj, for instance, was fervently anti-Buddhist in its first several decades and only in the early 1900s did it begin to soften its position and begin speaking of it as part of a glorious Indian past. The All-India Hindu Mahasabha, which included both Sanatan and reform-minded Hindus, was equally ambivalent about Buddhist ethics but it had no problem claiming the Buddha as a Hindu reformer.
How significant do you believe were the archaeological findings of the colonial government in the “re”discovery of Buddhism in the 19th century?
Their importance can hardly be overestimated. I think that too much emphasis has often been placed on the textual reconstruction of Buddhism undertaken by pandits and Orientalists. This is not to say that it was insignificant but in an era in which empiricism reigned, there was a real scholarly deference for the geographical sites where the Buddha was believed to have walked himself. Literary traditions spoke of these sites but it was archaeology and its related fields that lent a tangible ground to the events, locales and memories contained in these traditions. This is what gave archaeology its prestige, for without it, myth and history can be difficult to separate. Just as importantly, archaeology rooted Buddhism in the landscape, marking the territory of the modern nation as synonymous with the karmabhoomi of the Buddha. We all know how critical land and territory is to nation-states and this helped cement Buddhism’s place in the nation.
One of the most fascinating parts of your book is the section that explores the provincial, almost subaltern, interest in Buddhism and its revival among figures like Mahavir Singh, the akhara wrestler from Bihar who becomes a huge champion of the revival of Buddhism. Mahavir’s investment in the revival of Buddhism adds an unknown dimension to this history. How did you find Mahavir and what do Indian elites need to take away from this account in your book? What drew these homegrown characters to be drawn to the seductive power of the Buddha and to throw themselves into the project of its revival?
Mahavir Singh is an intriguing character and his full story is yet to be told. There are several short biographies of him in Hindi but there are also competing accounts in Burmese, especially among the Rakhine, who claim him as a Maramagyi/Barua. He also appears in the diaries of Dharmapala and in the travel memoirs of Dharmanand Kosambi and Rahul Sankrityayan, as well as in multiple archaeological survey reports and in (at least) a few Bengali-language sources. Basically, he was everywhere, but in official history, he is nowhere.
There were many individuals like him who have essentially been erased. Part of this stems from the simple fact that he didn’t leave his own written record. History privileges the written word so he just disappears. But it’s also a shortcoming of the Anglo-centric nature of so much scholarship on Buddhist modernities. Studies of a more “vernacular” Buddhism are badly needed. When we miss someone like Mahavir, we miss a key thread in the re-establishment of Buddhism in India. Not only was Mahavir’s Buddhism a product of a regimented, monastic world in Sri Lanka and Burma – and not of Orientalist scholarship – but he also holds a major place in modern Buddhist history. After all, his primary disciple was U Chandramani (1875-1972), the Arakanese-Burmese bhikkhu who presided over Ambedkar’s conversion in Nagpur in October 1956. That alone is something worth investigating.
Another riveting part of your book is an account of explicit tensions between the revivalist and reformist groups in southern India, Sri Lanka, the Theosophical Society, and the Maha Bodhi Society. Given the emergence of radical “low” caste groups in Tamil Nadu, how do you see the carefully crafted position that Buddhism and Brahmanism were not opposed to each other successfully emerging in the 19th century?
It’s a complicated narrative to be sure. As I already mentioned, I think Dharmapala’s position in the Maha Bodhi Society was one where he aligned himself with the Bengali bhadralok in the hopes that they would support his cause to reclaim the Maha Bodhi Temple. As a result, he distanced himself from figures like Thass and the Shakya Buddhist Society because their anti-caste commitments were too threatening to his core constituency and patrons. The feeling was mutual and Thass publicly lambasted the Maha Bodhi Society in Tamil for its casteism. Henry Olcott was more eager to spread Buddhism in southern India among so-called low caste groups. We should remember that Olcott had arranged for Thass and his companions to travel to Ceylon to take deeksha with the Sinhalese master, Hikkaduve Sumangala.
But Olcott’s role as President of the Theosophical Society also created challenges since officially, he was forbidden from proselytisation of that sort and he had to carefully navigate the complex social terrain. Of course, by this time Olcott and Dharmapala had already had their falling out and after Olcott died in 1907, the Theosophical Society’s propagation of Buddhism took a backseat under the influence of Annie Besant. Besant had no interest in Buddhism and she had many terrible things to say about the Depressed Classes, even arguing that they needed to be controlled and forced to do labour. As all of this unfolded, the Maha Bodhi Society began to work more closely with the Hindu right although there always remained anti-caste radicals within the organisation who were deeply critical of these relationships.
There’s a missing element in this story of revival, which is the presence of women in the revivalist project. Given that rich women /widows in Calcutta-funded temples sometimes outbid the men, their absence from the revivalist project is striking. Is this because there were no women, rich or otherwise, in this project? Or have we failed to find them? Given the manner in which Sujata is retrieved in Bengali literature or that Tagore wrote Chandalika on the low caste woman converted by Ananda to become a bhikkhuni, this is lacunae in our retrieval of Buddhism. I know from anecdotal evidence that Therigatha was being read by a self-taught woman in the salt pans in Tamil Nadu in the early 1940s. Is there a missing story here?
This is the missing story and as I state in the book, what I’ve produced is in many ways yet another male history of Buddhism. There were women but in the archives that I explored, they rarely appear, except as subjects being described and defined by men. We know from Bengali, Malayalam, and Tamil records that women were active in many of these movements but in my own research, I was unable to discover more about them. I think this would be a great project for someone to undertake.
The last part of the book dwells on an important dimension of the collapsing of Buddhism into Hinduism as a project that seems to succeed thanks to the power of capital of Hindu/Marwari businessmen, such as the Birlas whose spree of temple-building places the Buddha next to Vishnu/Laxmi Narayana. How successful was this venture?
I think it was immensely successful. You would know better than me but in my own experiences travelling in India over the past twenty-plus years or in conversation with Hindus from across the globe – of all walks, liberals, conservatives, orthodox, secularists – I regularly encounter the argument that the Buddha was born, lived, and died a Hindu and that Buddhism is just a branch of Hinduism. You just don’t come across that idea until the late 1800s and only with more regular frequency after the Birlas and the Hindu Maha Sabha get involved. Of course, the Birlas can’t take all the credit for this.
There were also Vivekananda, Radhakrishnan, Gandhi, and numerous other public figures who built up this argument. But the Buddhist temple-building activities of the Birlas certainly illustrate the wider dynamics at play. Like the dozens of other temples they built, they aimed to re-envision the subcontinent’s past as part of a singular Hindu landscape. Their own engagement with Buddhists and Buddhist history effectively remapped the legacy of the Buddha within a Hindu nationalist vision of India.
The most dramatic response to this collapsing of Buddhism into Brahmanism comes with Ambedkar whose public declarations cannot reconcile the opposing imaginations of the two when he states publicly that though born a Hindu, he will not die as a Hindu and then leads a massive conversion ceremony. In a sense we come full circle: Subajee Bapu’s polemic against the Vajrasuci failed to retain Brahmanism sections of the Indian population who were victims of caste inequality and who chose to follow Ambedkar’s interpretation of the meaning of Buddhism. In this context, what is the legacy of Buddhism in India as we enter a new millennium?
I think history shows that Buddhism resonates with people for very different reasons. At its centre is the fact that despite being centred on fundamental human experiences – suffering the origin of suffering, and the eradication of suffering – Buddhist teachings have been profoundly adaptable in disparate social, cultural, and even individual settings. This has given it a wide appeal but it also makes it incredibly difficult to generalise about its 2,500-year-old legacy. It has many variations and many strands, not all of which connect to its modern-day re-envisioning. Just like its modern revival, it was never a singular monolithic movement.
Uma Chakravarti is a historian and filmmaker. Her books include Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism and Gendering Caste through a Feminist Lens, and her latest documentaries are Yeh Lo Bayaan Humaare/ And We Were There on women political prisoners of 1970-1977 and Darbar-e-Watan (In the Court of the People) on friendship and its stresses across borders in difficult times.