Buddhism and Empire resources? - Dhamma Wheel

Buddhism and Empire resources?

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Buddhism and Empire resources?

Postby charon » Mon Oct 22, 2012 7:48 am

Not sure if this is the best sub-forum for this question?

I’ve recently quit my job to go university as a mature student (studying History and Politics) and already have a few ideas for possible dissertation topics. One of these is Buddhism and Empire, particularly the interactions involving the civil servants/East India Company interpreting/translating/etc. the Buddhist culture they encountered. I’ve come across references on various internet sites that there was significant reciprocal reinterpretation as a result of this interaction, and am hoping that some on this forum could point me in the direction of any relevant books/sites?

Many thanks


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Re: Buddhism and Empire resources?

Postby zavk » Mon Oct 22, 2012 10:22 am

Hi Charon

Excellent topic! If you haven't already researched into it, there is a significant body of scholarship on the influence of Western imperialism on Buddhism--indeed, it was under the conditions of colonialism that 'Buddhism' was 'discovered', or one could say, 'invented' insofar as no such proper noun existed till it was coined in the nineteenth century by European scholars studying 'the Orient', many of whom (like the famous philologist/Orientalist Max Müller for example) never left Europe, producing from within the hallowed halls of university libraries many tracts about various Eastern tradtions which would influence the way we understand them today. Under the influence of certain Western intellectual outlooks which were far from 'universal'—including a Christian scholarly paradigm which posited Jesus as THE founder of Christianity (though if a historical Jesus did exist I don't think he sought to establish any religion or sect as such) and accordingly engaged with sacred writings a certain way—these European scholars had assumed that the shared iconography of the diverse traditions of Asia necessitated an excavation and archivisation of such a thing called 'Buddhism' with a historicised and humanised Buddha as the absolute point of origin/reference for the interpretation of Dhammic sacred truth claims (whilst such an approach has its merits, insofar as it is not mindful of its implicit metaphysical claims I think that it could lead to anachronistic beliefs and hubristic attitudes about the modern capacity for epistemological certitude). Their efforts helped to articulate the study of 'world religions', which despite the seemingly inclusive and impartial label 'world', was predicated on a Eurocentric conceptualisation of belief-as-the-irreducible-core-of-religion, a conceptualisation which evolved out of a very specific history of Western Christianity/Christendom/Empire/Sovereign Nation State. Thus constructed, Western knowledge of 'Buddhism' provided colonialists and Christian missionaries with a new ideological tool to justify the paternalism of imperial rule and/or critique of local customs; Western knowledge of Buddhism would in turn be appropriated by the colonised people of Asian Buddhist cultures to rearticulate their traditions as well as to resist Western hegemony.

So an important point I would like to stress is that we ought not overlook the agency of the colonised people of traditional Asian Buddhist cultures and their contributions to the modernisation of Buddhism, even as they had to negotiate imperial hegemony, and particularly the ideological subversion of their traditions and customs by Western figures who had claimed to know better--this appears to be a stubborn bad habit that persists today, and no longer confined within academia but amongst non-academic lay formations of the emergent 'Western Buddhism'.

Anyway, I think your proposed research is fantastic, because 'Buddhism' was a kind of commodity-artefact which circulated within the networks of imperial trade and ideological domination. I have not personally come across any sustained or systematic study of the role of East India Company as such so your research could offer new perspectives to existing scholarship.

Some suggestions off the top of my head:

T.W. Rhys Davids, founder of the Pali Text Society, was a civil servant in Ceylon where he encountered Buddhism. If you aren't already aware of this, the anthology is a good place to start. This essay could also provide a road map to other resources if you wish to look into the influence of Rhys Davids: .

All the best!
Last edited by zavk on Mon Oct 22, 2012 1:34 pm, edited 5 times in total.
With metta,

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Re: Buddhism and Empire resources?

Postby Kare » Mon Oct 22, 2012 10:27 am


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Re: Buddhism and Empire resources?

Postby Kim OHara » Tue Oct 23, 2012 6:04 am

Light entertainment along your way, with some useful insights: Kipling's Kim. One of my favourite books, to the point that I borrowed its protagonist's name for my avatar here :tongue:

Kipling has been very unfashionable almost since his death but some heavyweight Indian literati have recently defended the accuracy of his knowledge and his understanding of Indian culture of the time.
e.g. "I [Rushdie] had many of the difficulties with Kipling that a lot of people from India have, but every true Indian reader knows that no non-Indian writer understood India as well as Kipling. As a child I loved the Jungle Books, long before I realised that there were ideological problems with them. If you want to look at the India of Kipling's time, there is no writer who will give it to you better."


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Re: Buddhism and Empire resources?

Postby charon » Tue Oct 23, 2012 10:17 am

zavk: Many thanks for the encouraging and informative post. Both the book and the article are just what I’m looking for at this stage.

Kare: Yes, they do seem to be different editions of the same book (?). Again, many thanks for the suggestion, I’ll certainly be looking at this.

Kim: You can’t beat good literary entertainment – especially one with relevant historical insights! I’d not thought of reading any Kipling, so thanks for bring this book up.

Once again, many thanks :D

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