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Reading: Haunting the Buddha

DeCaroli, Robert. 2004. Haunting the Buddha: Indian popular religions and the formation of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Robert DeCaroli, associate Art History professor at George Mason University, has written an exciting, direct, and convincing book of great relevance to my own work. Where I have compliments, I am indeed very impressed, since he clearly and persuasively argues points with which I am already very familiar. Where I have complaints, they should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt, since my complaints here tend to be in precisely the areas that I am myself working and have strong opinions.

DeCaroli’s book starts with a basic question: why is Buddhist art, art of a religion which presents itself as primarily a tradition of ascetic reflection and escape from the round of suffering and rebirth, so suffused with representations of the non-human spirit world, and specifically with spirits such as yakshas and pretas? Although he is influenced by the massive amount of work done by scholars who have concluded that this is the result of an accommodation between the popular religions of the masses and the elite religions of ascetics and government, he refuses this explanation, essentially for two reasons (p. 10). First, this characterization presents the saµgha as clever and cynical manipulators of the masses, which he finds unappealing as a form of institutional analysis (I do as well). Secondly, and more importantly for his purposes, this explanation utterly fails to explain the clear importance and relevance of these same spirits to the elites and ascetics within Buddhism.

The basic argument made associates spirit-deities with the spirits of the dead, and identifies the crucial role that Buddhist monks have traditionally, and very likely since the beginnings of Buddhism itself, have arrogated to themselves – that of tending to the dead on behalf of the living. That is to say that Buddhist monks offered themselves as media or techniques by which the sufferings of the dead ameliorated, their desires appeased, and the blessings secured. This authority is crucial in understanding the history of Buddhism, and the consideration of supposedly ‘low’ spirit-deities or texts concerning them far off the point.

DeCaroli does an expert job of navigating his sources to argue for an explanation of the process by which Buddhism created itself in dialogue with the spirits it conquered and then accommodated. He avoids making strong claims, to the extent that in many places I think he relies on repetition of weak claims to substitute for the stronger claims he could actually make.

If I have one criticism, it is that ‘popular religion’ is never adequately theorized. It seems to variously stand in for any non-Buddhist religious practice or belief, any non-systemic religious practice or belief, or any ‘primitive’ or indigenous practice or belief. These are not the same thing (nor indeed, are any of the single categories composed of homogenous elements) and it seems that much of his argument’s force derives from its relationship of Buddhism and its urbanizing allies to their Neolithic or indigenous peripheries. This is unfortunately nowhere discussed in DeCaroli’s book, but as I noted before, this is very possibly my bugbear and not his.

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2 thoughts on “Reading: Haunting the Buddha

  1. erikwdavis says:

    Well, Daba, if that’s arrogant, I guess I’m arrogant. But consider what I am saying here: monks (as an institution, the Buddhasangha, not any particular monk) claim that the only way to effectively interact with the dead is via themselves. That is, no other spirit medium, certainly no direct contact, and no other medium period, except via offerings made to monks on behalf of the deceased.

    This is precisely what Buddhist monks do say, and which is born out in countless Buddhist texts, and archaeological sites (see Decaroli’s excellent book, reviewed above). It is also called ‘arrogating‘. Now, we may differ on whether or not the Buddhasangha is justified in making this claim, and your opinion as to my arrogance may be based on a deeply-held opinion that monks are entitled to make such claims. However, as a secular person studying Buddhism in a way that I hope is as sympathetic as it is equanimious, for over half my lifetime, I find it difficult to accept people’s self-professions of their own rights without questioning just a little bit.
    Hence, “arrogate.”
    Sorry that I came off as arrogant. Perhaps a better familiarity with the thought behind that choice of words will ameliorate your opinion. But, I’m not terribly worried one way or the other. Perhaps that also strikes you as arrogant?

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