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Rise and fall of Indian Buddhism was a stranger, more exciting process than we know

Andhra was once as foreign to Buddhism as China was. Its conversion to the religion took many innovations, including worship of the dead.

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Soon after the death of the Buddha in the 5th century BCE, his disciples scattered through the Indian subcontinent, seeking footholds and patronage for their doctrines. In coastal Andhra Pradesh, where builders of megalithic tombs were turning toward agriculture and trade, they found an interesting challenge—and an equally interesting solution. The new Buddhism that resulted would incorporate the veneration of the dead, mother goddesses, and snake deities. These cultural interactions changed Buddhism forever, though they were eventually forgotten.

We all know the pride-invoking narrative: Buddha was a revolutionary, emancipatory leader, Mauryan emperor Ashoka spread Buddhism across India and the rest of the world, and ‘Islamic invasions’ destroyed it. Over the next few editions, the Thinking Medieval column will inform its readers how the rise and fall of Indian Buddhism was a stranger, more exciting process than we could ever imagine.

Nobody in the 5th century BCE could have anticipated that a system of concepts propounded by an acerbic former aristocrat, most active in parts of present-day Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, would evolve into a diverse religion followed by hundreds of millions. Its power and popularity grew in stages, driven by brilliant monks, mendicants, nuns, traders, and the occasional chief. Buddhism was intertwined with social and political trends toward urbanisation; it reinvented itself constantly in response to changing milieus, shattering into kaleidoscopes of competing sects and doctrines.


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The megalithic world

In the Deccan and various parts of South India today, ancient megalithic burials, dated roughly from 1200 BCE to 400 CE, are not uncommon. One sees dolmens—a large horizontal sheet of rock balanced on two vertical sheets—in the Bannerghatta National Park near Bengaluru. A great necropolis still stands at Hire Benakal near Hampi, now at a deadly risk due to mining and thievery.

Such megaliths are very often taken as evidence that southern India was in some way ‘uncivilised’ until religious and cultural ideas came from the North during the 3rd and 4th centuries BCE. But archaeology suggests that megalith-builders were technologically accomplished. They had advanced iron metallurgy, small towns led by chiefs, fortifications, and even irrigation structures. The carving and movement of large stone blocks confirm an understanding of engineering. These people simply did not live in dense urban agglomerations. By the 4th century BCE, this was no longer the case, and a number of small city-states and ports had emerged in the Andhra coast.

These megalith-worshipping peoples were also not homogenous, and they exchanged goods and ideas. In Material Culture and the Emergence of Urban Buddhism in Andhra, historian and archaeologist Sree Padma Holt mentions that the use of sarcophagi spread from the inland Deccan to the Krishna River valley. Groups in the alluvial plains made terracotta sarcophagi, whereas those in hilly areas made them from stone. Some cultures preferred to use dolmens; others preferred cairns (piles of stones). Sometimes, enormous efforts were expended in creating stone troughs or mud domes, which were either left mysteriously empty or used to bury small handfuls of burned animal domes.

There was an overarching belief in the peninsular portion of the subcontinent that the dead had to be venerated through such burials—but the origins and precise dynamics of this system are unclear. What is certain is that the religious and cultural beliefs of people in this region were almost completely distinct from those in the Gangetic region.

Megalithic structures were being built in South India well before Buddhism’s emergence. And they continued to be built after North Indian Buddhist texts began to mention monks from the Andhra region in the 4th and 5th centuries BCE. This raises the possibility that megalith-worshippers, who were already part of regional trading circuits, organically learned about and began to convert to Buddhism—and, most likely, other emerging religions—as their popularity grew. Some megalithic tombs might even have contained the remains of the earliest Buddhist monks of Andhra. But that would soon change.


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A stupa in a megalithic graveyard

In an earlier edition of Thinking Medieval, we explored how the idea that Gangetic empires “united” the subcontinent through conquest in the 3rd century BCE was not supported by archaeological evidence. Instead, the movement of peoples and the awareness of new economic centres probably led to the spread of cultures and religions through the subcontinent.

When the Mauryan empire finally began to expand aggressively into the South, it was primarily the Andhra Pradesh region that had the urban centres to support an imperial apparatus, however ephemeral. Unsurprisingly, it seems to have received considerable attention from Buddhist power brokers, both merchants and monks. However, as Gregory Schopen, a scholar of Buddhism, writes in Immigrant Monks and the Protohistorical Dead, megalith-worshipping Andhra was “linguistically, culturally, and religiously as foreign a country as China… [Buddhism] had, above all else, to forge some links with the local land, to find a place in the local landscape.” Certainly, local monks may have had a part to play, but that alone was not enough.

As proselytising religions have done throughout history, Buddhism spread in Andhra by appropriating local religious concepts. Holt shows how Buddhist monasteries began to use the purna-khumbha or overflowing pot motif—associated with the mother goddess in South India to this day—in various architectural elements. Nagas, also associated with local beliefs, appeared extensively in Buddhist architecture in the region, sometimes as frequently as the Buddha himself. But most strikingly, Buddhist stupas in Andhra sometimes used the architectural logic of megalithic burials, including apsidal and swastika-shaped floor plans.

But that’s not all. In Amaravati and Nagarjunakonda (two of Andhra’s most important Buddhist sites), archaeologists found that the stupas were often built not just near, but within or even over megalithic necropolises. And though they were ostensibly an architectural form of the North, local religious practices continued inside stupas. Just like some megalithic graves mentioned above, stupas have been discovered either empty or containing only animal remains. People on the Andhra coast appear to have commissioned large numbers of minor stupas for dead monks, and megaliths continued to be made in these graveyards.

But was this simply because the local people had seamlessly converted to Buddhist practices, or might there have been something else at play? Schopen suggests an interesting possibility: “The Buddhist stupa is architecturally more rigorously structured, more monumentally and technologically finished and impressive. It is not only similar to but—importantly—superior to the surrounding megaliths. The message must have been clear.”

Buddhism made some tradeoffs to appeal to local peoples, and they, in turn, responded by adopting Buddhism en masse, possibly thinking of it as superior to — or more efficacious, evolved — than their older beliefs. As we will see in future editions of Thinking Medieval, nowhere would this be more apparent than in Andhra, where the Buddhist sangha would soon emerge as a great landowning and trading organisation in its own right.

Anirudh Kanisetti is a public historian. He is the author of Lords of the Deccan, a new history of medieval South India, and hosts the Echoes of India and Yuddha podcasts. He tweets @AKanisetti. Views are personal.

This article is a part of the ‘Thinking Medieval’ series that takes a deep dive into India’s medieval culture, politics, and history.

(Edited by Humra Laeeq)

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