restricted access Stūpa, Story, and Empire: Constructions of the Buddha Biography in Early Post-Aśokan India
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160 Stu −pa, Story, and Empire: Constructions of the Buddha Biography in Early Post-As′okan India Jonathan S.Walters In “The Many Lives of Buddha: A Study of Sacred Biography and Theravâda Tradition,” Frank Reynolds sketched out a dynamic conception of the Buddha biography in which Buddhist life stories are viewed, not as comparatively accurate or inaccurate reflections of the events in “the historical Buddha’s” life, but as a locus for creativity and change within the streams of Buddhist history.1 In this essay I want to develop Reynolds’ view that Buddhist biographies both reflected and shaped the historical situations in which they were composed, by examining a set of three biographical texts in Pâli verse that were produced in Buddhist India during about the second century B.C. Reynolds has already pointed to two of these texts—Cariyâpiπaka and Buddhavaºsa—as especially important for a historical reconstruction of the cultural role that Buddhist biography played in the early post-Aùokan period.2 Adding a third, closely related text called Apadâna, I intend to nuance Reynolds’ account of this particular period within the general framework that he sets out. Specifically, I shall analyze these three texts in light of what Reynolds calls “the most crucial problems which are amenable to future investigation,” namely, the issues that “cluster around the identification of the various levels or stages in the development of the biographical tradition, the question of the structure of the various biographical fragments and texts, and the role which these fragments and texts have played within the broader tradition.”3 These texts, in and of themselves, cannot reveal the historical situation that is to be reconstructed. They are poems about inconceivably ancient periods of time, not scientific histories. I make this fairly obvious point because it is not always grasped in Buddhology. The tendency in Buddhological studies to weave history directly out of literary remains, as though the authors of sacred texts were trying to describe objectively the times and places in which they lived, has elicited a devastating critique, in various forms over the last ten years, by Gregory Schopen, who has challenged fundamental pillars of the Buddhological construct—including various distinctions between monks and layfolk4 and the origin of the Mahâyâna5 —with an appeal to epigraphic evidence that can be dated centuries earlier than the notoriously recent extant textual manuscripts. With good reason Schopen has insisted that, except for certain ancient manuscript finds mostly from Central Asia, epigraphy and archaeology provide us with the only objects for reconstructing the first two millennia of the Buddha era that actually survive intact from the periods they are supposed to be talking about. I agree with Schopen that epigraphy must now take the lead in a critique and new construction of ancient Buddhist history; but I am equally convinced that epigraphy cannot do without the textual evidence entirely.6 Among other things, these texts have been vital to the project of reconstructing epigraphic languages and dating and identifying the kings in whose reigns the epigraphs were incised. Schopen’s critique starts to reach fruition only when the epigraphs bring new questions to bear on the texts and, it is important to add, when the texts are then enabled to raise new questions about the epigraphs.7 Together, the work of epigraphers and historical linguists allows us to identify certain epigraphs and textual compositions as coeval; both textual and epigraphic studies are reenergized when we can see particular texts as products of particular ages that can be reconstructed on the basis of (epigraphic and archaeological) evidence that is partially external to the texts themselves. As Schopen’s work so clearly shows, situating textual studies within epigraphic history opens whole new frontiers for Buddhology. This paper follows Schopen’s lead in its attempt to situate the texts in question within the history that can be reconstructed on the basis of “hard” evidence. In fact, Schopen himself has treated the Apadâna and related jâtaka texts as potentially valuable for the epigraphic and archaeological study of early post-Aùokan India.8 Stûpa, Story,  161 and Empire The three biographical texts that I shall discuss in this essay are especially well suited to the development of both Reynolds’ and Schopen’s methodological projects. In terms of Buddhist life stories, they are the only comprehensive canonical tellings of the Buddha biography that contain descriptions of previous lives in addition to the present...