Challenging the ideas about the European discovery of Buddhism and its influence in the construction of Protestant Buddhism, Dust on the Throne: The Search for Buddhism in Modern India presents a compelling narrative of the reinvention of modern Indian Buddhism in colonial and postcolonial India.

Drawing from “unarchived histories,” Douglas Ober examines the marginalized, disenfranchised, and forgotten institutions and persons that played an instrumental role in shaping the trajectory of Buddhism in medieval/early modern and, especially, colonial India. He begins by questioning the prevalent idea of the decline of Buddhism in the 13th century. Ober argues for the presence of Buddhism and its memory in the minds of Hindu Brahman elites, who continued to remember a story of struggle, competition, and conquest over the Buddhists in premodern India.

Dust on the Throne: The Search for Buddhism in Modern India

By Douglas Ober,
Stanford University Press: Stanford, 2023
394pp., $32.00, paper

This was evident to a vast network of native scholars/assistants who worked alongside the colonial surveyors and civil servants of the East India company. These assistants often talked to locals to gather information about sites, texts, or images, and their investigations revealed the bias against Buddhism and the appropriation of Buddhist spaces within Hinduism. Ober forcefully argues that the idea of the European discovery of Buddhism resulted from the deliberate silencing of native scholars, reflecting “colonial arrogance, bigotry, and racial prejudice.”This began to change in the second half of the 19th century, when English-educated Indians began to produce new scholarship on Buddhism. In addition to collecting manuscripts and archaeological/art historical data, scholars presented Buddhism as a scientific, rational, and scriptural religion that opposed the evils of Brahmanism, i.e., the caste system and Vedic ritualism. In contrast, scholars such as Sarat Chandra Das traveled to Tibet, studied there, and collected hundreds of manuscripts, and challenged the predominant representation of the Buddha as a social reformer or the sangha as a promoter of gender equality. Later, scholars attempted to identify “crypto-Buddhists” in the early 20th century among the marginal lower castes, tribals, and untouchables. What is evident through the discussion of these examples is the entangling of colonial institutions, European and native scholars, and their dialogues, which resulted in a sustained interest in recovering the Buddhist past.

Ober also covers monk-scholars, who developed their understanding of Buddhism through monastic training in Sri Lanka or Burma, rather than the scholarship of the time. The focus on these agents at the grassroot level highlights their important role in reimagining Buddhist sacred sites such as Sarnath and Kushinagar. Ober also draws our attention to the crucial role of the Theosophical Society in the development of scholarly practitioner global networks. The Theosophical Society’s preference for Buddhism and engagement with Buddhists from different parts of Asia led to the emergence of a number of Buddhist associations, which focused largely on social and religious reforms through scriptural Buddhism, in contrast to Dharmapala’s Mahabodhi Society and its goal of reviving Buddhism’s past glory. All of these associations were part of a broader global Buddhist network in which they exchanged information and resources across national, regional, cultural, and geographical boundaries.

At the end of the 19th century, the anti-Brahmanical representation of Buddhism began to be replaced with a new interpretation that saw Buddhism more as an offspring of Hinduism. This new formulation, Ober writes, was “inextricably tied to the birth of the modern nation and intellectual assimilation of the Indic religions, such as Buddhism and Jainism.” (Growing up in India, I was always taught that both these traditions were heterodox sects of Hinduism and not separate religions.) Ober provides a contextual study of sociopolitics through which this understanding caught the imagination of nationalist leaders and Hindu thinkers in the first half of the 20th century and became the popular understanding. A new conception of inclusive Hinduism that equated “Hindu-ness” with “Indian-ness,” and defined it as “a combination of territorial, racial, religious, and cultural characteristics,” emerged as a result of the works of organizations, including the Hindu Mahasabha. The philanthropist J. K. Birla’s patronage for the construction of a number of Buddhist viharas and temples, modeled on Hindu revivalist architecture, was aimed at asserting India’s claim as the Buddhist homeland and Buddhism being part of a singular Hindu tradition. This claim helped tone down the anti-Brahmanical rhetoric and framed the revival of Buddhism as a recovery of India’s great past.

Buddhism’s return to the national forefront was not a monolithic but a multipronged phenomenon.

Buddhism’s return to the national forefront was not a monolithic but a multipronged phenomenon. Several leaders such as B. R. Ambedkar (a Dalit) and monk activists such as Bhikkhu Bodhananda (a Bengali Brahman) continued to make strong arguments for the egalitarian, anti-caste, anti-Hindu nature of Buddhism. Despite being aware of the claims of the “Hindu-Buddha,” and a proximate relationship between the Hindu and Buddhist organizations, Ambedkar argued for a clear separation between a Buddhist and a Hindu identity. This separation was also emphasized by Marxist scholars, who found close connections between Buddhist and Marxist doctrines. Rahul Sankrityayan presented Buddhism as “a religion of reason, human pragmatism, and atheistic humanism,” while Damodar Dharmananda Kosambi highlighted the process of collective decision-making and lack of private property in the sangha as features common to Buddhist and Marxist thought. Ober correctly asserts that these articulations were a result of global networks that shaped their scholarship as well as activism in the independence movements in colonial India.

Ober also interrogates how Buddhist symbols, sites, and relics were intricately tied to the nation-building exercise and used as instruments of foreign policy. The adoption of Buddhist Dharmachakra and the Lion seal of Sarnath as national symbols was predicated on Nehru’s understanding of Buddhism as “a modern religion of reason” that did not require any institutional commitment. Even though he participated in multiple relic tours and Buddhist functions, Nehru saw Buddhism as a “cosmopolitan modernizing force with pan-Asian appeal” that could be utilized as an instrument of foreign policy to represent India as the guiding force of the past and present. Nehru consciously chose relic-centered diplomacy as a tool in the Buddhist border regions to present India as a legitimate state and in neighboring Buddhist countries as the homeland of Buddhism.

Ober’s exhaustive survey assembles Buddhism’s disparate histories from different regions of modern India and contextualizes the formation of its multiple stands. He effectively dismantles the idea of European discovery of Buddhism and challenges the overemphasis on the contribution of Dharmapala and Ambedkar’s scholarship. Each of the indigenous curators Ober profiles was linked to the global networks of monks, scholars, intellectuals, political leaders, industrialists, and the colonial state, demonstrating the interplay between East and West, local and global, native and colonial, and national and universal. The ambitious scope of Ober’s work justifies his multisited and multilingual methodology, and reliance on translations and secondary literature. While Ober engages with previous works that focus on the role of colonial actors and selective native scholars, his effort is elevated by engaging with the voices of marginalized people and overlooked associations in the rebirth of Buddhism.