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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Indian Esoteric Buddhism by Ronald M. Davidson (Columbia University Press) (Paperback) provides a resourceful and original historical study of Indian Esoteric Buddhism which is likely to become a standard reference for years to come. This pioneering effort is likely to raise some controversy and is not likely to have a ready audience among the gaggle of Buddhist devotees, as it deals with Buddhist evidence critically and not devotionally, seeking historical plausibility rather than mythic certainty. However for the critically informed Buddhist this work will prove enlightening for suggesting the social and political conditions in which the origins of the Tantric movement evolved in early medieval India .
The keen originality of the volume is the author’s use of primary documents, often translated into English for the first time from Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Bengali, his use of Buddhist and non-Buddhist sources, iconographic and archeological evidence, extensive fieldwork in India and Pakistan, and current historical and religious scholarship to create a new level of analytic appreciation of early medieval Indian society. Davidson sketches the intricate history of India during the centuries on either side of the first Muslim invasions, recounting the endemic warfare, the rise and fall of innumerable dynasties and states, the variable of trade routes, and other political, military, and economic stresses that contributed to the material, governmental, and ideological alterations.

Davidson applies these considerations to the emergence of new and radical strains in Indian Buddhism and Hinduism during this long and turbulent period. He compellingly shows that disruption of the great monastic institutions, the loss of the order of nuns leading to their marginalization in public worship set up the conditions for  the development personal forms of religiosity to emerge. Some of these, that we now recognize as Tantric was to have a great future outside of India within Mahayana Buddhism

One of Davidson strategies is to note the similar trends appearing in Hinduism around the same time. He contends that the esoteric traditions had a mutuality of influenced some of which he suggests but in no way exhausts. Davidson's own investigations popular religion in modern India guides some of his conjecture on how the Hindu and Buddhist Tantras mixed. Furthermore,  Davidson supports the long held contention that organized Indian Buddhism suffered itself to extinction in the long term by abandoning abhidharma foundations and  adapting an Hindu essentialism. This shift away from immediate salvation and anatma to convoluted epistemology  created a sophisticated mythology  but tended to erase the relevance of Buddhism within the universalizing Hindu framework. This hyper-intellectualized vision also contributed to the lessening emotional accessibility of religious practice which helps to explain the appeal and infiltration of new and radical forms of meditation and ritual into the monastic movement itself.

All in all, I found Indian Esoteric Buddhism absorbing reading though parts were turgid and not easy to follow. The emergence of new religious forms is often explained from within the religious framework. But hard and fast sectarian identifications is not the living experience of populations of multiple religious orientations. That religious change is primary social rather than sectarian loosens the grip of the unconscious Christendom upon our thinking about religious developments in other historic contexts. In sum this study is required for a critical understanding of the historic origins of Indian Esoteric Buddhism.

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