Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

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

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

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

Article excerpt

Haunting the Buddha. Indian Popular Religions and the Formation of Buddhism. By ROBERT DECAROLI. New York: OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2004. Pp. viii + 230, plates.

Over thirty-five years ago, the great historian of Indian art. V. S. Agrawala, wrote a book on Ancient Indian Folk Cults. His stature resulted from his recognition that early Indian art needs to be analyzed as a pan-Indic phenomenon, and therefore it needs to be grounded in pan-Indic culture. He knew that culture intimately. Perhaps his book on folk cults was to have been the basis for a study on ancient Indian folk art, but that book was never written--by him or anyone else. Now Robert DeCaroli has produced a work that shows us just how difficult it is to write on this subject. DeCaroli concentrates on a segment of the subject: the relationship of early Buddhism to cultic beliefs in spirits and their representation in ancient Buddhist art. His investigation uses an all-inclusive term "spirit-deities" for beings such as yaksas, nagas, guhyakas, bhutas, pretas, gandharvas, pitrs, kumbhandas, pisacas, vrksadevatas (rukkhadevatas), vetalas, mahoragas, devaputras, vidyadharas, kimpurusas. apsarases, raksasas, kinnaras, assamukhis, and asuras (p. 10). It is apparent that DeCaroli's term describes a very diverse group of deities arising from Vedism and Brahmanism, from folk cults, from Indian realms inhabited by demonic and heavenly creatures, as well as from the sphere of divine kingship. Though none of these beings is limited to the Buddhist religious domain, it is through these that DeCaroli aims "to provide a comprehensive overview of the samgha's early relationship with spirit religions and develop a more complete understanding of a process of interaction that existed between these two systems [i.e., the samgha and spirit cults] over the course of centuries" (p.37). His main question is "Why did the Buddhist monastic community [i.e., the samgha] incorporate and maintain workship of spirits within its fold?" The answers, built up via selections of Buddhist stories, resemble anecdotal evidence in part because they are not sufficiently connected to the broad cultural base whence these deities entered Buddhism.

It is in chapter one, entitled "Coming to Terms," that DeCaroli lists the terms included in his reference to "spirit-deities." The author justifies the designation on the grounds that the godlings he is investigating are somewhere between ghosts and gods (p. 18) and not because he wants to create a new category different from either ghosts or gods. Chapter two, "Making Believers," specifies that the author's timeframe is from the third century B.C. to the early fifth century A.D., thus eight hundred years in early Buddhist developments and interactions with spirit-deities. I find the designation "spirit-deities" revealing and problematic. DeCaroli does not say whether this designation is the translation of a specific term that appears in certain text(s), and this reader is under the strong impression that it is a general designation chosen because it is a convenient, all-inclusive name for a great variety of deified spirits receiving adoration by the Buddhist popular and monastic community. The choice signals that DeCaroli's book does not use a philological approach in analyzing relevant texts or individual "spirit" terms within his general designation. The dangers and limitations of this sort of approach when applied to the subject at hand become quite apparent, due to the author's tendency 1) to consider and discuss the above list of spirits (so different in type, as well as social and religious origin) as a group, without proving that these different spirits are considered a group within the Indic tradition or that they operate as a group in specific Buddhist localities; 2) to assign conclusions to this "group," which, in fact, may be applicable to only some or one of the spirits; indeed much of the book deals with yaksas and nagas; 3) to rely on secondary sources and translation by others, and therefore to offer a death of verifications in the original. …

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