All but Appeared: On Douglas Ober’s “Dust on the Throne”
By Liesl SchwabeJune 22, 2023
Dust on the Throne: The Search for Buddhism in Modern India by Douglas Ober
Today, this particular flair of colonial myopia appears absurdly satirical. Yet the underlying sentiment—that Buddhism in India was dead and buried until the British resurrected it—has long persisted as a nearly universal narrative. Douglas Ober’s Dust on the Throne: The Search for Buddhism in Modern India (2023), by contrast, complicates and expands this history. As Ober argues in his broadly researched and vividly illuminated first book, the widely accepted account that Buddhism “all but disappeared” in India after the 13th or 14th century overlooks and, at times, erases the Buddhism—and the Buddhists—who were there all along. While there’s no doubt that Buddhist practice, visibility, and pilgrimage were greatly diminished across the subcontinent for centuries, this rich investigation reveals the extent to which what has long been understood as a colonial revival was, in fact, “led as much by Indians and other Asians as it was by Europeans.”
Tracking the evolution of a diverse Buddhist presence in late-19th- and early-20th-century India, the book highlights varied contributions of key social, political, and religious leaders, as well as their frequent disagreements with one another. Especially insightful is the nuanced consideration of the contradictory ways that Buddhist thought has been interpreted as both inseparable from and antithetical to Hindu worldviews, above all in regard to caste. Ober also explores how the availability of Buddhist concepts and stories, in Hindi, Bangla, Malayalam, and Tamil, reflects significant interreligious interest and familiarity across the subcontinent, an important shift away from the customary spotlight on the Anglophone elite, which simultaneously engages with the realities of class and linguistic difference in pre-independence India.
For instance, in 1864, Raja Sivaprasad (1823–95), a multilingual educator and son of Jain merchants, authored what became a popular three-volume, Hindi-language history textbook. Until then, the books used in colonial schools were written by the British. As Sivaprasad explains in the introduction to his own text, much of that information had been incorrect and distorted. With an eye toward self and social improvement, Sivaprasad was emphatic that young Indians learn of the subcontinent’s sophisticated and storied past.
In turn, Sivaprasad included a lengthy depiction of the Buddha’s life and teachings, presenting the pinnacle of Buddhist devotion within India as a just era with global influence, including a reference to Nalanda, the once flourishing international Buddhist university (from the fifth to 12th century). But in addition to portraying a progressive, if not altogether accurate, egalitarian history, Sivaprasad, according to Ober, “frames early Buddhism as a popular protest movement against the tyranny of society, comparing its fight against brahmanical caste supremacy […] to US president Abraham Lincoln’s struggle ‘for the emancipation of slaves.’”
Despite subsequent critique of the text, tens of thousands of copies remained a classroom staple for decades, and the book was later translated into Urdu and English. Confronting caste oppression was bold and controversial. But equally salient, and not altogether separate from Sivaprasad’s condemnation of caste, was the then-novel positioning of the Buddha on the stage of world religions as a moral icon on par with Jesus. The textbooks altered how young Indians viewed themselves while, at the same time, made the history of Buddhism in India accessible and relevant, opening up, for much of a younger generation, what had been a domain largely available only to European Orientalists.
Ober also contextualizes the complex legacy of Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933), who was born in Ceylon and became a lifelong advocate of Buddhist control of the Maha Bodhi temple after centuries of Hindu oversight. Initially taken under the wing of the theatrical Theosophists Henry Olcott and Madame Helena Blavatsky, Dharmapala traveled widely, gaining international financial support and recognition.
Yet, as Ober demonstrates, Dharmapala’s prominence often outshines the work of his contemporaries, including Kripasaran Mahathera (1865–1926), who founded the Bengal Buddhist Association (BBA) in Calcutta, not far from Dharmapala’s Maha Bodhi Society. While the BBA focused on the involvement of local Bengalis and published its journals in Bangla, Dharmapala published in English and appealed to the cosmopolitan intelligentsia, in India and abroad. Ober deepens the significance of this juxtaposition by noting that while the two were at times friendly, Dharmapala referred to the BBA’s bhikkhus as “low-born” and incorrectly identified Kripasaran as “illiterate.” Such transgressions reveal caste and class tensions that carried weight at the time as well as, no doubt, shaped how and why the Anglophone “global elite” have remained dominant in the historical narrative.
Meanwhile, in South India, Iyothee Thass (1845–1914), was a siddha—a practitioner of native medicine—a community organizer, and a newspaper publisher, whose human rights activism and claims to Buddhist origins would also shape Indian politics for decades to come. Born a paraiyar (so-called “untouchable”), Thass saw himself and his Dravidian kinfolk not as newcomers or “converts” to Buddhism but as India’s original Buddhists before “the stigma of caste had yet to be pressed upon them.” Ober writes that in “reframing Tamil or Dravidian Buddhist identity […] Thass and his colleagu[e]s created what was in effect a collective identity and history for a people who had until then been understood as having no history.”
In founding the Shakya Buddhist Society in Madras, which, like other community organizations at the time, hosted public lectures, built schools, and ran a publishing house, Thass became instrumental in the education and empowerment of local Dalits. The Society also expanded as satellite branches opened in places Dalits migrated for work, from the mines of Karnataka to the fields of Burma and South Africa. Thass’s ideas, however, would spread across not only oceans but also decades, influencing, in particular, the anti-caste visionary Dr. B. R. Ambedkar (1891–1956). In fact, Ober writes, Thass’s argument that caste resulted from the schism inherent between Buddhism and Brahmanism “would become the cornerstone of twentieth-century dalit Buddhist thought.”
Ambedkar, who earned PhDs from Columbia and the London School of Economics, authored the profoundly decisive The Annihilation of Caste (1936) and served as the chief architect of the deliberately secular Indian constitution. Alongside an estimated half a million fellow Dalits, Ambedkar also publicly converted to Buddhism in 1956, the act of which has been replicated, en masse, in the decades since, with millions of Dalits continuing to convert as a means of collective liberation. Ober’s book, however, disputes the prevalent view that these conversions indicate a “new Buddhism from scratch.” Instead, Ober locates Ambedkar and the practice of Dalit conversion within a historic continuum, one in which adherence to Buddhism as resistance to Brahmanical supremacy is an enduring Indian tradition in its own right.
Overall, the book is vast and dense, shining light on many of the Indian historians, scholars, translators, ethnographers, and laborers whose engagement with ancient and modern Buddhism galvanized 19th- and 20th-century public discourse. Rather than fragmented, however, the confluence of geographies, perspectives, and demographics demonstrate how dynamic and complex local expertise and agency in the resurgence of Buddhism within India have been.
From the extensive work of Bengali writer Sarat Chandra Das (1849–1917), whose travels to Tibet, encounters with the Panchen Lama, and compilation of the 1902 Tibetan-English Dictionary with Sanskrit Synonyms possibly inspired a character in Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901), to the Bihari-born wrestler-turned-bhikkhu Mahavir Singh (1833–1919), Ober cast a wide archival net in exploring an astounding breadth of personalities, inspirations, and consequences. While the sheer number of names, associations, alliances, rivalries, and varying religious and secular traditions can, at times, be dizzying, the writing nevertheless remains eloquent and incisive, even lyric.
Though Ober himself laments the lack of women included and expresses that the text was never intended to be “comprehensive,” the two pages that do reference women’s roles indicate the existence of immensely valuable, if woefully underrepresented, female voices and experiences, which would have been worthwhile to see expanded. Nevertheless, Ober has written a vital book, full of heart and curiosity, and his thoughtful, precise descriptions often invoke a past that feels close enough to touch.
Elucidating the past, though, is never only a matter of history. In contemporary India, the increasingly authoritarian power of Hindu nationalism has generated a surge in social violence against Muslims and Dalits, along with unrelenting accusations of sedition against journalists, poets, students, farmers, opposition party politicians, academics, and upstanding citizens. The appeal of Hindutva, which infers an inherent Hindu essence or Hinduness, relies on a reductive version of history in which India was always and forever only Hindu and that anyone else was—is—an outsider who doesn’t belong. This falsified account is used as justification for rewriting history books, changing laws, and inciting brutality against Dalits.
By contrast, the pluralistic chronicle of Dust on the Throne challenges this narrative. The book honors the vast and multifaceted involvement of Indians in nourishing what became the resurgence of Buddhism in India as well as recognizes the often inextricably linked struggles to abolish caste oppression. In turn, the book simultaneously exposes the equally persistent determination to silence those efforts, including the ways in which, from Dharmapala to Gandhi, Buddhism has been presented as simply “part of Hinduism,” an interpretation that often dangerously obscures the persecution of Dalits.
As Ober concludes, for Indians confronting colonialism, the Buddha emerged as a local hero, providing the logic, the leadership, and the compassion for why “tomorrow does not have to be like today.” Implicitly, Ober’s book also makes a case for a historic Indian custom of dialogue and dissent, the tradition of which should be safeguarded as sacrosanct, essential to the humanity of tomorrow and today.
Liesl Schwabe is a writer and educator. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Words Without Borders, LitHub, and elsewhere.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Kieran Setiya finds provocative questions in “Losing Ourselves: Learning to Live without a Self” by Jay L. Garfield....
Akanksha Singh speaks with Yogesh Maitreya on his new book “Singing/Thinking Anti-Caste” and the work of his publishing house, Panther’s Paw Publication....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.