Of rags and riches : Indian Buddhist patronage networks in the Early Historic Period

Milligan, Matthew David
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My interdisciplinary dissertation uses early Indian Buddhism from 300 BCE to 300 CE as a case study for discerning connections between emergent religious institutions and economic networks in ancient South Asia. Buddhist inscriptional, architectural, literary, and artistic evidence from this period of Indian history suggests that the early Indian Buddhist monastic institution was a burgeoning group of disparate monks who rapidly gained economic power for the sake of survival. As such, donative epigraphy reveals how the saṁgha may have used new, innovative economic strategies to eventually dominate the religious landscape of ancient India using commercial networks to catalyze the spread of religious values alongside a mercantile ethos. I argue that these economic strategies reveal some degree of active engagement with virtues traditionally maligned by monastic law, such as the accumulation of wealth and frequent exchange of coined money. Alternating between material and textual datasets, this dissertation identifies reliquary mounds (stūpa-s) used for worship as nodes within the economic networks that allowed charismatic monastic and non-monastic Buddhists to derive social capital through mobilizing financial resources. In turn, these charismatic individuals may have harnessed religious power imbued in auspicious religious locations to convert it to symbolic capital whereby they could permanently enshrine objects and deceased individuals of their choosing for worship. As these religious figureheads gained fame and power so too did their newly fashioned style of Buddhism. Centralized around stone monumental architecture, the Buddhist community became a great force in shaping future historical trajectories for religion in South Asia. These findings serve the fields of Buddhist Studies and the History of Religions in several ways. First, they emphasize the need to read Buddhist and religious sources with ongoing cultural changes such as economic growth, urbanization, and expanding communication networks. Next, these conclusions expand our understanding of one of the earliest forms of Buddhism accessible through extant evidence and attempt to reconfigure how religions employ legitimizing processes for the sake of survival. Lastly, I delineate three seeds of institutionalized religion important for the expansion of early Buddhism: 1.) the advent of writing; 2.) charismatic entrepreneurship; and 3.) increased societal and institutional complexity.