Item description for Greater Magadha (Handbook of Oriental Studies: Section 2: India) by Johannes Bronkhorst...
Through a detailed analysis of the available cultural and chronological data, this book overturns traditional ideas about the cultural history of India and proposes a different picture instead. The idea of a unilinear development out of Brahmanism, in particular, is challenged.
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Est. Packaging Dimensions: Length: 1.25" Width: 6.75" Height: 9.5" Weight: 2.05 lbs.
Release Date Apr 30, 2007
ISBN 9004157190 ISBN13 9789004157194
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Rich and Rewarding Book Jul 1, 2009
It is a matter of major debate in the history of ancient India as to whether the so-called heterodox sects such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Ajivikism originated primarily as a result of developments within the Vedic Brahmanical tradition or outside it. Whereas the widely held view is that the background to these developments lies within the Vedic tradition, Johannes Bronkhorst (Sanskrit and Indian studies, University of Lausanne, Switzerland), through a detailed analysis of the available cultural as well as chronological data, challenges this view and proposes a different picture instead. According to him, religions such as Buddhism, Jainism, and Ajivikism were not indebted to Vedic religion at all, and thus the belief that these religions were deeply indebted to Vedic religion is largely defective. He particularly challenges the commonly held notion of a unilinear development out of early Vedic Brahmanism. In order to fill the lacuna his way (p. xi), Bronkhorst has prepared this monograph by supplementing, reworking, revising, abbreviating, rewriting, or translating a number of his earlier writings. It is, indeed, an impressive book that builds elaborate and well-documented arguments. Bronkhorst proposes that the region (he calls it Greater Magadha) to the east of Prayâga (modern Allahabad) and roughly the area where the Buddha and Mahavira lived and taught, stretching by and large from Sravasti, the capital of Kosala, in the north-west to Rajagrha, the capital of Magadha, in the south-east, was neither without culture nor religion. In his considered view, this region, which was not viewed as Brahmanical territory till at least the time of Patarijali (p. 2), was not a passive receptor of Brahmanism. Without providing any map (which certainly would have been very helpful), Bronkhorst points out that Greater Magadha, in fact, displayed an independent and vital culture (different from the culture of the authors of Vedic and early postVedic literature) till about the beginning of the Common Era (pp. 4-9). Centuries preceding this date saw two altogether different cultures existing next to each other and initially neither of the two influenced the other (p. 265) despite having Northern Black Polished Ware as a common pottery from around the year 500 BCE, which only hid major differences in intellectual and spiritual culture between the two regions (p. 13). Many of the features of Greater Magadhan culture, Bronkhorstoints out, did not disappear when the confrontation with Vedic culture took place, surviving sometimes in modified form and sometimes seemingly without important changes (p. 72). The period between the second century BCE and the second-third centuries CE proved to a watershed during which the Brahmanas began to see the eastern Ganga valley from almost a foreign territory to their land (p. 2). Thus, whereas the earliest rulers in Magadha including Bimbisdra, Ajdtaúatru, the Nandas, and the Mauryas were patrons of non-Brahmanical movements, with the Sunga coup (of Brahmanical stock) the Brdhmanas may have begun to occupy the place in Greater Magadhan society which they thought was rightfully theirs (p. 3).
In order to establish his thesis, which is based on indirect evidence and extremely limited sources, Bronkhorst deals basically with two primary issues in this book: the issue pertaining to cultural and religious borrowing, and the issue pertaining to chronological basis of the texts and potteries related to the period during which the cultural and religious borrowing took place. As a consequence of the meeting of two differing cultures, says Bronkhorst, a modified culture appeared which owed much to Greater Magadha. In this way, the culture of Greater Magadha came to exercise not only an influence on the Brahmanical tradition but also came to find expression in its texts (p. 77). Though the nine appendices are a bit technical, the main text would make a good reading for those who are familiar with the Sanskrit grammatical tradition (p. 9). Elaborating on his thesis, Bronkhorst points out that there existed two radically different societies during the late-Vedic period which independently preserved radically different traditions and approaches to reality (p. 60). The Vedic Brahmanical tradition of the western and central Ganga plains disliked cities and urbanism, laid emphasis on sacrificial rituals obsessed with purity, displayed a tendency for magico-religious thought, held a belief in the power of curses, and much else (p. 269). Vedic medicine was fundamentally a system of healing based on magic. Disease was believed to be produced by demonic or malevolent forces when they attacked and entered the bodies of their victims, causing the manifestations of morbid bodily conditions. These assaults were occasioned by the breach of certain taboos, by imprecations against the gods, or by witchcraft and sorcery. However, as compared to this, the Greater Magadhans followed a different and unique medical tradition which was empirico-rational and placed paramount emphasis on direct observation as the proper means to know everything about humankind (p. 59). Similarly, Bronkhorst believes that the concept of ahirnsa: may not have had Vedic roots after all (pp. 260-263), and there may be more features of the culture of Greater Magadha that have survived in classical Hinduism, acquiring along the way the blessings of the Brahmanical tradition. For instance, the peculiar habit in Hinduism to bury, rather than burn, the physical remains of certain renouncers, usually called sannyasins, could be a legacy of Greater Magadhan culture (p. 268). None of these features, argues Bronkhorst, were found in Vedic Brahmanism, and only gradually did they become part of the post-Vedic Brahmanical weltanschauung. The Greater Magadhan culture, according to Bronkhorst, is represented most clearly in Jainism and Ajivikism. Though Buddhism too fits within the Magadhan weltanschauung, yet it shows many discontinuities due the reason of its origin being rooted partly in its rejection of certain aspects of the Magadhan culture. According to Bronkhorst, this non-Vedic culture was largely non-theistic, except for veneration of a deity (possibly a divine teacher) named Kapila who is often shown as a representative of the asceticism we associate with Greater Magadha (p. 61). He is called an asura (demon) in the Baudhdyana Dharma Stitra, and the inhabitants of Greater Magadha are referred to as demonic people in a Vedic text. Further, Kapila's father, Prahlada, known as the king of the asuras, is frequently shown in the earliest Brahmanical texts as engaging in battles with Indra, the king of the gods (pp. 61-68). More importantly, according to Bronkhorst, Greater Magadha was responsible for the second urbanization in India originating from about 500 BCE onwards, the rise of new political structures, and the creation of the Mauryan empire and its successors. It was also the culture of those who founded, or joined, various religious movements, among which Buddhism, Jainism, and Ajavikism are best known (pp. 4-9). Their sepulchral mounds were round (the predecessors of the later stiipas) which distinguished their culture from its Vedic counterpart (pp. 5f., 15, 55). The Greater Magadhans believed in a cyclic notion of time, in which kalpas, yugas and other time units play a role. Such a view not known to the Vedic texts became a common feature of classical Hinduism only from a certain date onward (p. 70); thus, according to Bronkhorst, we may have to see in the cyclic vision of time an element that entered into the Brahmanical tradition from the culture of Greater Magadha (p. 71). These ideas, along with many others, distinguished the Greater Magadhans profoundly from their (presumably immigrant) Vedic neighbours (p. 72). Above all, points out Bronkhorst, Greater Magadhans emphasized world renunciation. Their asceticism which focused on the immobilization of the body (so typical of early Jainism) and the notion of an immutable self (whose knowledge is a prerequisite for liberation from the effects of one's deeds) later found expression in the Mandbhdrata and other Brahmanical texts (p. 72). They believed not just in repeated rebirths, but more specifically in repeated rebirths determined by one's deeds (p. 72). Bronkhorst points out that in the spiritual culture of Greater Magadha the self was primarily thought of as the inactive core of the human being (and presumably other living beings) which, on account of its inactivity, offered a way out of the cycle of rebirth determined by karmic retribution. The early Upanishads, on the other hand, in those parts not influenced by this outside idea, present the self in a way which suits Vedic speculations about the homology of macrocosm and microcosm, an element that appears to be absent in the notions belonging to Greater Magadha (p. 269). But most of the classical schools of Brahmanical philosophy are built around the concept of a self that does not participate in, and is not touched by, actions, a concept that found its origin in Greater Magadha; this is true of Samkhya, Vaishesika and, of course, Vedanta, as well as those schools which adopted their ontologies (p. 268). According to Bronkhorst, the Vedic tradition reacted in three different ways to the Greater Magadhan doctrine of rebirth and karmic retribution. Initially, there are the passages in the early Upanishads, in the Dharma Sutras and in the Mahabharata which accept this new doctrine and present it as part of Brahmanical thinking. Then there is the sacrificial tradition which ignores the new doctrine for some thousand years. And finally there is the Carvaka school of Brahmanical thought, which vigorously criticizes and attacks the new doctrine (p. 161). On the basis of extensive textual and linguistic analyses Bronkhorst argues for a substantially new understanding of the Ajivika and Carvika doctrines, unique interpretation of many classical Brahmanical texts, and a much later chronological bracket for the late Vedic texts than is generally provided. In his view, fair assessment of all the evidence strongly favours more recent dates for late-Vedic literature and culture, and at least some portions of the early Upanishads -- perhaps precisely the portions that introduce the belief in rebirth and karmic retribution into the Veda -- were composed more or less at the time of the Buddha, or later. This, if true, would not imply that these Upanisads had undergone Buddhist influence, even though, Bronkhorst feels, this may not be altogether ruled out in the case of some passages. The influence, in his view, came from the culture of Greater Magadha and not just from the two currents (Buddhism and Jainism) (p. 248). Thus, "[t]he renewed uncertainty with regard to late-Vedic chronology will also give short shrift to summary statements of Brahmanical priority in the case of similarities between Brahmanical and Buddhist or Jaina texts" (p. 259). In this way, Bronkhorst proposes that it may indeed be necessary to rewrite the early history of Indian philosophy in the light of this new perspective that we have to adopt (p. 268). Few scholars will accept Bronkhorst's argument in toto, and he himself is conscious of the tentative nature of some of his conclusions. One may, for instance, question his argument that the Second Urbanization originated within Greater Magadha. The earliest cities of this urbanization were Hastinapura and Kaushambi, both of which lay outside Greater Magadha. Quite a few other cities such as Madhura, Samkassa, and Verainji that had strong associations with the Buddha fall outside too. In fact, Kammassadhamma which was the scene of important suttas such as Mahasatipatthana and Magandiya, was located over a thousand kilometres to the west of Greater Magadha. Interestingly, nearly one third of the Buddhist monks were of Brahmanical background. Then the question of the continuity and legacy of any pre-Vedic Shramanic culture of the Indus Civilization has also been left out. Nonetheless, this book provides a thought provoking interpretation of the early history of India. It is a meticulously researched, well written, well argued, and amply annotated book. This book, as Bronkhorst hopes, may open up a new field in the study of early Indian culture that is waiting to be explored. As a whole, the book is rich and rewarding with almost no typographical errors (I could find only one: Mhb for Mhbh at p. 109, fn 26) considering the fact that a huge number of abbreviations and words with diacritical marks are used. Bronkhorst must be congratulated for writing a book that will surely provoke productive debate.