Haunting the Buddha: Indian Popular Religions and the Formation of Buddhism

Haunting the Buddha: Indian Popular Religions and the Formation of Buddhism

Haunting the Buddha: Indian Popular Religions and the Formation of Buddhism

Haunting the Buddha: Indian Popular Religions and the Formation of Buddhism

Synopsis

Early European histories of India frequently reflected colonialist agendas. The idea that Indian society had declined from an earlier Golden Age helped justify the colonial presence. It was said, for example, that modern Buddhism had fallen away from its original identity as a purely rational philosophy that arose in the mythical 5th-century BCE Golden Age unsullied by the religious and cultural practices that surrounded it. In this book Robert DeCaroli seeks to place the formation of Buddhism in its appropriate social and political contexts. It is necessary, he says, to acknowledge that the monks and nuns who embodied early Buddhist ideals shared many beliefs held by the communities in which they were raised. In becoming members of the monastic society these individuals did not abandon their beliefs in the efficacy and the dangers represented by minor deities and spirits of the dead. Their new faith, however, gave them revolutionary new mechanisms with which to engage those supernatural beings. Drawing on fieldwork, textual, and iconographic evidence, DeCaroli offers a comprehensive view of early Indian spirit-religions and their contributions to Buddhism-the first attempt at such a study since Ananda Coomaraswamy's pioneering work was published in 1928. The result is an important contribution to our understanding of early Indian religion and society, and will be of interest to those in the fields of Buddhist studies, Asian history, art history, and anthropology.

Excerpt

I shall ask you a question, ascetic. If you do not answer me, I shall
either strike down your mind, or split your heart or seize you by the
feet and throw you over the Ganges.

—The yakkha Sūciloma speaking to the Buddha
(Sutta Nipāta II.5)

I do not see anyone, sir, in the world, including the devas, Māra and
Brahmā, among beings including ascetics and brahmans, devas and
men, who could strike down my mind, or split my heart or seize me
by the feet and throw me over the Ganges. Nevertheless, ask what
you wish.

—The Buddha speaking to the yakkha Sūciloma
(Sutta Nipāta II.5)

Historiography

When a student is introduced to the art of early Buddhism in a university course, a description of the Buddhist teachings usually precedes any examination of the art. In this summary the student is told how the Buddhist monks separate themselves from society, and practice poverty and chastity while pursuing the independent goal of enlightenment. As true as this may be, none of it even remotely prepares the student to understand the vibrant, often cacophonous, im-

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