Thursday, December 11, 2014


Workshop on

19-20, March, 2015

Sree Sankaracharya University of Sanskrit,
Kalady- Kerala. 


By ‘Buddhist-matters’, we mean here all those ideas, institutions, knowledge systems, arts, beliefs, rituals, lifestyles, and other cultural practices that bear some marks of contact, inheritance, or influence of the wider tradition of Buddhism(s). The Buddhist-matters, thus, would include both the historical remnants and the continuing forms of institutions and practices related to Buddhist cultures. A critical engagement with some of the broad concerns of Buddhisms is often seen to be a felt-need of the time. The current period is defined predominantly by the proliferating consumerist culture, which bounds to cause various crises for human existence and ecological sustainability. With the onset and onslaught of neoliberal globalised world-order, a peaceful coexistence of diverse cultures has become threatened. Various strands of cultural imperialism, including ethnic and religious, are on their fast track. Sensitive minds from across the world tend to invoke the Buddhist imagery for meeting the challenges paused by the growing consumerist penetration.

However, such a recourse or return to the Buddhist imagery need not be a call for the revival of Buddhism on the conventional line of adhering to any particular school of Buddhist thought or religious community. Hence, the present proposal to learn from cultural legacies of Buddhism would also be on the line of seeking contact with the ideological sources that enable the cultural engagements of time. Rather being part of a process of getting-connected to all possible sources of liberation and wellbeing, some insights from the wider ideological horizon of Buddhist imagery may become better handy for pragmatics. Thus, this attempt of seeking possibilities of treating Buddhism as an open-ended way of engaging with emerging crises of the period need not be on the conventional line of committing to a particular religious or philosophical institution. Going by such open-ended engagements of relating to Buddhism seems to imply or suggest a methodological perspective that can be termed as ‘cultural Buddhism’.

Buddhism, as a spiritual, ethical and intellectual movement, had prevailed widely in Indian subcontinent for a long period in history. Although it is said to be a non-existing religion in India, remnants of Buddhist culture continue to prevail widely; if not in the name of Buddhism as such. It continues to be a great ideological force for many intellectual and social movements in India and outside. Even as a religious system, it continues to prevailing widely across the bordering countries.

The period that might be very well qualified as ‘Buddhist-India’ is said to have made remarkable achievements in the various fields of our social and cultural life. Sometimes it is claimed that those achievements were revolutionary and unparalleled in history. Different monastic orders and schools of thought, which are emerged within the broader label of Buddhism, can be seen as standing testimonials of its potential for the cultural adaptability and the absence of a centrifugal force of unified doctrine and authority. They can also rather be the expressions of divergent ways of engagement dealing with the problems of human desire (thrsna) and existential sufferings. If this is a fact, then the potentiality of Buddhism to challenge the existing power structures is of great importance. It might very well include its strength of challenge the social structure of segregation based on birth status (jati or caste) as it has been seen all over India.

The possibility of such an adaptability of Buddhism would seem to be having crucial and devastating consequences on contemporary sociality in India today. Nevertheless, the continued presence and force of the Buddhist ethos has not been considered as having any crucial importance in the formulation of public/societal policies and political programs. Instead, its self-defeatism seems to have gained a loud voice against it in the prevailing discourses on Buddhism in India. The self-defeatist argument appears to hold on two contradictory assumptions. They are, 1) Buddhism was originated in India and spread across Asia as any other prophetic religions. 2) Buddhism declined in India following the aberration and degeneration developed within Buddhism due the lack of a unified conception of a transcendental principle. The treatment of Buddhism as one among the many competing religions with theistic conceptions of spirituality have blocked a proper understanding of its worth in the past and determines our mode of dissemination today. The perception that Buddhism is a theological system of thought combined with ritual practices seems to have emerged from the colonial archeology, which said to have rediscovered Buddhism only from the texts, images, architects and other artifacts that are identified as mere monuments of a disappeared religion. The intellectual and/or ideological discourse concerning Buddhism evolved thereof has ignored the various practices through which Buddhism continued to prevail among the popular life. It also appears to be indifferent to a creative engagement with the history of the various traditions of Buddhist practices in India as well. While such a barrier can be a common factor in the history of Buddhist-matters throughout India, the south Indian case seems to have a worsen story to narrate.

It is supposed that Buddhism came to prevail in southern India and Kerala during the period of Asoka itself, and spread further to Sri Lanka and other South East Asia. As the rest of India, traces of its cultural impression upon Kerala society have solid form. Although there is no prevalence of Buddhism of any kind in Kerala today, the 'effects' of it has not still disappeared. But with this there is a problem: Historical consciousness seems to dispute it.  In historical writings on Kerala there are numerous casual remarks on ideas and other elements as belonging to Buddhist tradition. Similarly, many practices are also seen to be pervasively present throughout the cultural life of Kerala. Data on cultural contribution of Buddhism is at times omitted from historical records. For instance, the region of CeraTamilakam (roughly the region of present day Kerala) is unmarked in the map of Buddhist-India. Exception may be the references to Cerabatro (brother or neighbour of Cera King) in the edict of Asoka, and to the (supposedly submerged shore along the coast of Kollom, South Kerala) Vihara of Sree Moolavasa in the Gandhara (Afganistan) inscription. Such a lack of consideration seems to be due to a certain strategy (ideological exclusion or unconscious omissions) and marginalization by mainstream historians (of Buddhism) from India as well as from Orientalists. Thus, the Buddhist heritage of Kerala has often been a matter of incognito reference in cultural and intellectual considerations. Even the official historiography of Kerala has not recognized any substantial spread of Buddhism and Buddhist cultural influence in the region, which is inextricably entangled with local cultures. 
To many, Buddhism did not have significant input in the cultural past of South India. In the historiography of India, it seemed to have been characterized as a failed and diminishing religion in the country of its origin. But a perception like this need not give the whole picture. Buddhist cultures may still be of great ideological force in Indian society. And it may still have the intellectual and social capacity to continue imprinting its cultural importance upon society in the manifold ways hitherto unrevealed. Social, religious, juridical and cultural historians might have dealt with the ideas and institutions of Buddhism in relation to their specific disciplines. But they all seem to follow an essentialist notion of Buddhism, Buddhism as 'one' of the traditions of institutionalized theistic religious beliefs and practices. Such a historiographical preoccupation seems to be a major barrier.

The issue of the historiography of Buddhism as well as the historiography of Kerala seem to be pertinent in a context in which particular historical consciousness becomes decisive factor. It reinforces the fossilized notion of Buddhism as one of the monotheistic religions. It becomes unavoidable, especially, when we deal with pre-conceived ideas about events which had their origin in the remote past. The historiography also becomes problematic in the context of certain historically constructed consciousnesses about Buddhism as such being brought to establish the doctrinal connection or non-connection of some cultural aspects with Buddhism. Often, difficulty arises when any attempt made to establish conceptual or doctrinal connectivity of scattered images and practices that said to be part of Buddhist cultures. Thus, the mainstream historiography of Buddhism as well excludes many of the Buddhist-matters of Kerala. All of them effect certain consciousness of Buddhist past that are reproduced and circulated through the institution of writing history. 
It is within the above context that an exploration into the cultural forms that are found to be apparently Buddhist assumes to be significant. Many historians of India have already addressed the conspicuous absence of south India and Kerala as a socio-cultural or territorial entity as being part of some sort of exclusion agenda prevailed in the historiography.
This seems to run deep   as an unstated assumption in the historical writings of the Nationalist and the Orientalist kind. Although Kerala has been 'described' in such historical writings, it is always as if it does not have any cultural specificity of its own.

Since most of the scattered and subsumed remnants of Buddhism today are in a hybridized form in Kerala, the exploration of Buddhist matters may rather become an exercise in the deciphering of traces instead of finding new and unexplored territory. Therefore, and it may be a good suggestion, a discourse concerning Buddhist cultural legacies must start and focus on such hybridized local forms. Further, it may proceed by comparing finds of and in Buddhist cultural legacies in Kerala with those of elsewhere. Of course, seeking sight of possible relations with the other regions can go no way secondary to anything. Unraveling the global Buddhist cultural legacies may also shed light on the subject matter, irrespective of their stand in direct relational semblance to the Buddhist matters of Kerala or India.

The workshop is also an exploration of the possibilities that may exist in the process of advancing the development of a new methodological perspective. This could possibly be achieved by studying cultural Buddhism through the study of Buddhist legacies existed in the past and existing in the present. The new methodological perspective is, therefore, basically an exercise of learning from the cultural legacies of Buddhism in Kerala and India. Using a popular term one could say that the workshop suggests that dealing with the Buddhist matters in Kerala as phenomena of 'cultural Buddhism' new light may shine on the value of Buddhism. However, it needs to be stated that the present study is not on Buddhism(s) as such; as something of separate and purely religious or cultural phenomena. Rather the emphasis has to be given to the study of cultural hybridization that took place within Buddhism, while it expanded to different cultures. This may also include an analysis to see how Buddhism has been supplanted by other religions and ideologies.

Doctrinal writing or royal promotion of a particular sect of Buddhism need not be a compelling preoccupation. Instead, an exploration into the cultural hybrid and the lingering of Buddhism in it, seems to be more preferable and to the point. Popular beliefs and practices that continue to refuse any easier or linear association with the perceived/projected image of Buddhism, could be an amorphous terrain where the shades of Buddhism remain to be explored. Buddhism need not be understood as a homogeneous religion or philosophy in view of the fact that the expressions of cultural hybridism of Buddhism amount to be independent of versions of Buddhism. The present exploration into Buddhist matters has everything to do with diverse Buddhist cultural intersections. The possibility of supposing the prevalence of a popular version/stream of Buddhism, independently of any royal patronage or individual ideologue, cannot be set aside. Hence, the emphasis is on cultural hybridization. 
Most of the analysis on Buddhist cultural legacies often takes place in the context of historical studies on religious culture in Indian and other Asian countries. As far as the present India is concerned, Buddhist culture forms part of the so-called amalgamated religion of Hinduism. Since Buddhism is said to be a ‘non-living religion’ in India, especially south of  the Vindhyas, any Buddhist-talk might give an impression of being anachronistic in making some claims to a failed model of life. Considerations on Buddhist culture as having any contemporary social significance seem to be very negligible. Exception to this is the case of a feebly recognized one that sides with marginalized communities, as visualized in Ambedkarite Neo-Buddhist (Navayana) interpretation of Buddhism as anti-caste social reformist ideology. Ambedker’s reconstruction of Buddhism as a religion of oppressed was inspired by the similar attempt of Iyothee Thass, who founded the Sakya Buddhist Society at the end of 19th century. Iyotheee Thass visualised Buddhism (Tamil Bouddham) as an ideology of social liberation for breaking the hierarchy based on the Brahmanic domination. He called for return to the poorvangabouddham (earlier Buddhist movement spearheaded by Sakyamuni). Otherwise, all other considerations of Buddhist cultural legacies seem to be expressions of religious culture; in the sense of cultural articulations of Buddhism as one of the theistic religions. In addition, it seems to be the same case even while accounting for the spread of Buddhism across the Asian continent, despite the specific differences in respect of allegiance to the work of Gautama Buddha by various sects of Buddhism. In fact, it is otherwise in many of the cases of Buddhist expansion and adaptation. For instance, there are contrary ways, as in the case of the development of Zen Buddhism, as a spiritual practice in China, or of the engaged Buddhism as socio-political movement in Europe. There, the reception of Buddhism seems to have been taking place on the ground other than the institutionalized (theocentric or theology centered) conceptions of religion. Classical Buddhism itself seems to have a strong foundation of non-theistic spirituality and ethical movement in India. Various spirituo-philosophical sects and popular syncretic religious movements also had a closer contact with Buddhist traditions. The greater inroads that Buddhism had made into various regional cultures in India seemed to have generated asymmetrical distribution (expressions) of Buddhist thoughts and practices. Due to the greater adaptability, many variants of Buddhism had to forgo even their formal label of Buddhism. The proliferation of cultural variants and disguised practices of Buddhism appear to have been condemned as ‘degenerated’ Buddhism. Construed to be so, the so-called cultural aberration of Buddhism seems to call forth an alternative framework of understanding the cultural asymmetry and synergy of the Buddhist plurality. Since the very existence of historical personality of Gautama Buddha is a matter of dispute, (also many other things related to Gautama, including the year of birth and place of enlightenment), it might not be viable to take Buddha’s teachings (recorded later by his disciplines) as the original untainted core. If the given reality that there are greater variety of thoughts, texts, sects, and movements of Buddhism than what may be known of, is taken to be a historical fact, there may be a myriad things to be ‘learned’ from a study of it.

Therefore, capturing of synergy in asymmetry, and asymmetry in the synergy of cultural plurality of Buddhism seems to be of crucial importance. Such a capturing cannot be tantamount to a negotiation of the dialectics between cultural asymmetry and cultural synergy in terms of any synthesizing principle. Meeting the challenge of a non-negotiable capturing of the above dialectics should not privilege certain expressions of Buddhism as authentic. Instead, it should be a treatment of different cultural articulations as having their own points of justification and negotiation.The diversity of Buddhist cultural shades demands analysis other than searching for a common thread to claim coherence among diversity. This is the goal, the treatment of different cultural articulations as having their own merit of justification and negotiation, instead of placing emphasis on heterogeneity of practices.
It is in the context of such a methodological perspective that the idea of cultural Buddhism is referred here. Cultural Buddhism (as against monolithic-religious or doctrinal entity) as an analytical tool. This, while capturing the dialectics of asymmetry and synergy of pluralist practices and interpretations of Buddhism, may also imply or envisage practices that would emerge from the insights of its own analysis. Therefore, apart from the assumption of cultural Buddhism to become a theoretical/methodological/analytical imperative, there has also a derivative assumption that there is a possibility of Buddhism itself being practiced as cultural Buddhism, as a response to the cultural dynamics of the contemporary world. In other words, cultural Buddhism is assumed here not only to account the specific insights that might emerge from the varied Buddhist cultural legacies, but also to see in what may those insights would stand in relation to the problems of changing world. Such a cultural Buddhist perspective need not be justified on the doctrinal or canonical grounds of religious and philosophical Buddhism. Analyses of Buddhist cultural presence from the above kind of established frameworks, which tends to undermine the manifold ways in which Buddhist practices have been articulated from region to region.

Thus, it is to propose here that the need of cultural Buddhism as a methodological requirement has arisen due to an inadequacy of both the internal and external interpretations of Buddhist cultures. Both tend to undermine the doctrinal and cultural divergence implied by the Buddhist practices. Due to the interpretative constraints, which arise from the assumption that all Buddhist cultural traditions follow necessarily from certain common canonical principles, the inclusion and exclusion of something as belonging to Buddhist tradition becomes very difficult or inconceivable. The interpretative inadequacy is often felt from the difficulty to correlate many of the Buddhist legacies with the established doctrines of Buddhism. The doctrinal nonconformity of the ideas and practices that bear marks of Buddhism seems to have caused the ideological appropriation of them by others. It is to be noted here that the doctrinal non-correlation is found only in the case of those isolated ritual practices that are alleged to be belonging to the Buddhist religion. Otherwise, they remain unmatchable with any of the acclaimed doctrines or prominent streams of Buddhism. However, in the case of those practices and remnants having a logical imprint of Buddhist culture, there do not arise any problem of doctrinal mis-matching at all. Instead, they are left unsuspected of any cultural contact with Buddhism.
         Understanding of Buddhism as being a monolithic structure of particular thought system or religious order seems to be the other side of the problem of doctrinal non-correlation. Is Buddhism a philosophical system or a religion? If it is both being capable of generating something other than these two, how do they relate to each other? Does religion follow from philosophy or does it develop independently? Or do they coexist? What is it that we call Buddhist culture? Does it exist independently of both Buddhist religion and philosophy? 
       The English term ‘Buddhism’ signifies different things such as philosophy, religion, spirituality, ethics, social movement that adhere to the teachings of Gautama Buddha. Each of the above categories of Buddhism has further been divided into innumerable doctrinal and regional variants. Therefore, unless there is a methodological perspective, which makes it possible for exploring the rich varieties of Buddhism, such as doctrinal, sectarian, regional, and other kinds, we may not be able to account for the specific wealth of any individual strand in the cultural pluralism of Buddhism. It is with this aim that the idea of cultural Buddhism is proposed here as a methodological perspective which admits heterodoxy as against homogeneity. As an alternative perspective to the overwhelming notion of Buddhism(s) as a monolithic system of philosophy or religion, cultural Buddhism would seek the possibility of analyzing different expressions of ideas and practices that are found to have pronounced traits of any different forms of Buddhism, as having equal meaning within the cultural pluralism of Buddhism.
    The understanding of Buddhism as an institutionalized religion seems to be the most prominent form of homogenization of Buddhism. History of Buddhism is reduced to the history of Buddhist religion alone. Such a history of homogenized Buddhism has also been projected as the normative framework for discerning the nature and identity of cultural remnants. Thus, the history of Buddhism seems to serve as providing some straitjacket framework of analyzing Buddhist traditions.
         This workshop refuses to wear this prescribed straitjacket singularity.
(To be concluded) 
The following issues may indicate some broad areas of concern:
The conceptualization of cultural Buddhism and Buddhist culture.
The cultural adaptations of Buddhism in Kerala and elsewhere.
The interface Buddhism use in local traditions.
The ethical and aesthetic sensibilities in Buddhist cultures.
The non-theistic religiosity of Buddhism.
The non-theological articulations of Buddhism.
The historiography of Buddhist cultures.
The Buddhist legacies in Kerala and South India.
Buddhism as anti-caste social reformist ideology.
The non-religious consideration and interpretation of Buddhist thoughts and practices.

P. K. Sasidharan,
Mob: 91-9447262817 

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