SOAS University of London

Department of the History of Art and Archaeology, School of Arts

From relics to rice: Early Buddhism and the Buddhist landscape of central India

Dr Michael Willis (British Museum)

Date: 23 January 2008Time: 5:00 PM

Finishes: 23 January 2008Time: 7:00 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery Room: B104

Type of Event: Seminar

This is paper is concerned with the social, political and agrarian transformations that accompanied the rapid expansion of Buddhism in India during the last three centuries BCE. 

The approach is multi-disciplinary and draws on a number of areas, principally:

  1. Buddhist studies, including monasticism and the relic cult,
  2. the history of medicine and medical theory in India,
  3. geography, paleo-botany and hydrology,
  4. archaeology, art history and epigraphy,
  5. theories of historical and religious change in south Asia.

These subjects are seldom considered together and it was one of the main challenges of current programme of research to see if their combination would yield a useful and compelling historical analysis. A number of conclusions have been reached thus far. To summarise, these are:

  1. that the appearance of Buddhism and its relic cult in central India coincided with the building of a vast hydrological system which radically changed both agrarian production and the immediate environment,
  2. that Buddhism was instrumental in this change because its programme of moral reform redirected large parts of the population to new forms of production, principally the cultivation of rice paddy,
  3. that the ideological underpinning of these changes can be understood from the theories of biogeography and physiology contained in early Sanskrit medical treatises,
  4. that a new social class of landed farmers were important instruments in the whole process, functioning both as constituents in a new polity and lay supporters of Buddhism,
  5. that an understanding of the early Indian calendar and the Buddhist monastic year were crucial for showing how the new system spread across the countryside and displaced older social and cultural orders

Sponsor: Dr Crispin Branfoot and Dr Elizabeth Moore