I read Douglas Ober’s work in 2016 when it was still a dissertation with the University of British Columbia. I was thrilled, fascinated and full of admiration for what he had pulled off – an expansive history of ideas, anchored in unusual archival sources.
It has now turned into a fine book, Dust on the Throne: The Search for Buddhism in Modern India, and was shortlisted for the Cundill History Prize.
Dust on the Throne recovers the integral role of lesser-known Indian anti-caste activists and non-Indian Buddhist monastics in the making of modern global Buddhism. Ober also accounts for the powerful influence Buddhism exerted in shaping modern Indian history.
Eager to know more about arguments in the book that open up new directions for research and thought with regard to Buddhism in modern South Asia, I conducted this interview with him over email:
V. Geetha: In your introduction, you point to the untenability of what has become ‘commonsense’ – that Buddhism had all but died in the Indian subcontinent until it was ‘rediscovered’ in modern colonial times.
You point to how such arguments need to be re-examined, and here you reference textual sources in diverse languages and across geographies in India. You go on to create a landscape of modern Buddhism as it has come to be from the 18th century.
Could you tell us about your use of multilingual sources and how you worked with original texts and translations?
Douglas Ober: One of the major challenges to the study of Buddhism during this period is that Buddhist works and/or references to Buddhism were produced in a wide array of languages and scripts. We’re accustomed to thinking about South Asian Buddhism as something that is tied to so-called canonical languages like Pali and Sanskrit, but if we only focus on these, we risk losing sight of the bigger picture.
Once I realised that I wanted to craft a pan-Indian and even global narrative and understand how ideas connected across regions, I chose to read widely rather than focus on just a few select texts or individuals.
My own Asian language training was in Hindi, Tibetan, Sanskrit and Pali – so that was my base. I also drew on numerous translations from other languages into English, Hindi and French. In the end, the book drew on primary and secondary sources that had also been originally composed in Bengali, Burmese, French, Japanese, Malayalam, Marathi, Nepali, Persian, Russian, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu.
Obviously, I am standing on the shoulders of those who made those sources available to me – mostly in previously published works but also in archives and in a few cases, colleagues and friends who provided direct translations or summaries for me.
VG: Today, the scholarship on modern Indian Buddhism focuses on conditions in Anglo-America and its various pathologies.
But you have charted a new direction. You examine what ‘modern’ Buddhism did for, and meant to Indian scholars of religion, amateur historians – those who took deeksha, and those from within existing and active Buddhist communities, and how, in turn, these diverse individuals and groups helped bring modern Buddhism into existence.
Was there a specific text or argument that you identified which set you off on this course?
DO: In terms of secondary scholarship, I was greatly influenced by the turn to trans-regional networks and ‘translocative flows’ by scholars like Thomas Tweed, Anne Blackburn, Richard Jaffe, Sanjay Subramanyam and Nile Green.
But even before starting the research, I had been inspired by the Tibetan-language memoir of the Tibetan Buddhist savant, Gendun Chopel, who travelled to India from Tibet in the 1930s and mingled with many of Asia’s and Europe’s leading Buddhist figures at the time.
Chopel led me to the Marxist scholar and sometimes Buddhist monk, Rahul Sankrityayan. As my research really began to unfold, I read the entirety of Rahul Sankrityayan’s Meri Jivan Yatra and used it to draw up a map of where Buddhism circulated during this period and how it shaped such a diverse social landscape.
After Meera Kosambi translated (from Marathi into English) many of the writings of her grandfather, Dharmanand Kosambi – the great Pali scholar and also sometimes Buddhist monk – I realised that there were all kinds of intellectual, social and political patterns that tied these histories together. I then set off to explore them, and as I did, a kind of map of Buddhism in modern Asia began to reveal itself.
VG: One of the things that fascinated me about your approach was your sense of wonder – at what workers in Buddhist sites, digging up or uncovering ruins, possibly made of what they were doing, and of local lore that might have engaged their attention.
The Tamil scholar Stalin Rajangam has noted that in almost all his wanderings through Jaina and Buddhist sites in the Tamil countryside, he has come across local histories which exist as forms of recall.
He has since questioned the truth claims of sources: inscriptions, literature, local lore, diffuse public memory … what they tell us or fail to tell us about Jaina and Buddhist presence in these landscapes.
In this context, your ruminations about the workers and their sense of the past pushes us to reflect on our own textual and other labour. What made you want to know more about those who helped ‘recover’ Buddhist monuments, whose labour literally marks the ‘presence’ of Buddhism in modern India?
DO: Truth be told, I’m not sure what led me to ask these kinds of questions. On the one hand, I’m just a curious person and want to better understand what people think and why.
On the other hand, I think some of this may have stemmed from my early training in religious studies, which was largely driven by anthropological approaches that cast a more critical eye on the role that text and doctrine played in everyday lives.
Two of my early mentors (both of whom have now sadly passed), Kyoko Tokuno (a historian of Chinese Buddhism) and Charles Keyes (an anthropologist of Theravada Buddhism), always encouraged me to think beyond the text and question the relationship between the lived and textual tradition.
VG: While I think almost each of your chapters contains themes that can fill an entire a book, some are particularly significant: I was wondering if you could tell us a little more about each of these.
Take the chapter on the Hinduising of Buddhism: here, you have meticulously dealt with the role played by individuals such as Jugal Kishore Birla. Given how the Buddha and Buddhism have shadowed philosophical traditions antithetical to what they stood for, do you see this manner of Hinduising as a moment in this long history?
Or did it have to do as much with an anti-colonial politics, which sought to ‘recover’ a worthy golden age?
DO: I think it has to do with both. There is a real resonance between the medieval appropriation of the Buddha via the Vishnu avatar and the modern Hindu appropriation of the Buddha as a great Hindu social reformer.
Both developments emerged out of long-standing debates between Brahmins and Buddhists, as well as local political conditions, and real and imagined threats. So, there is real continuity here and the colonial-era Indians who worked to Brahmanise Buddhism were well aware of this longer history and looked to it for inspiration and guidance.
But there are distinctive differences, which as you mention, were tied to anti-colonial politics, the nationalist fetish for a glorious past and [the] question of how a Hindu nation would fit into a modern Asian world that was increasingly imagined as Buddhist.
I think these external pressures of anti-colonialism and pan-Asianism, along with the growing resonance that Buddhism held among anti-caste leaders in India, created a sense of urgency that this so-called Buddhist revival needed to be addressed.
VG: Within South Asia, there were different approaches at making Buddhism relevant and claiming it as worthwhile tradition. Like you write, it is important to attend to vernacular articulations of Buddhism to get a sense of its continued presence.
How might one think of Buddhism in the modern period then? Are these different ways of thinking about Buddhism variations on a set of common themes? Or do they signify distinctive approaches, shaped by specific histories and geographies? If so, what renders these projects ‘equally’ modern?
DO: Local histories and their interactions with other cultural and religious traditions have always played a significant role in shaping the way Buddhism is practiced and understood. Yet despite the diversity of approaches, many of these adaptations of Buddhism retain core Buddhist principles and practices, and the ethical and philosophical teachings are preserved, albeit in different forms.
There is a tension here, of course. Who is to say what the ‘essence’ is? At what point has something deviated too far from those essential principles and practices? It is in those tensions that we can often best understand what constitutes a Buddhist tradition.
The question of modernity is exceedingly complex but in its simplest formation, I’d argue that what renders these traditions modern is their adaptation to contemporary circumstances and their continued connections to the past. That adaptability is the hallmark of Buddhist history, of the Buddha’s skilful means or method (upaya).
VG: From archival and other sources you have assembled, it is evident that the concern with the past, with a putative golden age, had not only to do with ‘the wonder that was India’, but with a time that resonated with modern values, especially of equality, justice and fraternity.
Your book asks us to rethink the historiographical concerns of late colonial India. So, the debates of the time did not only have to do with civilisational ‘differences’ (Aryan vs. Dravidian; mulnivasi vs. settlers); or authentic and alien rule (‘Hindu’ India vs ‘Muslim’ India). They also had to do with philosophical traditions that were claimed as their own by a host of anti-caste radicals.
I was reading Eric Gurevitch’s work on the Jaina debates on caste in the western Chalukyan courts and it is evident that the sramana traditions had things to say which modern anti-caste radicals found attractive. In this sense, any study of modern Indian thought must necessarily include Iyothee Thass, Bodhanand, Dharmanand Kosambi… would you like to reflect on this?
DO: You’re absolutely right: whether it was a reimagining of the Buddha as a champion of social justice or an exploration of ancient texts for egalitarian ideas, there was a strong connection between the past and the ideals of the present. The sramana traditions often had a history of challenging established hierarchies. Modern leaders drew on them to advocate for social justice.
All societies have their fracture lines, whether it’s questions of foreign rule, or settlers versus natives, civilisational differences and so on, but I think the works of towering intellectuals like Thass, Kosambi and others make clear that these were also questions deeply intertwined with values of equality, justice and fraternity.
Much of India’s rich philosophical heritage resonates with these values and if we want to better understand not only the subcontinent’s history but also the historiographical concerns of late colonial India, we must take them seriously.
VG: The chapter on Buddhism and the socialist imagination is rich, and I was wondering what you think of this in the context of other such efforts that link labour, the working class and Buddhism: for instance Laurence Cox’s (with Alicia Turner and Brian Bocking) book, The Irish Buddhist: the Forgotten Monk who Faced Down the British Empire.
DO: I am a huge admirer of Laurence Cox’s scholarship and I remain greatly inspired by the model of “plebeian cosmopolitanism” that Cox, Turner and Bocking put forth in The Irish Buddhist. I think the entire U Dhammaloka project (out of which it emerged) has opened so many new avenues for understanding Buddhism’s 20th century connections to the working classes.
If combined with the insights provided by Harald Fischer-Tiné’s work on race, class and white subalternity in colonial India, I think an entirely new sub-field could be created.
Just consider the Irish Buddhist radicals who worked with Tamil Buddhist migrants and labourers in early 20th-century India in places like the Kolar Gold Fields. There is so little we know about these connections … but it has all the makings of an Amitav Ghosh novel!
VG: Lastly: Nehru’s Buddhist diplomacy gave an entirely new twist to ‘panchsheel’ and the non-aligned movement, and this contrasts with Ambedkar’s world-transforming project of taking deeksha with nearly half a million followers. The former seems an exercise in anti-colonial worldmaking and diplomacy, and the latter stakes claims on a utopia and on reconstructing the world. Could you comment on this contrast?
DO: I think you are right: these are two different approaches at addressing the challenges in post-colonial India and engaging with the global community.
Both drew from common pools of thought, but Nehru’s Buddhist vision was primarily an exercise in building diplomatic alliances with other Asian states, securing loyalty at the borders and advocating for India’s central place in a very volatile postcolonial Asia. Nehru possessed the reins of power and had the government’s resources at his fingertips in order to execute these plans but pragmatic realities also checked his idealism.
Ambedkar’s Buddhist vision, on the other hand, was a radical endeavour steeped in both existential and political convictions – a deep-seated faith if you will. It aimed to not only liberate the marginalised and oppressed castes but overthrow the established social and (im)moral order, as he had experienced it.
He wished to reconstruct the world on the basis of equality, fraternity and justice: values that resonated as much in the deep philosophical heritage of India as in the Enlightenment values of Europe.
V. Geetha is a feminist historian, writer and translator. She is the editorial director, Tara Books.