- Archaeology and Buddhism in South Asia by Himanshu Prabha Ray
With Archaeology and Buddhism in South Asia, Himanshu Prabha Ray has produced the first modern introduction to the field intended for an audience of non-specialists. Coming in at a brief 140 pages, Ray has provided an excellent primer for anyone who is seeking to gain an understanding of the basic outlines of Buddhist archaeology in South Asia. To accomplish this, Ray jettisoned the traditional ways of presenting Buddhism that have dominated scholarship for the last century. Where earlier works would almost invariably begin with the biography of the Buddha, the archaeological sites he is believed to have visited, and a survey of the role of Buddhism in the development of urbanism from mid- to late first millennium b.c.e., Ray centers her book on the lived practice of Buddhists in the first millennium c.e.—the first period in which abundant archaeological remains are available to understand the growth, transformation, and eventual decline of Buddhism in South Asia.
It is difficult to think of a better scholar to write this concise introduction to South Asian Buddhism. Since the publication of Monastery and Guild: Commerce under the Satavahanas (1986), Ray has been among the most important and prolific scholars working in ancient Indian history and archaeology. Through her work at Jawaharlal Nehru University and as Chair of the National Monuments Authority, she has helped shift the focus on Buddhist history and archaeology from one that concentrated on Buddhist theology and philosophy, primarily through close readings of [End Page 404] Buddhist texts, to a perspective on the daily lived practices of Buddhist monks and nuns (collectively known as the sangha) and the elite and non-elite lay people who supported them. This new perspective, one that Ray helped create, permeates the whole of Archaeology and Buddhism in South Asia.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Archaeology and Buddhism in South Asia is its emphasis on the diversity of Buddhist practices, whether speaking of the sangha or the laity. More so, rather than present the sangha and the laity as wholly separate, Ray carefully demonstrates the ways that their religious practices and beliefs both diverged and overlapped over time. Ray tracks these issues in five chapters, each focusing on a different theme. In the first two chapters, she examines the spread of Buddhism throughout South Asia, primarily in terms of how specific Buddhist sects competitively expanded into new areas while simultaneously developing the core concepts of the Buddhist dhamma (a difficult term to define, but sometimes glossed as "law" or "teachings"). Rather than a unified, generic form of dhamma, Ray stresses the differences between the 16 sects of Buddhism and the importance of inscriptions for understanding the lived practices, both ritual and otherwise, of the sangha. Overall, Ray credits Buddhist sangha with the spread of Buddhism from its heartland in the Gangetic Plain of North India.
In chapters 3 and 4, Ray turns her attention to Buddhist relics, icons, and associated ritual practices and pilgrimages centered on the relics and icons. In a critical move, Ray argues (p. 3),
The physical manifestations of the dhamma appeared in the archaeological record as religious architecture at least 200–300 years after the Buddha had preached his dhamma across north India, and especially important are the inscriptions, stupas, images, and other objects of veneration.
The key insight here is that the material expressions of Buddhism are no less expressions of the dhamma than the canonical texts that have long been the focus of research.
In terms of relics, Ray argues for the centrality of relic veneration in the ritual lives of both the sangha and lay-Buddhists. More so, she sees the frequent disinterment, division, and reinterment of relics in new regions as central to the spread of Buddhism across South Asia. Within this context, the Buddha's relics were viewed as the living presence of the Buddha, and devotees...