Critical Dharma for Thinking Minds

Urban, Secular, Engaged: Cites, Laity and Early Buddhism

The following is the conclusion of a paper, Early Buddhism and the Urban Revolution, by Balkrishna Govind Gokhale, from The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Vol. 5, No. 2 1982.

[Editor: The bulk of the article is concerned with enumerating and categorizing all the named places in the early scriptures that the Buddha was said to have travelled to or preached in. More than half of those places were large cities and market towns, particularly Savatthi [Shravasti]. Gohkale relates the rise of early Buddhism in Uttar Pradesh with the rise of large cities teeming with diverse populations, an urban economy bustling with local and distant trade and trade routes. He relates the success of early Buddhism with the rise of a merchant class who sought a different kind of religious practice than Vedic ritualism. Compared with the Vedic religion and later monastic forms of Buddhism, this lay-focused Buddhism was urban, secular and engaged with the world. It was concerned more with ethical behaviour than ritual sacrifice. Later, as cities declined and populations returned to a rural, agrarian way of life, Vedic religions once again became ascendent, while Buddhist monks, who were sequestered in their monasteries, developed the metaphysical doctrines that dominated the Mahayana period*. Gohkale refers to this as the “feudalization” of Buddhism.

In my mind, the greatest schism of Buddhism is not the 18 schools of early Buddhism or the Mahayana/Theravada split, but the split between lay Buddhism and monastic Buddhism. Buddhists in the West are still struggling with this issue today, but the rules of the game have changed. Monks and ordained teachers brought Buddhism to the West, but they are no longer in control of its propagation. Instead, because of cheap paperback books, magazines, and especially the Internet, lay Buddhism is on the rise as people form ‘leaderless’ (i.e. unordained) Sanghas, teach themselves and each other the dharma and the practice. The “monastic model” is declining in the West; with it goes its emphasis on metaphysics and extreme forms of esoteric meditation practice. As in its early days, much of lay Western Buddhism is urban, secular and engaged with the world. The lay Buddhism of the future will no longer be localized in idyllic rural retreat centers, but in chat groups and zoom meetings, college classrooms and meeting halls of large urban centers. I am personally committed to developing a model of lay Buddhism in the style of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, a form that is urban, secular and engaged.]

[*I suspect as well that the sharp dichotomy between the doctrine of emptiness, which reached extremes in Mahayana, and the practice of compassion is the result of the split between the monastic and lay traditions. The realization of emptiness is the goal of monastic Bodhisattvas seeking Buddhahood, while compassion is the practice of lay people practicing Buddhism in the world.]


What conclusions may we draw from the evidence set forth above? Our sample survey makes it clear that the culture portrayed in our existing texts is decisively urban, much more so than the preceding and succeeding phases of the civilization of ancient India. The Buddhism of our texts is a Buddhism predominantly of the cities, towns and market-places. Its social heroes are the great merchant-bankers and the new kings, perhaps in that order of importance. This Buddhism drew its major social support from these classes and, in turn, reflected their social and spiritual concerns. These classes needed a new spiritual-social orientation and value system, which early Buddhism provided with its opposition to the old Vedic theology, sacrificial ritual, the dominance of the priest, and the emerging menacingly rigid social hierarchy. They needed new socially-oriented ethical values, in which the individual (and his family) rather than the varna-jati [caste birth] were the centerpiece, and the Buddha articulated such values. It is fashionable to portray the Buddha as the first great reformer in Indian social history, striving to attack and destroy the “caste” system. This is an instance of reading modern (or contemporary) social values into ancient texts, and it is a gross over-simplification. The Buddha did ignore caste distinctions in the matter of admission to and treatment of individuals within the sangha. Outside of it his attitude was pragmatic, if not ambivalent. He seems to use the varna-jati [caste birth] terminology of his times in his references to existing society and only tends to rank the Khattiya as higher than the Brahmana. He ridicules Brahmana pretensions to ritual purity and social eminence and insists that a person be judged by his individual virtue rather than his familial, class or social origins. This was precisely the demand of the new urban social classes who felt closer to the Buddha than to the traditional Brahmana and sacrifice-dominated Vedic cults. These classes were not much interested in speculative metaphysics, for their emphasis was on practical and everyday concerns of making good in this world and assuring one’s welfare in the next. That is one of the reasons why so much of early Buddhism is addressed to ethical concerns rather than speculative metaphysics. The Buddha seems to have offered moral justification for social well-being and success. The later metaphysical Buddhism of the Abhidharmikas and Mahayanists was a product of an age of “villagism” and the emergent quasi-“feudal” society. The metaphysical gain became a social loss, for what Buddhism gained in speculative metaphysics, it lost in its social roots. This is reflected both in the increasing trend of using Sanskrit as a vehicle for religious articulation and the widening gulf between the monastery and the laity. The urban revolution did not create Buddhism, but it was certainly vital for its early popularity and material support. A decay of that urbanism sapped some of the socially vital foundations of the Buddhist movement.

Finally, the arguments stated above cannot be disassociated from the nature of the collation and transmission of the early Buddhist Pali texts. Savatthi [Shravasti], as noted above, was associated with many of the suttas of the four Nikayas, which led Mrs. Rhys Davids to suggest that either the Buddha “mainly resided there or else Savatthi was the earliest emporium (library?) for the collection and preservation (however this was done) of the talks.” G.P. Malalasekera agrues that “The first alternative is more likely, as the Commentaries state that the Buddha spent twenty-five rainy seasons in Savatthi, leaving only twenty to be spent elsewhere.”If it is assumed that the Buddha spent only the rainy season in one fixed place such as Savatthi, what has happened to the statements he must certainly have made during the eight months of the dry season when he is supposed to have traveled from one place to another? Undoubtedly many such statements are still preserved in other parts of the Canon, but their number does not seem to be sufficiently large to ac- count for preaching activity over eight months every year. Statistically, the number of suttas delivered in urban centers, even in our limited sample, is overwhelmingly large (83.43%)while the rest (16.57%) are distributed over 76 different places, among which are included some towns, nigamas, villages and the “countryside” (janapada). The share of rural areas in the total sample is thus very small. It will not be unreasonable to conclude that even during the lifetime of the Buddha the rule of living in a fixed location only for the rainy season, with the rest of the year to be spent moving from one place to another, had become the ideal rather than the reality. The localisation of the avasas [monk residences] had become a fact of the early Buddhist monastic life even during the lifetime of the Buddha, as evidenced by such usages as “Kosambaka bhikkhu.” It will not be hazardous, on the basis of our evidence, to assume that most of the Buddha’s preaching was done in urban centers where he may have spent extensive periods of time even outside of the vassa-vasa [rains retreat] period. The Buddha and his followers maintained an extensive and continuous contact with lay devotees during his lifetime and the period of a few decades after his demise. But, by the beginning of the fourth century B. C., Buddhism had become localised in fixed and well-endowed monasteries, first drawing upon lay mercantile support but later, and increasingly, dependent upon royal endowments. When the state began to be “feudalised” after the end of the Maurya empire, the sangha was also consequently “feudalised,” as it depended on endowments of land. By the time Mahayana came onto the scene, this process of “feudalisation” was far advanced and it left its own philosophical (especially metaphysical) imprint on the character of the evolving Buddhism itself.

Inscriptional evidence from the Asokan and the Sunga-Kavna periods sheds some interesting light on the urban-lay nexus of early Buddhism and its development up to the beginning of the Christian era. In his Bairat (Bhabru) inscription, Asoka recommends seven texts as deserving special attention. The emphasis seems to be on texts that are of direct relevance to the laity. In the inscriptions from Sanchi and Bharut the two terms that are frequently mentioned are the dhammakathika and the pancanekayika. The first refers to a preacher of the Dhamma and may be taken to mean a preacher to the laity. The second means one who has mastered (or memorised?) the five Nikayas and may be taken to refer to a specialised monastic function related to the transmission of the Buddhist scriptures. The sangha, on this evidence, had two distinct functions, that of preaching to the laity and of regulating monastic life and pre- serving and transmitting sacred texts from generation to generation. Already, however, the monastic function was beginning to receive greater attention than relations with the laity.

This may partially reflect the large number of donors coming from villages and the countryside rather than the great urban centers which, presumably, were already in a state of decay in the post-Asokan period. This consolidation of the monastic tradition led to the development of the Abhidhamma tradition of early Buddhism, a school more geared to monastic thinking and life than to the everyday needs of the laity. The sangha seems to have begun its phase of “ruralization,” when it was subject to increasing dependence on royal and “feudal” support. 

This becomes the major characteristic in the history of Mahayana Buddhism, especially of the Gupta and the post- Gupta periods. Thus, the decline of urbanism and the consequent loss of economic and social power by the mercantile classes had a direct impact on the nature and development of Buddhism in India.

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This entry was posted on 2021/03/30 by .


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