“The Problem: Asceticism and Urban Life”

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The arguments relating the rise of Buddhism to urbanization and state formation can be classified under four headings according as they bear upon the relevance of Buddhism (1) to the values of merchants, (2) to the nature of city life, (3) to political organization in the urban-based centralized state, and (4) to the shift from pastoral to agrarian culture which economically underpinned the rise of cities.

Under each of the four headings we can find arguments claiming that Buddhism reflected the new values (which will be called here the positive style of argument), and other arguments claiming that Buddhism rejected them (the negative). The positive opinion can fairly be described as the majority opinion within the scholarship on the period of urbanization. It is often met with in this context that it virtually amounts to a tenet of received wisdom that Buddhism flourished essentially on account of its appeal in the urbanized society of the rising urban state. The other view, the negative, does not so often appear in research on early Buddhist history, and is in that sense a majority opinion; but it is implicit in much of what has been written about ancient India and about Buddhism. It is often treated without examination, as self-evident, that Buddhism rejected the values of the urban state; it is implied wherever Buddhism’s rise is attributed to its teaching about dukkha.

In respect of each of the four identified aspects of urbanization, scholars have argued variously that Buddhism can be seen to have appealed because it was in tune with the changes associated with urbanization, being apt to legitimate or encode them, and that on the other hand Buddhism can be seen to have appealed because it was apt as a voice for those who suffered from the changes and sought an alternative world view.

If there is any real connection between doctrine and social environment, we cannot know it without a much more detailed understanding of the background than at present is possible. To recognize this problem is to see the difficulties of reasoning convincingly from even a very central doctrine of Buddhism to socio-economic conditions that may have contributed to the Buddha’s formulation of this doctrine.

We conclude that, on the available evidence, early Buddhism, as embodied in its monks and laity, is a social and religious movement adapting itself to an expanding society where the economy is experiencing steady growth and a degree of prosperity. However, to the extent that the Buddhists formed part of any form of social organization, they maintained a separate community, operating with achieved status, alongside the increasingly stratified secular world. While the Buddha criticized ascribed status, he did not actively seek reforms or fight stratification. As an actor in society Buddhism was complex and multi-faceted, resisting any simple characterization.

Meanwhile, the traces of a much earlier and quite different sort of teaching (surviving awkwardly alongside the results of adaptation) were available to explain how people reacting against urbanization took to something quite different. These considerations are important if we are to see how delusive is ‘urbanization’ as a ready-made ‘explanation’. What looks like a cause of Buddhism’s appeal might well be its effect.


Reference: Greg Bailey and Ian Mabbett (2003), The Problem: Asceticism and Urban Life, pp.13–36.

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