“Dust on the Throne: The Search for Buddhism in Modern India” by Douglas Ober

Dust on the Throne: The Search for Buddhism in Modern India, Douglas Ober (Stanford University Press, Navayana, March 2023) Dust on the Throne: The Search for Buddhism in Modern India, Douglas Ober (Stanford University Press, Navayana, March 2023)

Buddhism in modern Indian history is generally believed to be marked by Western intellectual input in the 19th century on the one hand and the mass conversion of the “untouchable” castes under the leadership of Dr BR Ambedkar in 1956. But what was going on between these two moments about a century and a half apart from each other? In Dust on the Throne: The Search for Buddhism in Modern India, Douglas Ober presents a socio-political and intellectual history of Indians’ engagement with Buddhist thought, history and practice.

Ober turns to archives of all kinds, including those of different Buddhist societies in India and works authored by leaders and detractors of Buddhism to highlight that there is more to Buddhist discourse in modern Indian history than the discoveries and translations by the British colonizers. Two examples that bookend this history would help one understand the embeddedness of Indian involvement in making Buddha relevant to the psyche of modern times.


One is the reception of the publication of an English translation of Vajrasuchi (“The Needle That Cuts Diamond”), a 1st-century text attributed to Buddhist scholar Ashvaghosha by the British diplomat Lancelot Wilkinson (1805-41). The text is a strong critique of the caste system entrenched in Brahmanical thought. The translation itself, published in 1839, was published with a rebuttal of the Buddhist critique, or a defense of the caste system by Pandit Subaji (dates unknown), Wilkinson’s Sanskrit tutor. The text was welcomed by social reformers but hit a nerve among the likes of Subaji who was not an orthodox Hindu, (as Wilkinson himself refers to him in his correspondence with others), and who was also a supporter of Western notions of science (he disagreed with Hindu metaphysics) and social reform of Hindu society. Subaji’s critique goes:


A donkey, even a good one, can never become a horse … A mongrel that thinks itself a lion won’t be able to roar, no matter how hard it tries.


The attack on caste and the accompanying justification of inequalities of the caste system generated a lot of debate in Indian society. Ober does not discuss the text or Subjaji’s commentary in detail but the point to note here is that Indians were not blindly receiving the Westerner’s translation of Buddhism. They participated in production of knowledge around Buddhism:


The question that remains unanswered is why Subaji felt it so important to write a nearly fifty page  rebuttal – more than three times the length of the Vajrasuchi – to a text authored by a religious community that lacked any tangible presence in day-to-day life? … Subaji’s counterattack wasn’t just symptomatic of an “insecure” Hindu. While Subaji’s ability to counter Ashvaghosha’s argumentation was due to his own erudition and familiarity with brahmanical-Buddhist philosophical debates, his long diatribe also spoke to the new political context … As one of the most distinguished pandits living in India at the time, Subaji would have certainly been familiar with the discoveries of Buddhism taking place across the subcontinent and the new conversation about the Buddah that Jan Kampani [East India Company was referred to as Jan Kampani in the vernacular after John Watts who was one of its founder-investors] was initiating. Some Indians … were greatly inspired by the new developments, but others, like Subjai, may have remembered more keenly the danger of the Diamond Cutter. It was one thing to have a critique against the revealed knowledge of the Vedas leveled by a Buddhist, but to have it spread by a colonial government, whose sympathies for the Buddha were increasingly public, was simply too much to bear.


Ober establishes quite a few things here: the extent to which Indians were equal partners in textualizing Buddhism (as against the conventional wisdom that Indians were merely recipients or beneficiaries of the discovery of Buddhism by the colonizers ), the sparks that began to fly in Indian public sphere, and most importantly, the continuity in religious thought or debates in society for Subaji did not speak from a new or isolated position and was very familiar with the battles of religion that may have never paused on the subcontinent.


The second example is Indians’ engagement with Buddhism through the framework of Marxism. Dharmanand Kosambi (1876-1947) and Rahul Sankrityayan (1893-1963) wrote about private property as an expression of greed, the tendency that Buddhism cautions against. Ober quotes Kosambi on how Buddhism can be related to socialism and democracy:


The structure of the sangha of monks – through which the Budda conducted the task of uplifting the people – was based upon the principle of collective ownership which is the highest stage of democracy. And in Burma the Buddhist Sangha still observes this principle. Those who propound the principle of collective ownership are known as “socialists” in this country [the USA] and in Europe … the chief principle of socialism is “to establish national ownership over privately owned property, and to induce all citizens to work in a manner conducive to the collective good without falling prey to the temptation of personal gain under the guise of trade or anything else.


The other thinker, Sankrityayan, went on to rewrite the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism (desire is the cause of suffering and so on) thus:


[1] Suffering is to be found in the world;
[2] it is caused by exploitation;
[3] suffering will cease to exist if exploitation is done away with, that is, [if the] road to communism is followed;
[4] and communism is the way to cessation of suffering.


Again, this forging of an alliance with Leftism shows that Buddhism in modern India has a very vibrant tradition of speaking truth to power.


In the narrative that Ober uncovers, one learns that Buddhism in modern India should not just be seen as something that was “revived” by the European Indologists but as something that was “reinvented” by Indians themselves, a point not easily appreciated because the British “discovery” narrative overpowers the debates among Indians:


Modern Indian Buddhism involved less the invention of anything as it did the reinvention of everything … Like the formation of global Buddhism more widely, it had been crafted in conversations and encounters not just between Indians and Europeans, but between and among Asians living in an uncertain age of colonial interference, unequal rule, and yet unprecedented communication and awareness of one another … The catalyst to re-enter Buddhist place worlds may have first been triggered by colonial education systems and Orientalist enterprises, but it gained its impetus from local interests shaped by long-running historical debates regarding caste, inequality, morality, social order, and belonging.

Dust on the Throne is remarkable for the archival work it demonstrates for re-historicizing a time that is generally dominated by the Orientalist view of inquiry into religion. Buddhist scholars and activists (such as Dr BR Ambedkar, the architect of the Indian Constitution), and the mighty industrialists and statesmen who stood in the way of the former’s fight against inequality (such Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation) populate this history and reveal that religious tensions in India is not exclusive to Hindu-Muslim antagonism; it has haunted Hinduism’s dialogue with Buddhism too.

Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.