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Constructing Usable Pasts


Naina Dayal

THE RETURN OF THE BUDDHA: ANCIENT SYMBOLS FOR A NEW NATION
By Himanshu Prabha Ray
Routledge, New Delhi, 2014, pp. xii 300, Rs. 795.00

VOLUME XL NUMBER 2 February 2016

Amaravati began to be developed as the capital of Andhra Pradesh last year, and the State’s creation of its new identity has involved an emphasis on its Buddhist past, at least partly to attract foreign investment. The Government of Andhra Pradesh also plans to set up a museum in Amaravati in memory of B.R. Ambedkar, who converted to Buddhism, but also interpreted its Pali canon afresh. The Amaravati project illustrates some of the themes that Himanshu Prabha Ray takes up in The Return of the Buddha. This book is, thus, a timely addition to the small number of monographs by historians of early India that break the disciplinary divide between the ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ by exploring the modern histories of ancient sites and monuments. It is well known that, while texts are invaluable sources for writing histories of religions, they should ideally be studied along with evidence from archaeology, inscriptions and coins. Ray has drawn on archaeological reports, studies of inscriptions and coins, archival material and newspaper articles to recount how material remains were used in the 19th and 20th centuries to write histories of Buddhism. In the early 19th century, western scholars initially focused on Hinduism, but Buddhism also received considerable scholarly attention in the 19th century, as it was evident that it had spread to vast areas of Central, East and Southeast Asia, among people who differed widely in terms of language and culture. While colonial officials saw the Hinduism of the 19th century as characterized by superstition, idol worship and caste oppression, they held up the Buddha as a rational and compassionate man who advocated social reform. They also regarded the ‘pure and practical’ message of the Buddha as distinct from later/‘degenerate’ Buddhism. Nineteenth-century scholars focused on the former, they concentrated on sites associated with the life of the historical Buddha and largely located in the Ganga valley. Far less attention was paid to other regions—the Western Himalaya and peninsular India, for instance. Ray shows how studying the archaeology of these areas enriches our understanding of the varied growth of Buddhism. While South India is known for the Hindu temple, she draws our attention to Buddhist sites such as Nagapattinam which flourished in the early medieval period when Hinduism is believed to have triumphed over Buddhism. Indeed, she points out that Nagapattinam even finds mention in a 15th century CE inscription of the ...


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