Distinct perspective on Buddhism in India
Reviewed by M Rajivlochan

Indian Monastic Buddhism: Collected Papers on Textual, Inscriptional and Archaeological Evidence
by Gregory Schopen. 
Motilal Banarsidass 
Pages 422 with index. $39.9

gregory Schopen says that Indian Buddhism is not the sum of its texts. This is his basic point of departure from most other historical writings on Indian Buddhism. Including archaeological and epigraphical records in history writing is his forte. This enables him to provide many unique insights.

For example, discussing the development of the image cult in Indian Buddhism, Schopen points out a similarity between classical writings on Buddhism and Christianity. Both sets of writings tend to assume that the rise of the cult of the image or the cult of the saints as the case may be, was due to the capitulation by enlightened elites in the Sangha or church to ideas among the "vulgar" mob. Schopen points out that there is little evidence of this supposed schism between the monastic and lay communities. Most of the images at Sarnath and Ajanta, for example, were constructed out of donations from monks. Many of the donor monks were high ranking in the monastic order too.

Such large numbers of donative inscriptions sponsored by monks and nuns also suggest something else: that many monks could and did possess personal wealth. This is one of the other major points that Schopen makes.

Using the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya canon especially as reflected in the Gilgit manuscripts, Schopen points out that the monk who is pictured in these records is a "construction foreman, an art promoter, a banker, an entrepreneur, sometimes a shyster, and sometimes a saint". Above all, he is a very real figure deeply involved in the business of daily living and interacting intensely with the local community, often in economic matters as well. In one part of the Civaravastu, Schopen says there are 35 pages dealing with monastic inheritance law that deals with the property of a monk living in one residence, who dies in another; rules dealing with the disposition of the estate of a monk some of whose property was held in trust by other monks or even laymen; rules laying down procedure for the community to take possession of a deceased monkís estate in order to distribute it etc. These texts make a distinction between samghika or corporate funds and paudgalika or a monkís private property. No doubt the Pratimoksa rules of the very same Mulasarvastivada Vinaya has clear rules forbidding monks to engage in activities relating to the handling of money. But in practice this rule seems to have been followed by monks only when it suited them.

Monks were engaged in economic activities perhaps to arrange sources of funds for maintaining the vihara or monastic community. Occasional donations did not oblige the descendants of a donor to continue his ancestorís munificence. In such circumstances, there seems to have emerged the practice of lending on interest. One passage in Vinayvibhanga from the Tibetan translation of the Vinaya specifically enjoins monks to take out a pledge of twice the value of a perpetuity and to write out a contract with a seal and a witness for placing the perpetuity on interest. This would have assured the monks of a permanent source of income so long as the capital remained untouched. More remarkable than this passage is the similarity that Schopen points out between this aksaya of the Vinaya and the aksaya nivi of the Sanskrit inscriptions which too pertain to perpetuities to be lent out on interest. There are a large number of Sanskrit epigraphs which testify to this practice. Also echoes of this passage from the Vinayavibhanga can be found in the Hindu digest of law, the Yajnavalkya Smriti on the subject of written contracts and witnesses.

In sum, this is a very rich work full of information and insights which gives an original perspective on the development of Buddhism in India. At many points, Schopen ranges beyond Buddhism to suggest that the socio-economic structure and ideas underlying religious practices across sects, whether Jain, Buddhist or Hindu may well have been similar if not identical. Those who wish to have a clearer understanding of the history of the religions of India would do well to read this book.