Hardships and Downfall of Buddhism in India

“Hardships and Downfall of Buddhism in India,” despite its cumbersome title, has been the most stimulating book I’ve encountered in a long time.  Giovanni Verardi takes a difficult subject, and in doing so he marshalls an impressive range of materials, textual, archaeological, epigraphical and art-historical to make an engrossing, and sometimes quite shocking read.  Verardi begins by stressing a truth so true, so banal, so blatantly obvious, that it seems to have been forgotten by everyone.  One’s interpretation of the disappearance of Buddhism in India tends to be completely pre-determined by the historian’s ideological stance.  The mechanics of Buddhism’s disappearance is contained in the way in which one imagines the modern political situation in South Asia.  In a very useful first chapter he traces the history of the history of Buddhism through colonial, nationalist, and secular versions, noting how the erasure of Buddhism can be used as a blank space to write one’s own preferred version of social and religious history.

Verardi’s argument is sweeping.  He claims that the violence in Indian texts and art is not symbolic, rather it is a representation of real violence committed on account of religious differences.  Verardi roots these religious antagonisms in larger social and economic pressures that in turn depend on the caste system for their expression and enforcement.  The broad dichotomy he proposes (here crudely put) pits the “antinomian” trading Buddhist community against the hierarchical agrarian Brahmanical community.  Verardi’s stress on antinomianism is interesting, since it allows him to make the claim that Tantric Buddhism somehow reclaims the true spirit of the early Samgha, which arose in confrontation to Brahmanical norms.

“Hardships” also makes an interesting, and sometimes unfortunately underdeveloped, argument for the reassessment of Islam’s role in the final disappearance of Buddhism in the Subcontinent (excepting of course among the Newars, but that is beside the point here, although he does have things to say about that as well!).  Verardi argues for a more fluid notion of the political situation, with different groups seeking different alliances and trying to benefit from changing circumstances.  In the end, his larger argument is that Brahmanical political elites took advantage of the Muslim incursions to mount a final assault on institutionalized Buddhism.  His final, almost breathless, chapter is eye-opening, I just wish those 40 pages were developed into book length analysis!

“Hardships and Downfall of Buddhism in India” is an assault in itself, a lot of sources, a lot of ideas, a lot to think about, a lot to disagree with, and a good place to begin questioning historiographic preconceptions that dominate discussions of premodern or precolonial South Asia.

Thanks to I. S. for the reading recommendation.


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