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Reinventing Buddhism : conversations and encounters in modern India, 1839 - 1956 Ober, Douglas Fairchild


This dissertation offers a fresh perspective on what has long been called India’s modern Buddhist revival. Theories of this revival are based on the idea that Buddhism, a religion founded in India more than two and a half millennium ago, disappeared between the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries and was reborn in 1956 when the Indian constitutionalist Dr. B.R. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism along with half a million of his Dalit (former ‘untouchable’) followers. This, however, is only part of the story. Taking on the conventional narrative, the study assesses how much was really known about Buddhism in the centuries after its disappearance and asks what sense we can make of the important place that Buddhism came to hold in modern Indian society. Through an extensive examination of disparate materials held at archives and temples across India and South Asia, the study demonstrates the integral role Buddhism played in India in the century prior to Ambedkar’s conversion. To frame the discussion, each chapter of the dissertation highlights an important facet of the dynamic interplay between British colonialism, global circuits of knowledge and local Indian agency. The first four chapters (c. 1830s – 1910) examine the discovery of Buddhist ruins in the subcontinent and the challenges British epistemologies posed to prevailing Indian memories of these spaces; Indian educators and the place of Buddhism in colonial education systems; Buddhism’s public life among new religious movements and literary publics; and the roles that Indians played in the development of global networks and new pilgrimage circuits. The last four chapters (c. 1910 – 1956) turn to Buddhism’s influence among the Hindu right and Indian National Congress; the radical non-Brahmin and Buddhist conversion movements of marginalized communities; the fusion of Buddhist and socialist ideologies in the interwar period; and the dominant public role that the independent Indian state gave to Buddhism in its domestic and foreign policies. The originality of the work rests in its understanding of Buddhism not just as an institutionalized practice and system of thought but as an imagined and inventive ‘place-world’ capable of transforming the very here and now.

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