Theravaada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo,
by Richard F. Gombrich

Reviewed by Jonathan S. Walters

Philosophy East and West
Vol. 40, No. 2
April 1990
pp. 251-253

Copyright by University of Hawaii Press


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Theravaada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo. By Richard F. Gombrich. The Library of Religious Beliefs and Practices. London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1988. Pp. x + 237. Hardcover $55.00. Paperback $15.95.

This book is part of a series, under the editorship of John Hinnells and Ninian Smart, designed to provide "pioneering and scholarly introductions to different religions in a readable form ... intended for students of religion, ideas, social sciences and history, and for the interested layperson" (p. [ii]). Richard F. Gombrich's expertise in Pali texts as well as contemporary Sinhalese culture make him well-qualified to contribute the series' volume on Theravaada Buddhism.

    Gombrich presents his general introduction to this 2,500-year-old religious tradition within a social historical framework. He champions Weberian analysis against the Marxist critique of religion because the latter sees the effect of economics on religion without acknowledging the other side of the coin; Gombrich prefers an interactive model (like Weber's interactive view of Calvinism and capitalism), explained with reference to the idea of art historian E. H. Gombrich, his father, that art and culture exist in a "feedback" relationship. Ultimately Gombrich argues that both Weberian and Marxist interpretations are "impoverished" by focusing only on religion and economics as factors: Gombrich wants to include a great deal more, like geography (pp. 22, 111), linguistics (p. 155), and politics (pp. 116-117), which he does admirably. The Buddha's ideas confront a great variety of such factors in this book: epidemics, social change, political fashion, human greed, Christian proselytization, and modernization, to name but a few. In a nutshell, then, one can characterize the book as the story of how a particular philosophical/religious system, espoused by Gotama Buddha, changed through "accommodation" to external factors

    In chapter one (pp. 1-31) Gombrich introduces his subject matter in very general terms and lays out his methodological strategy. Chapter two (pp. 32-59), "Gotama Buddha's Problem Situation," discusses Indian social and religious conditions during the historical Buddha's lifetime. Chapter three (pp. 60-86), "The Buddha's Dhamma," portrays Buddhist thought (a "religious individualism" which developed, consequently, into "an ethic for the socially mobile") as a reaction to Brahminical culture. Chapter four (pp. 87-117), "The Sangha's Discipline," explains the Buddhist monastic code (Vinaya) as an attempt by the Buddha himself to protect the practice of his religion from being consumed by the social order. In chapter five (pp. 118-136) , "The Accommodation between Buddhism and Society in Ancient India," Gombrich argues that the religion came to accept ritual practices opposed to the Buddha's intention (for example, devotionalism, pilgrimage, relic cults, and merit transference) and that, similarly ignoring what Gombrich takes to have been the Buddha's own indifference to politics (pp. 81-86), the religion allied itself with the powerful Mauryan emperors. Chapter six (pp. 137-171) , "The Buddhist Tradition in Sri Lanka," characterizes the history of Buddhism in that country as the accommodation of this essentially urban, individualistic religion to the village society encountered there by the A`sokan missionaries. Chapter seven (pp. 172-197), "Protestant Buddhism," examines the transformation of Sinhalese Buddhism in the nineteenth century, which occurred largely in response to the British conquest of Sri Lanka and under the influence of Christian

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missionaries. In a final chapter (pp. 198-210), "Current Trends, New Problems," Gombrich discloses a few themes from Buddhism Transformed, a book on contemporary Sri Lankan Buddhism that he has written with Gananath Obeyesekere.

    It will not surprise those familiar with Gombrich's earlier work to learn that this outline of the book's structure fails to do justice to the enormous amount of information it actually contains: Gombrich points readers, however cursorily, to most of the major events and themes in the long and complex history of Theravada Buddhism. Virtually none of this information is new. As Gombrich himself points out (pp. ix-x), the book is "essentially a representation" of the work of other scholars, especially Walpola Rahula, Mohan Wijayaratna, Michael Carrithers, R. A. L. H. Gunawardana, Kitsiri Malalgoda, Heinz Bechert, and Gananath Obeyesekere (peppered of course with the author's own previous work). As such, the book provides a long-needed introduction to the scholarly study of Theravaada Buddhism; although comprehensive in scope it is written in a clear and lucid style, and Gombrich is careful throughout to explain technical terminology in order to insure the book's accessibility to even the rank beginner. The inclusion of a bibliography of works cited (pp. 211-215) and of a comprehensive index (pp. 232-237) enhance the book's usefulness as an introduction.

    It is Gombrich's attempt to make his introduction not only scholarly, but also pioneering, which renders this book problematical. Gombrich offers opinions in this short survey on countless topics which have received careful attention from scholars for at least a century and continue to be the focus of major academic enterprises (including the nature of Vedic religion, caste theory, the structure and purpose of the Vinaya, the relationship between lay and monastic Buddhism, the historicity of A`soka and his missions, the origin of Sinhalese nationalism, Sangha-state relations in ancient Sri Lanka, the history of the Paali canon, the impact of Hinduism and Mahaayaaana Buddhism upon Sinhalese religion, Anagaarika Dharmapaala, and so forth). Many of these opinions are new, and some even radical. Unfortunately, Gombrich ignores (even in the bibliography) a great deal of recent scholarship on each of these topics that calls into question his account, leaving the reader instead with the opinion, judgment, "hunch," or "imaginative reconstruction" of Richard Gombrich. [1] This undermines Gombrich's attempt to say something new to the scholarly community for which this book's data are old. Specialists will find this problem compounded by Gombrich's selective regard for primary sources (and disregard, especially, of late- and post-canonical Paali literature).

    Of course Gombrich set out to write an introduction. and so it may seem unfair to criticize him for ignoring some primary and secondary literature. Yet this reviewer maintains that the book's shortcomings also affect deleteriously the book's value as an introduction. The book does not point beyond itself. The interested beginner will not learn from this book that Gombrich is not the only scholar to draw conclusions about the issues he addresses; he or she will not gain access through the text, notes, or bibliography to the other side of each issue. Moreover, the presentation of some of the author's conclusions is such that college and university professors will find themselves spending as much time disentangling Gombrich's opinions as they will gain in having a general introduction readily available. One can only imagine the problem undergraduate students will have understanding the historical interaction of Theravaada Buddhism with Mahaayaana Buddhism, classical Hinduism, Jainism, Islam, and Roman Cathol-

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icism after they have been introduced to the subject with the statement that "the first unavoidable confrontation between Sinhalese Buddhism and an alien religious tradition occurred only in the nineteenth century when Protestant missionaries ... invaded Ceylon with their preaching and pamphlets" (p. 22). This, despite the fact that the book itself documents the encounter of Sri Lankan Theravaada Buddhists, long before the nineteenth century, with the religions mentioned above! Similarly, Gombrich summarily dismisses the role of gods in Theravaada Buddhism (pp. 23-24), which would undermine any attempt in the classroom to use well-known reconsiderations of this problem's complexity (including the conclusions of some of the scholars whose work the author claims to "represent"). A teacher interested in nuancing the simplistic view that Sri Lanka's current ethnic problems are the result of millenia-old religious and cultural differences will be thwarted by Gombrich's conclusion that Sinhalese Buddhist identity is precisely being not Hindu and not Tamil (pp. 138-142). The book also takes readers into areas (such as Buddhist-Christian comparison) which are extraneous to its stated purposes.

    Examples could be multiplied, but perhaps the criticism is clear enough. In short, the book would have been much more valuable if Gombrich had stuck to the project of "representing" earlier work to give a general introduction, rather than encumbering it unnecessarily with attempts to make it pioneering, or if he had produced a truly pioneering work by supporting his many opinions with the primary and secondary literature available to the community of specialists. In producing a book which tried to be at once both a useful introduction and a pioneering work in the field, Gombrich ended up with one that can only half-heartedly be recommended as either.

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Jonathan S. Walters
The University of Chicago

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NOTE

1. This is not the place to provide an extensive bibliographic critique, but as an example we can point out that Gombrich devotes an entire chapter to the monastic discipline, conjecturing about a number of issues which go beyond the scholarship he cites, yet makes no reference to two important recent studies of these issues, namely, Jotiya Dhirasekera, Buddhist Monastic Discipline: A study of its origin and development in relation to the Sutta and Vinaya Pitakas (Colombo: Gunasena, 1982) , and John Clifford Holt, Discipline: The Canonical Buddhism of the Vinayapitaka (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1981). Similarly, Gombrich opines on issues surrounding the relationship of state and Sangha in Theravaada Buddhist thought without reference to several widely available books on these issues which take very different stands, including the collection of essays edited by Bardwell L. Smith as Religion and Legitimation of Power in Sri Lanka (Chambersburg, Pennsylvania: Anima, 1978) and Stanley J. Tambiah's World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand Against a Historical Background (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976).