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date: 22 April 2019

Early Buddhism

Summary and Keywords

South Asia around the mid-1st millennium bce was a politically and socially turbulent time. Siddhartha, a young man of the Shakya ganasanga, witnessed the cruelty of warfare and the rising social and economic disparity of his time. He realized that the world is full of suffering. This observation evolved into the foremost truth of his doctrine of the Four Noble Truths. This essay will attempt to vividly portray the world of Buddha. It was a world where Brahmans and rajas, merchants and bankers, scribes and artisans, servants and slaves, courtesans-cum-musicians and dancers, farmers and fishermen, and people from mountains and forests, all strived to further (or at least maintain) their place on the newly formed social hierarchy. Some of those from low castes and outside the social core managed to penetrate the mainstream, but some never made it. Others born from elite families were cast out. Meanwhile, the presence of Achaemenid Persian Empire in the northwest of the subcontinent during the Buddha’s time, followed by the establishment of Hellenistic states after Alexander’s invasion in the late 4th century bce, brought new waves of immigration—thus exchanges of goods and ideas—with west and central Asia. Buddhist sangha and other communities of dissidents were refuges for some of the more unfortunate men and women looking for sanctuary. Based on stories in early Buddhist texts, namely the Pali canon and contemporary Brahmana texts (along with inclusion of Buddhist artwork of his time and after, this article will attempt reconstruct the historical Buddha and the time in which he lived.

Keywords: Shakyamuni, Ganasangha, Buddhist sangha, Ashoka, Brahmanism, Jainism, Taxila


Shakyamuni, the wise man of the Shakya people, spread his wisdom in a time of drastic changes in South Asia. Cities, surrounded by farmlands, sprang out the fertile north Indian plains, primarily east to the confluence of the Yamuna and Ganges, the Greater Magadha.1 Meanwhile, trade connected these cities across the Hindu Kush Mountains to Central Asia; Achaemenid Persia extended its territory all the way to Kandhaha (in what is now Afghanistan) and to Taxila on the upper Indus basin. Though geographically separated by the core region of Brahmanical culture, the Aryavarta, the Persians, and later the Greeks occupied the northwest region of the subcontinent and did communicate with Greater Magadha. This was a place where non-Brahmanical cultures and ideas flourished and where rapid urbanization was taking place. Buddha’s homeland, a small ganasangha (or a Kshatriya clan oligarchy) is located in the foothills of the Himalayas. The tiny Shakya state had been involved commercially and politically with the rising kingdoms and ganasanghas on the middle and lower Ganges plain. Since the 6th century bce, the time of the “second urbanization” of South Asia, both the major and minor new states were constantly vying for hegemony and dominance through war and diplomacy. While the Shakyas coordinated irrigation for farming with neighboring communities and inevitably had skirmishes with them, their archenemy was the powerful Koshala Kingdom, which eventually annihilated the Shakya Ganasangha. Siddhartha, a young man of the ganasanga, witnessed the cruelty of warfare and the social and economic disparity rising along with increasing agricultural productivity and material abundance of his time. He realized that the world is full of suffering and insecurity. This observation evolved into the first and the foremost truth of his doctrine of the Four Noble Truths. It was a time when Brahmans and rajas, merchants and bankers, scribes and artisans, servants and slaves, courtesans-cum-musicians and dancers, farmers and fishermen, and people from mountains and forests, all strived to further (or at least maintain) their place on the newly formed social hierarchy. Some of those from low castes and outside the social core managed to penetrate the mainstream, but some never made it. Others born from elite families were cast out. Buddhist sangha and other communities of dissidents were refuges for some of these unfortunate men and women and were also waystations for outsiders who wanted into mainstream society. From stories found in early Buddhist texts, namely the Pali canon and roughly contemporary Brahmana texts—not to mention the earliest Buddhist artworks and messages inscribed on them—emerged the historical persona of the Buddha and his society.

South Asia from Buddha to Ashoka

The world of Buddha was situated around the mid to lower Ganges plain where rajas of the ruling elite in kingdoms and ganasanghas—not to mention the new urban elite gahapatis (householders) and setthis (elders and financiers)—dominated political and social life. Their new political and economic networks were absorbing peripheral communities: that is, places outside Sanskrit-Prakrit-speaking agricultural-urban zones. Buddhist sangha gathered in the common areas, and monks and nuns roamed about the agricultural-urban core, as well as the mountains and marshlands where communities worshipping cults of naga/cobra, yaksas, kinnaras (various half-human, half-animal creatures) lived. The sangha established a simple and healthy lifestyle—with a diet code, clothing code, hygiene, and sanitation—that attracted admiration and support from various cultures. Observing the culture and nature of his surroundings, Buddha created a vision of a universe embracing all living creatures into a mobile hierarchy. Through the scheme of rebirth after life, any creature could achieve ascension with virtuous deeds. Even the lowest ghost in hell could ascend to the domains of animals, asuras (aliens), humans, and the heaven of Indra (a Brahmanical god), although this would take many lifetimes. Meanwhile, bad behaviors could cancel out the merits and push the creature to lower levels. This universe provides inspiration for everyone, including the despised poor and feared savages, to aspire to a future life of dignity.

The Buddhist cosmology evolved in the geopolitical and socioeconomic environment of the time. The wise man of the Shakya, Shakyamuni, was born in Shakya Ganasangha. It was a small Kshatriya oligarchic state located on the fringe of the urban core of the middle and lower Ganges plain yet in the center of the confrontation between the rising monarchies such as Kosala and Magadha and ganasanghas, including the Vajji Confederation and the Shakya. In ganasanghas, Kshatriya elite made decisions on major state affairs collectively and jealously guarded their pure blood (and thus their caste superiority) by banning marriages with clans outside their lineages. The Shakyas, for instance, trace their ancestry to a Kshatriya clan banished to the Himalaya foothills, where men married their sisters to keep their lineage pure.2 The Licchavis, a ganasangha of the Vajji Confederation, was trying to purify their Kshatriya status through an annual bathing ceremony in a sacred pond in their capital city Vasali.3

Along the Ganges plain, powerful kingdoms such as Koshala and Magadha allied with some and meanwhile conquered some smaller kingdoms and ganasanghas. Eventually Magadha annexed the Vajji Ganasangha Confederation and built the Mauryan Empire by the late 4th century bce. Living in the time of conquest and annexation, the wise man of the Shakya people reached the Enlightenment, which directed him to actively engage all communities in trying to mediate the bloody conflicts and to reduce suffering of the people.

When Buddha and his sangha roamed the cities on the Ganges, exchanges of commodities and ideas linked the new urban core to the northwest section of the subcontinent. On the upper Indus Valley, Taxila became the international metropolis. It all started with the eastward expansion of the Achaemenid Persian Empire. In what is presently Afghanistan and Punjab of Pakistan, the Persian Empire set up three satrapies—Bactria, Gandhara, India—by the end of the 6th century bce. The satraps were military governors assigned by Persian kings. Their major tasks were maintaining local order and sending tributes to the capital at Susa. Persian governance facilitated migrations between the various regions of the vast empire from Ionia to the northwest corner of South Asia.

After crushing the Persian army of Darius III, Alexander of Macedonia marched into the Indus valley around 326 bce. Soon afterward, he retreated from India but left soldiers in garrison towns that were collectively referred to as Alexandria, including those towns that are currently known as Kandhaha and Ai-Khanoum on the Oxus. After his death in 323 bce, his general Seleucus Nikato carved out the Seleucid Empire from Mesopotamia to Central Asia and became the neighbor of the rising Mauryan Empire. When Ashoka, the third king of the Mauryans, ascended the throne (c. 268), part of Afghanistan and Punjab were integrated into the Mauryan Empire. The reign of Ashoka thus included the cosmopolitan Taxila, where a Hellenistic neighborhood adjacent to the former Persian governor’s headquarters arose. Under the powerful Mauryan Empire, the Greater Magadha region continued to defy Brahmanization, primarily due to the fact that the dynasty itself arose from a region of non-Brahmanical tradition.

Shakyamuni and the Shakya People

Buddha never saw his mother. She passed away subsequent to his birth. The earliest life experience made him dwell on “suffering of birth and death.” Pajapati, his aunt, breastfed him and raised him. Pajapati Gotami loved her fostered son and wanted to bring the cause of the Buddha to the Shakya people. Nevertheless, she was a woman at a time there were no women allowed in the sangha. Once Shakyamuni, the sage of the Shakya, preached in his hometown of Kapilavastu, his aunt Pajapati pleaded for women to be allowed to join the sangha.4 After two more failed attempts, and probably when Shakya Ganasangha was conquered by the Koshala king Vidudabha, Pajapati led Shakya women all the way to Vaishali, where Buddha joined the sangha. There Pajaapati cut off her hair and donned orange robes as bhikkus did. Her feet were swollen and her clothes dusty after a long journey. She was weeping in tears, waiting outside the preaching hall for the Buddha to answer her calls to join the sangha. Seeing the miserable condition of Pajapati, Ananda, the most loyal disciple of the Buddha (and also a member of Shakya) went inside the preaching hall to exhort on behalf of the women to join the sangha. Buddha again rejected the plea. Ananda then changed his approach and asked whether women, according to the teaching of Buddha himself, could reach enlightenment. When Buddha confirmed that women were capable of reaching enlightenment, Ananda pushed his question further.5 Only then did Buddha nod his head, giving permission for women to join the sangha. From then on, Pajapati was called Maha-Pajapati (the Great Pajapati), as she was the superintendent of the bhikkunis, or nuns, of the sangha.

Buddha’s Supporters in Cities

The cities of north India at that time were similar to Athens and other ancient Greek cities in that not all people living there had equal political rights. In the ganasanghas women had no say in public affairs. Only adult men who were the heads of households could fully participate in public affairs. They were also called raja, which was the same term used to describe the leader of a kingdom. In a small ganasangha such as that of the Shakyas, there were about five hundred rajas. In the city of Vaisali, it was commonly said that there were 7,707 Licchavi rajas living there. Though these figures are probably not completely accurate, they do indicate the extraordinary difference in the size of cities at that time.

Meanwhile, the total population of a city was much larger than the number of fully empowered rajas. Also living there were women, children, and young adult males waiting for their chance to become the raja of a Licchavi lineage. Meanwhile, not all the residents of Vaisali belonged to a Licchavi lineage. Cities were places of opportunity, and people from a variety of different backgrounds migrated there looking for ways to improve their lives. Though the outsiders could not join the Licchavis in voting, they nevertheless could find jobs and start businesses. More importantly, people with disadvantaged family backgrounds could leave their birth status behind in their villages or their pastoral tribes and assume a new social status based on their pursuits in the cities.

Urban life was a new social and economic phenomenon in north India and so attracted many people to cities such as Vaisali. The urban areas were bustling with new people, new ideas, and new professions. This new life, however, posed a great challenge to the Brahmanical values embodied in the caste system. The migrants came to the cities to escape from their original caste affiliation. If necessary, they could hide a low birth by denying any association with the caste system. In the cities, newcomers’ labor was in high demand since urban life required both skilled professionals, such as scribes and physicians (as well as poorly paid laborers) who kept the cities clean and did most of the unskilled work.

The breach of caste boundaries was not limited to the cities’ newcomers. In Magadha, powerful military men gained power and called themselves rajas; yet no one bothered to inquire about their birth. The Licchavis, the ruling elite of Vaisali and the Vajji Confederacy, however, were from the Solar Lineage, one of the two most prestigious Kshatriya lineages. While the Licchavis lived in Vaisali and managed their public affairs collectively through discussion, debate, ritual ceremony, and election of the chief raja and administers, the Magadha monarchy ruled from Rajagaha assisted by Brahman priests and affluent householders and financiers. The Magadha kingdom boasted the most fertile rice paddy lands, the iron ore mines, and the forests where elephants roamed. Traders and professionals traveled from city to city, and meanwhile rajas in Vaisali and the raja in Rajagaha watched every political move of their rivals.

Beautiful Ambapali was born in Vaisali during this time, without a traceable birth family or status. It was said that she appeared suddenly in the mango orchard of the chief raja’s gardens.6 The gardener who found her presented her to the Licchavi rajas. The ganasangha, stunned by her beauty, voted that she was not to be married to any single man and elected her as the official hostess and courtesan of the city. Although it is impossible to know how much truth there is to this legend, we do know that Ambapali was not from a high caste and that she offered no credentials indicating her affiliation with any caste. Had she appeared in a kingdom such as Magadha, Ambapali would have been taken by the king’s men and forced to be one of the king’s concubines. Yet in Vaisali, it was not the chief raja who decided on who she married but the entire ganasangha. According to the lore explaining how she acquired her unique position, the ganasangha, presumably knowing that many of its rajas might want such a beauty, feared that giving her in marriage to any one person would create resentments among them. Thus, the best way out of this dilemma was to vote to make her the “queen” of the entire city elite.

Ambapali’s anointment as the “queen” of the Licchavis was a major event celebrated at the city’s annual spring festival. That was the occasion when the Licchavis held a ceremony to elect the chief raja and to anoint the uparaja, or the “princes,” who would succeed their deceased or elderly fathers as full-fledged rajas. The newly elected chief raja and the young rajas were then given a ceremonial bath in a large tank built for the purpose. Most likely Ambapali’s anointment was also carried out in this tank.7 One assumes that it was carried out with much fanfare, but we do not have a detailed description of it.

Being the public courtesan, or “queen,” of Vaisali was a tricky role. One needs to keep in mind that Ambapali lived in a highly hierarchical society. The Licchavis, as well as other members of the confederation, were hyperconscious of their high-caste status. Yet Ambapali had no family background. Her parentage was totally wiped out, probably deliberately, by the Vaisali citizens. Meanwhile, Vaisali was a cosmopolitan city, and its occupants dared to challenge the traditional and conventional ideas that prevailed in north India at that time. In this Vaisali, Ambapali lived an opulent life. She owned a big house, a large garden of mango trees, many horses and wagons, and numerous servants. More importantly, she played the role of hostess to many of the famous people of her time, including the Buddha.

The middle of the 1st millennium bce was an age of religious thinkers in north India, and Vaisali was a favored place for nonconventional thinkers. The founder of the Jain religion, Mahavira, was born in Vaisali. Mahavira and Buddha were contemporaries and both were critical of orthodox Brahman rituals and social orders. That the two most important anti-orthodox thinkers of this time came from the ganasangha polities was not an accident. Both Jainism and Buddhism referred to their followers’ community as sangha, an obvious borrowing from the ganasangha political structure. Originally, the term sangha, as it was used by both the Jains and the Buddhists, did not refer to monasteries. They were just a group of monks and nuns following their leaders from one city to another city to preach and to be fed by their hosts and audiences. Vaisali was a populous city that could afford to host many of the wandering preachers and teachers.

The arrival of the Buddha at Kotigama, a village near Vaisali, was big news to residents of the city. Ambapali ordered a train of her magnificent wagons to be made ready and rode in one of them in a procession to the village. When her carriage reached a point where there was no longer any passage for vehicles, she alighted and walked to the place where the Buddha was seated. She saluted the Buddha respectfully and sat down near him to listen to his teaching. When he had finished listening to his lecture, Ambapali said: “Might the Blessed one, Lord, consent to take his meal with me tomorrow together with the fraternity of Bhikkus (monks).”8 The Buddha silently accepted her invitation, and Ambapali saluted, walked around him with her right side facing him, and departed.

The next day Ambapali prepared a big feast in her garden and sat near the Buddha while the sangha took their meal. When the meal was finished, Ambapali declared that she was donating the garden to the Buddha and his sangha. The Buddha accepted her offer and then gave a lecture on the doctrines of Buddhism right there in her garden. Thereafter, Ambapali Garden became one of the properties where Buddhist monks and nuns could always stay or visit. More than a thousand years later, when the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Xuanzang visited Vaisali in the early 7th century ce, the Ambapali Garden was still clearly marked.9

Later, when the Buddha returned to Vaisali, he again stayed at the Ambapali Garden.10 Upon hearing of the Buddha’s arrival, Ambapali rode on her magnificent wagon to listen to his teaching. This time, though, Ambapali invited Buddha and his sangha to have a meal in her house, and the Buddha accepted her invitation again. The next day a great feast of rice and sweet cakes was held inside the magnificent mansion of Ambapali. When the feast drew to an end, Ambapali declared that she was giving her mansion to the Buddha and his order. This mansion, according to Xuanzang, became the residence of aged Buddhist nuns, once they could no longer go with the sangha through the villages. Aunts of the Buddha and other elderly nuns passed to their nirvana in that house.11

Buddha made several more visits to the city of Vaisali, always staying at the Ambapali Garden. During his last visit there, the Buddha predicted his own death. A few months later, he passed to nirvana near Kusinagara, a small city to the northeast of Vaisali. Apparently, Ambapali did not give up her secular life as the public courtesan of Vaisali during the lifetime of the Buddha. She seems to have had a good rapport with the Buddha, and the Licchavis allowed Ambapali to be the favored hostess of the Buddha in their city. One suspects that Ambapali’s feasts and donations were not just motivated by her own piety to the Buddha. These events took place during a time of intense warfare, and most likely they were part of the diplomatic maneuvers undertaken on behalf of the city of Vaisali and the Vajji confederation.

Living in an age of rapid change, Ambapali must have been attracted to the teachings of the Buddha, especially teachings about the transient nature of material wealth and physical beauty. During this time of prosperity, she saw people come to Vaisali to find a better life. Some did, in fact, become important householders who owned large caravans and vast trading networks all across north India. Others, however, had their status reduced to that of the sweepers whose job was to take the garbage out of the city. They did the dirty work, but received no respect from those who benefited from their labor. They became the first generation of “outcastes,” or “untouchables,” in India. Listening to the Buddha’s teaching that all material wealth was illusive and unstable, Ambapali must have reflected on the big house, beautiful garden, horses and wagons, and servants that had been given to her by the citizens of Vaisali. Realizing that all this wealth would be gone when she lost her beauty and attraction, she preferred to donate them to the Buddhist order. Meanwhile, the Licchavis and other Vaisali citizens never thought of her as a loose woman but as a figure symbolizing the prosperity and honor of the city. Her beauty attracted more visitors and traders to the city. A rumor says that even Bimbisara, the famous king of Magadha, made a secret trip to Vaisali to meet with Ambapali.12 But the Licchavis expected more from Ambapali. During a time when a prospering Vaisali was surrounded by enemy states waiting to vanquish it, the Licchavis had to rely on both military force and diplomacy to defend their city and their way of life. They expected Ambapali to get sympathy and moral support from the Buddha, the most respected wise man of the time.

In this confrontation between the most powerful monarchy and the largest ganassangha, the Buddha clearly took the side of Vaisali. When staying in Vaisali, the Buddha taught the Vajjians a strategy that could win the war against Magadha. The Buddha advised that they should meet regularly as ordained by their tradition and act in concord. Buddha also said that they should not only respect the ancient Vajjian institutions but also their elders. They were not to violate women against their will. They should make offerings and maintain the old shrines and protect and offer alms to religious recluses.13 In other words, the Buddha was implying that the Vajjians already have all the institutions needed for defending their way of life. The Buddha said they must maintain solidarity and follow valuable traditions in order to avoid defeat by the most powerful enemy. When the Buddha stayed in Vulture’s Peak near Rajagaha, the capital of Magadha, Ajatashatru also sent his minister, a Brahman named Vassakara, to solicit his advice. Buddha told the shrewd Brahman that the Vajjians could not be defeated because they were following all their good traditions. Actually, these were the same principles that the Buddha had taught to his sangha.14

Due to his respect for the ganasangha traditions of the Licchavis and the Vajji Confederation, Buddha made his many trips to Vaisali to provide moral support and guidance. Even though Ambapali was a courtesan, during his stay in the Ambapali Garden and his feasting at her house, the Buddha certainly did not think of her as a prostitute, although there were many of them in the newly developed urban centers. He treated her as a representative of the Licchavis and the city of Vaisali. However, despite the advice of the Buddha, the Vajjians lost their battle to Magadha. Vassakara, the Brahman minister of Magadha, had sent spies to Vaisali to spread rumors and provoke disputes. The Vajjians began fighting among themselves and thus lost their strong will to defend themselves against external enemies.

Savatthi, the capital city of Koshala kingdom, was famous for the rich setthi Anatha Pindika. Less well known was the rich matriarch Visakhā. No one knew her husband or even her own family, but everyone knew that she was the mother of Migara. Her own name and her motherhood thus gave her identity. Buddha and his sangha often sojourned in her storied mansion in the city. She ran a major business involving the Koshala royal family. Once she was so distressed about failed business with the king Pasenadi that she rushed to the Buddha, who happened to be in her house, at an inappropriate moment to complain about it. Buddha consoled her and consoled her sorrow over a failed business deal.15 On another occasion where Buddha stayed in her house, her lovely granddaughter died. Visakhā rushed to the Buddha again at an inadequate hour to seek consolation.16 Yet the Buddha seemed to be attentive to her needs because she was one of the greatest patrons of the sangha. Visakhā made numerous donations to the sangha during the lifetime of the Buddha, especially in the process of establishing a dress code and a healthy environment for the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. Once during a heavy rain, Visakhā provided nice meals for the Buddha and his sangha, but the Buddha and the sangha could not come, as their clothes were wet. After the meal final served next day, she then asked permission from the Buddha to donate to the sangha “robes for the rainy season on the sangha, and food for in-coming bhikkhus, and food for out-going bhikkhus, and food for the sick and food for those wait upon the sick, and medicine for the sick, and a constant supply of congey (rice milk), and bathing robes for the nuns.”17

Buddha then asked her that why she wanted to give the food, medicine, and robes for the rainy season, and the last, the bathing robe for bhikkhunis. On this last issue of bathing robes, Visakhā had this observation:

Now, Lord, the Bhikkhunis are in the habit of bathing in the river Aciravati with the courtesans, at the same landing-place, and naked. And the courtesans, Lord, ridiculed the bhikkhunis, saying, ‘what is the good, ladies, of your maintaining chastity when are young? Are not the passions things to be indulged? When you are old, maintain chastity then; thus will you be obtainers of both ends.’ Then the bhikkhunis, Lord, when thus ridiculed by the courtesans, were confused. Impure, Lord, is nakedness for a woman, disgusting, and revolting. It was this circumstance, Lord, that I had in view in desiring to provide the bhikkhuni-sangha my life long with dresses to bathe in.18

Visakhā, a business woman and a follower of the Buddha, was concerned about the safety of women in the sangha. Not only they should be robed as the bhikkhus were, but they also should be covered when taking a bath. along with other women, including the prostitutes of the city. Apparently, there was no exclusive bathing place for bhikkhunis, therefore they were to cover their bodies with the specially designed bathing robes to mark their status apart from other women outside households. At that time, bhikkhuni sangha seemed to be an established institution, but women’s vulnerability to harassment and extreme weather was an issue. In the city of Vaishali, Ambapalī donated her mansion to the sangha where Maha-Pajapati and other elder sisters ended their later lives. In the city of Savatthi, Queen Mallika’s garden was not a house exclusively for bikkhunis. Even the famous Jetavana given to the sangha by Anatha Pindika was more a garden with some shelter than a permanent residence. Visakhā had a vision of giving a house to the sangha, particularly to bhikkhuni sangha. She pleaded to the Buddha to have a storied mansion (pasada), with veranda (alinda) built for the sangha and the Buddha granted with silence.19

Forests, Mountains, and Waters

Around the cities, there were cultivated fields and pastures surrounding villages where most residents were peasant farmers and either Sudras or outcastes. They were low-status people, but they still belong to the Brahmanical cultural domain and shared the same languages and religious concepts with the urbanites. Further from the cities and along the routes linking the cities lived people who were either exiled from mainstream society or those original inhabitants of the mountains, forests, and marshlands. Because rural people there did not share the languages and values of the new state culture, their values and families were irrelevant to the urbanites and villagers. However, those people did have contacts and interchanges with the saints and ascetics of various religious sects who chose to leave the noise of cities to dwell on their thoughts and practice their religions in forests. Many of the hunters and fishermen had heard about the prosperous lives in cities and sought opportunities there. Those men and women landed relocated to the city and obtained various jobs and professions, with varying degrees of status. However, they were looked down by the urbanites with suspicion. Meanwhile, the communities they came from, the peoples who worshipped nagas, yakkhas, trees, and other spirits, were close to the outskirts of the cities. Those who did not go to the cities to work but rather to rob the wealth from there often harassed and pirated on travelers on the routes, as the routes often cut through forests, mountains, and waters when connecting the cities.

The dominant cultural domain was the states built by Indo-European speaking communities spread on the Indus-Gangetic plain in the time of the Buddha. People in the forests and marshlands not only brought in new population but also provided products of forests, mountains and waters, including iron ore and other minerals, elephants, wild animals for meat, fish, lotus and other products from the water. With the expansion of agricultural lands, the territories of those peoples retreated more and more into the deep mountains and forests, but never totally disappeared.

Around 1000 bce, the Vedic people migrated eastward along the plain between the foothills of the Himalaya and the Ganges River. In order to claim the land from the indigenous people, they had to pacify them through coercion and diplomacy. First, they had to decide how to deal with the deities worshipped by local communities. When Brahman priests ministered the horse sacrifice for Vedic societies, the rituals lasted an entire year to help the chief to claim the territory under his control. In the ceremony, the priests tried to position all the cults, Vedic and non-Vedic, in the Vedic universe. Both devas and Asuras originated when the Indo-European speakers split into Iranian branch and Indian branch around Afghanistan. While Ahuras became the dominant gods in the cosmology of Iranian culture, Asuras were archenemies of the Devas in Indian Vedic literature. In the horse sacrifice, Brahman priests arranged certain days to position various spirits ranging from ancestors to ghosts in the universe. On the seventh day of the ceremony, they allowed the Asuras to stay and practice their magic, or Zoroastrian rituals.20 That Asuras frequently appear in late Vedic literature and early Buddhist Pali texts indicates that the Iranian branch of Indo-European speakers, though mostly settled in West Asia, continuously connected with their Indian counterparts and some of them settled and migrated to India and mingled among the Vedic population. When cities appeared on the Ganges plain, the Iranian Achaemenid Empire extended its territory to the northwestern Indian subcontinent establishing its administrative center at Taxila. Aramaic, the official language of the Persian Empire, prevailed there for several centuries. It is reasonable to assume that people of Iranian culture who worshipped Ahuras were around the city of Taxila and probably also in cities on the Ganges plain, called Asuras by their Indian hosts.

In the horse sacrifice ceremonies Brahman priests also had to address lesser spirits, such as the female celestial beings called Apsaras and male ones called Gandharvas, who were musicians and dancers and followed their own scripture.21 There were some less beautiful beings they needed to deal with, such as the king of the snakes who headed the many snake cults spread over India, and king Kubera Vaisravana, the god who commanded many nasty beings such as Rakshas, villains, and robbers (papakrita, selaga).22 Though the various spirits received different levels of respect in the ceremonies, none of them were totally banished from the Brahmanical sacred space. Kubera became a popular deity among many religious sects and was known as commander of Yakshas, or Yakhas in Pali, a great variety of creatures in human form, male and female. Some of them nice and beautiful, and others were blood thirsty and ugly robbers and thugs, all under the command of Kubera. In short, the late Vedic rituals included but meanwhile marginalized cults of indigenous communities.

During the mid-1st millennium bce, when states formed in most of the north Indian plain, Buddha and other thinkers had to face this colorful cosmos of numerous forms of deities ranging from the Vedic traditions to the various cults worshipped by the people who entered the villages and cities or stayed in forests and marshlands. Cults of Yakshas, Nagas, Apsaras, and Gandharvans permeated all corners and all new schools of faith. Religious schools all recruited members from the communities of those cults, and the people there adhered to their cults even after they joined the new faith. Theologians of Jaina, Brahman, and Buddhism all tried to conceptualize the great variety of spirits into some kind of system and thus ended with different hierarchies according to their own perspective of the universe.23 Early Buddhists abhorred alcohol and blood sacrifice used in rituals of Yaksha and naga and other cults but did not condemn the cults as unsalvageable lot.24

The Sangha of Buddha and the Society

By the 3rd century bce when Ashoka consolidated the Mauryan Empire on most parts of the Indian subcontinent, the dichotomy between the state societies and the “outsiders” became clearly marked. In his famous Thirteenth Edict, the one address the aftermath of the Kalinga war and his determination of using peaceful approach to govern, Ashoka categorized his subjects as “Brahmana, Shramana, and all sects (prashamda or pasamda), and householders. Whatever their faiths and whether they were religious figures or secular followers, they were the mainstream of the empire abiding his Dhamma (e.g., law and moral rules). Even the Greeks, called Yona by Ashoka, were in the fold of law-abiding subjects of the empire though their religion was quite different from the religion recognized by the authority. However, those who lived in the forest, or Atavi, were people who were not members of any one of the recognizable religions but fancy cults visually symbolized by snakes, half humans, or even ugly humans. Ashoka would extend his peaceful policy as long as they did not make trouble for his settled people. Otherwise, they could expect harsh punishment.25 Ashoka’s Mauryan Empire reached the apex of the second urbanization of the Indian subcontinent with solid infrastructure of the Northern Royal Highway and Southern Royal Highway. The royal highways were lined with trees and resting houses and garrisoned by a standing army. Even so, there were still communities of different cultures and languages in the peripheral areas of forests and tropical wetlands raiding travelers and caravans.

In the three hundred years or so period of state development, Buddha and his sangha as well as Brahman rishis, Jaina sangha and other dissident religious communities formed the link between the settled civilizations and those chose to roam around. Dwellings of religious communities in the deep forests and their missionary activities invariably helped introducing cults and people there into the settled world. In all the early religious literature, women who came from obscure backgrounds figured into consorts or mothers of major heroes in state-creation legends. Shakuntala, the woman who was the mother of Bharata, the greatest ancestral king in Brahmanical tradition, was an apsarā or the daughter of an apsarā, a beautiful woman who had no traceable family. Her story first appeared in Satapatha Brahmana, the later Vedic literature focusing on settlement of Vedic migration on the Ganges plain.26 The legend of Sakuntala since then flourished in the epic Mahabharata and other classical Sanskrit literature. In Buddhist Pali literature, a Jataka story relates a similar plot, although the name of Sakuntala is not mentioned. The setting is the usual Jataka story set during the time when King Brahmadatta ruled Benares. The king wandered into the woods where he encountered a girl gathering sticks. The king gave a signet ring to the girl as a token of remembrance of their encounter. If a boy was born from the encounter, the woman should present the ring to the king reminding him this is his son. However, the king denied the fact when his son came to his court along with his mother, even with the evidence of the signet ring. The boy happened to be one example of former birth cycles of the Buddha (i.e., a bodhisatta). The unnamed woman challenged the king by throwing the boy up in the air, swearing that the true prince would not fall to the ground. Miraculously, the boy landed on the lap of the king. In due course the boy inherited the throne, and became known as King Kattavahan, the fagot bearer.27 Sakuntalā (or stick-gathering girls), were the women who came from obscure backgrounds or the periphery of society but gained status through fighting for the rights of their sons. Many women from the marginal lands of the states never reached this level of fame or status but assimilated to the mainstream culture through the interface created by the religious vanguards into their own living environment. Among the various religious traditions that Ashoka later recognized as legitimate schools of thought and faith, Buddhists left some seminal literature and earliest works of art carved on monuments, which allow us a window into where the women came from.

Sakyamuni lived in a world full of spiritual cults worshipped by peoples speaking different languages and pursuing different livelihoods. The Sakya people, speaking a similar language to the Magadhas, Koshalas, and the Vajjis; people in other states that emerged from the Middle and Lower Ganges Plain all spoke a vernacular of Sanskrit. Their dialects might have varied but all had Indo-European roots. Meanwhile, their speeches were different from both Vedic Sanskrit and the early classical Sanskrit defined by the contemporary Brahmanical grammatician Panini. In other words, the Middle and Lower Ganges catchment was the frontier of orthodox Brahmanical culture, the edge of the Aryavarta—the pure land of the Aryans.28 The Pali language, recording the earliest Buddhist speeches, probably was the canonized concord of the dialects of the region. Ruling elite and people of letters there did not speak perfect Sanskrit but nevertheless still considered themselves as Arya, or Aya in Pali, as did the Brahmans living in the so-called Aryavarta. The urban centers of the region were well connected with each other and the world outside, either the more developed centers in West Asia, via the city Taxila on the Indus valley, or less developed mountainous areas to the south where the Magadhans obtained elephants, timber, and iron ore. In order to obtain resources, enterprising set this who engaged in trade had to deal with the people outside their cultural domain: that is, those who spoke different languages and worshipped their own local gods.

Communities outside the cultural domain of Indo-European speakers often assimilated in the main society through marriage alliances and associated rituals. Those communities were not always male-dominated patriarchal lineages. Many of Buddha’s disciples were from the communities where mothers have a higher status than fathers. Sariputta and Moggallana use mothers’ names. Close bonds between mother and son was a common phenomenon among Buddhist followers. Instead of male ancestor worship, Buddhists were more concerned about the well-being of deceased mothers.

The universe of Sakyamuni was filled with a host of spirits: the dominant ones were male, but there were more female spirits. Those of the Vedic pantheon and the cults (mostly male) joined the assembly when Vedic clans engaged with locals in claiming the lands and obtain resources as shown in Satapatha Brahmana. The supreme Vedic hero Indra was still the dominant figure in the universe at the time of the Buddha. Under the name of Sakka, he influences incidents in the former lives of the Buddha. His heaven of thirty-three devas became the haven for those women who cooked and served the Buddhist sangha but did not get the chance to join the sangha during their lifetimes. In this heaven, the devatas (virtuous ladies) resided in the heavenly mansions and commanded huge retinues of female musicians and dancers known as the accharas, which were the Pali version of apsaras. The achievements of the devatas became the very teaching materials for persuading Buddhist women to support the sangha through feeding the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. Moggallana, the great disciple who came from a matrilineal community was the one who brought the message from the Sakka’s heaven to the world, as stated in the Pali text Vimānavatthu (Heavenly mansions).

When establishing a patriarchal system of power and property inheritance, the new states and cities were recruiting members from matrilineal communities, which often were communities engaging in hunting, fishing, and gathering. From the margins (i.e. forests, mountains, and waters outside the region of villages surrounded by rice paddy lands) came many outstanding women who became leaders of the new states in urban centers, such as Ambapali and Sakuntalā. Only a few women, however, entered the circle of power in the newly founded states. Most women who found their way to the cities from the margins of society filled other roles in urban life. Salavatī, courtesan of Rajagaha, established a business of entertainment and prostitution in the city. Jivika the physician and Sirimā the courtesan, both born by Salavatī, followed different paths when integrated into the urban society. Jivika went all the way to Taxila to study medicine then returned to Rajagaha as a great physician. Sirimā inherited her mother’s profession as the head entertainer of the Magadha capital city. They nevertheless were strong supporters of Buddhist sangha, because they could not find a decent position in the orthodox Brahmanical hierarchy but meanwhile could be part of the Buddhist lay followers’ social networks comfortably with their services and donations.

More women from the communities worshipping nagas, yakkhas (or yakkhis), or bhutas (some might have been matrilineal in structure) became silent followers of the Buddha. They might have spoken different languages incomprehensible to the settled people, but Buddha seemed to have a special rapport with those people. Their support would have been encouraging to their sons joining the sangha. Sariputta was the son of Rupasarī, and Moggallana was the son of Moggalī.29 Bhikkhus and bhikkhunis from the matrilineal communities or born from women who had no legitimate husbands were bridges between the mainstream of the society of Ashoka, people called Sramana and Pasanda, who followed various religious schools, and the people of Atavi, who lived and roamed in the forests and could be harmful intruders.

The sons and daughters of the women who joined the sangha should have distanced themselves from their families, whatever their status, according to the doctrine of Buddhism. The purpose of being followers of the Buddha, after all, was to liberate oneself from the cycles of rebirth. Ancestry worship, the core religious ritual for a patriarchal regime, was not a legitimate pursuit for a bhikkhu. The word for ancestors, Peta, or father, denotes a kind of pitiful ghost wandering in the universe with no settlement. They were in this condition because they did not do enough meritorious things to be reborn into a better state. The attachment to mothers among the Buddhist disciples, nevertheless lingered in the narratives of stories depicting schemes of rebirth. In one story, Sariputta, Moggallana, and others once stayed in a forest not far from Rajagaha. A woman who was the mother of Sariputta several incarnations ago was reborn as a ugly flesh-eating ghost, a petī, (or female ancestor) wandering in the forest because she served nasty food to the bhikkus while cursing them. She appealed to Sariputta for help, as she was once his mother in the world. Sariputta took pity on her. Along with Moggallana and the other three brothers they went to the court of King Bimbisara to solicit four cabins built in the forest as the gift for the sangha. When the cabins were built, complete with water supply, Sariputta gave the credit to his former mother, who thus could get rid of her sad petī condition and reach a deva birth—in other words, become a devata.30 This intriguing story was attributed to Sariputta, probably one or two hundred years after the entire generation of elders in the sangha passed away. When Buddhist sangha expanded farther into forests where people of matrilineal communities made their livelihood, the ties to female ancestors somehow had to be articulated through Buddhist stories explaining the doctrine to people of other cultures.

When the newfound states, invariably patriarchal in structure, extended their territories into forests and marshlands, women from the margins of the society, both during and after Ashoka’s empire, showed a strong presence in earliest Buddhist arts. Sculptural art flourished in the Mauryan Empire especially during the reign of Ashoka, whose edict pillars were the exquisite monuments of the empire and his ideals. The stupas at Sanchi in central India was built at his time, probably with his patronage, testified by a pillar carved with one of his edicts just beside the major stupa.

From the arrangement of the stupa and the edict pillar, one may perceive that Ashoka had the Buddhist monument built because he trusted the sangha there to carry out the mission of pacifying the naga tribes in the forest. The Sanchi monastic complex was deep in the forest along one of the routes connecting the Ganges plain from Kosambi to the ports of the west coast region. Even then, some two hundred years after the Buddha, the stupa was a bare dome containing the relics of the Buddha. There was no image of the Buddha. There were, however, numerous sculptures of a variety of cults—awe striking nagas, beautiful yakhis, ghostlike human figures and many kinds of kinnara on the stone railings surrounding the stupa. Those sculptures and reliefs were executed with the donations by people who often had names of nagas, yakkhas, and bhutas. The relief panels on the southern gate arch of Stupa 1, the main entrance accessing the dome, depict scenes of Ashoka’s patronage and Jataka stories. On the middle crossbar of the arch, the most prominent place for a visual message, there is the scene that shows Ashoka riding on a royal chariot approaching a stupa from the left, followed by a large retinue of horse riders, elephant riders, and pedestrians, and hovered above by winged creatures. On the other side of the central stupa, a naga king wearing a hood of five cobra heads was approaching the same stupa surrounded by a retinue of men and women wearing hoods of one or more cobra heads. The naga king was also protected by the winged kinnaras, in a similar majestic manner. Several smaller panels on the pillar of the arch depict Ashoka’s visits to the Bodhi tree and stupas in a more personal way. A relief showing Ashoka worshipping the hair lock of the Buddha in a grief mood was signed by the guild of ivory carvers from the city of Vedisa, the capital of the Sunga dynasty, which succeeded the Mauryan Empire in reigning the Great Magadha region.31 The Sunga dynasty claimed a Brahman lineage and built their new capital at a distance from the Mauryan Pataliputra. The memory of Ashoka, though, in the former frontier but now metropolis of the new regime, persisted, as shown in the signed work by ivory artists and many donors from the city Vedisa on the environ of Sanchi Stupa.

All the artworks were done after Ashoka’s time, when Mauryans no longer controlled the region. When Ashoka had the stupa built in the 3rd century bce, Sanchi was one of the frontier posts of the state establishment. The king liked to see the well-dressed Buddhist Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis behaving well, without quarreling, when dispensing Buddha’s teachings to the people of the forests. The communities of nagas and yakshas as well as nishadas (and others) were considered the naked savages that should be pacified with Dhamma. When the major panel of the south gate, the one showing both Ashoka and the naga king worshipping the stupa, was executed, the Mauryans were probably no longer there. A regime characterized by cobra worshipping, the nagas became the regent of the land under the Sunga regime.32 Ashoka’s wish came true, even though his sons and grandsons no longer held power: the land of the forest people not only converted to Buddhism but also honored his memory in supporting the mission.

Discussion of the Literature

Reconstruction of the time of the historical Buddha draws mainly from the Pali canon, as well as the Buddhist texts preserved in Sri Lanka and southeast countries where Theravada Buddhist institutions kept those documents in written form. No doubt generations of Buddhist monk scholars copied, edited, and commented on the manuscripts to preserve the original teachings of Buddha and inevitably revised the texts despite their best intentions. A group of scholars led by Rhys Davids formed the Pali Text Society in 1888 for collecting, editing, and translating Buddhist Pali texts. Readings of Pali texts reveal a Buddha and his time largely unknown in Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan Buddhist traditions. This Buddha is portrayed as a real historical character. Unlike the hagiographies of Sanskrit Buddhist texts, Pali texts portrayed Buddha and his major disciples striving to find solutions in a world of painful dilemmas. They provide details of the processes that the sangha helped shape. Since the Pali Texts Society edited and translated a number of Pali texts, Indian historians, including D. D. Kosambi, J. P. Sharma, Romilar Thapar, Uma Chakravarti, among others, strived to reconstruct the political, social, and economic conditions by drawing information, albeit critically, from Pali Buddhist texts—the only literature that could have survived from the time of the Buddha or soon after. In her recent book on the historiography of early India, Romila Thapar ascertains the historical value of Pali Buddhist texts: “The Buddha was a historical person whose life was seen by Buddhist not only as ethically exemplary but also a turning point in history.”33 Among the Pali texts, Vinaya Piṭaka, which gives the disciplinary rules of Buddhist sangha, is especially valuable information for historians as it “describes the formation of the Buddhist community. Events are given a chronology.”34 The chronology is associated with the rulers of the time, thus a sketchy picture of the political situation emerges. Meanwhile, Pali texts provide stories of monks, nuns, rich and poor patrons, and Buddha’s followers from the periphery of society. Vivid life dramas fill the space of social and economic arenas of the time.

Archaeological research during the 20th century discovered edicts of Ashoka, the third king of the Mauryan Empire, as well as Buddhist monuments dated to the Ashoka’s time and later. Epigraphical and paleo-philological research on inscriptions demonstrate the similarity of language syntax and vocabulary of the inscriptions and those of Pali texts. Artworks on Buddhist monuments depicted many characters and stories described in Pali texts, especially the Dīgha Nikāya, a recording of the earliest teaching of the Buddha. Buddhist community in Sri Lanka, the major base that preserved the Pali textual tradition, have continuously made pilgrimages and donations to Bodh Gaya, where Buddha reached his enlightenment. Buddhist scholarship in Sri Lanka, therefore, has been closely tied to the earliest Buddhist site to maintain the authenticity of Buddha’s teachings preserved by the community.

Stupas since the time of Ashoka spread from the home region of Buddha of the middle and lower Ganges plain to the Deccan Plateau. The artworks, meanwhile, all carry the imprints of the original locations of the stories—Vaiśālī, Savatthi (Śrāvastī), Rajagaha (Rajagriha). The sacred geography created by those early stupas thus created a Buddhist identity for the communities within and outside the domain of Sanskrit/Prakrit languages.35 Pali texts, inscriptions, and artworks on Buddhist monuments made a historical narrative of the life of the Buddha and his time possible.

Primary Sources

Pali Buddhist texts are major primary sources revealing societies of the time of the Buddha and aftermath. Both annotated Pali texts and English translations were published by the Pali Text Society from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. After the Pali Text Society passed from the scene, Routledge & Kegan Paul reprinted the translations continuously to supply libraries and the few scholars who study historical Buddhism. It is agreed that the earliest Pali texts include the Digha Nikaya (Dialogues of the Buddha) and Vinaya (Text of disciplines). These texts reveal the sociopolitical conditions and how the Buddha and his followers built the sangha as a viable institution. The Theragatha and Therigatha, psalms of elder monks and nuns, recorded the sentiment of the earliest disciples of the Buddha. Buddhist scholars of Sri Lanka added commentaries of the authors of the poems, which could be the legends they collected from the birthplaces of the Buddhist sangha or memories of the devotees of their revered elders. The Jatakas is a collection of stories of Buddha’s former lives but also some stories of his activities during his time in this world. Some of them could be stories circulated even before the time of the Buddha, and some could be after his passing. Many of the stories involved animal characters and rural environments, revealing the cosmology in Buddhist doctrine. Those related to politics and people from various communities provide vivid details of human relationship. The Udana, The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon probably were supplements that came after the major texts were compiled by the elders. The Peta-Vatthu, Stories of the Departed, is one of the later Pali texts. This is about the deceased who could not find a better realm for rebirth in the Buddhist cosmos. It addressed the problem of family relationships for Buddhist monks and nuns, in the sense that they left home to join the sangha, but they still owed their lives in this world to their ancestors. Instead of performing ancestor worship in Brahmanical rituals, they could help their deceased loved ones by using their own merits to help them to be reborn into a better realm. Thus, the Buddhist sangha made adjustments to mainstream society in terms of family relationships.

Brahmanical literature roughly contemporary with or a couple centuries before the time of the Buddha could provide insight to the environment of Buddhist community. One of such texts referred to in this article is Satapatha Brahmana, translated by Julius Eggeling, Part 5, (Clarendon Press, 1900; reprinted by Motilal Banarsidass, 1978).

Edicts of the Mauryan king Ashoka are the first solid historical information on South Asia. The volume Inscriptions of Asoka, ed. Transl. E. Hultzsch, Vol. 1 of Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, (Indian Government Publications, new edition by Indological Book House, Delhi, 1969) includes most of the extant copies, though not those discovered after the publication of the book. It is quite useful, as it includes the photocopies of the originals, transliterations, and translations.

Archaeological reports on the earliest Buddhist stupas, including copies and deciphered inscriptions on the monuments, provide information on participants at the time. The first major report on Sanchi stupa is John Marchall and Alfred Foucher: The Monuments of Sanchi, inscriptions by N. G. Majundar (Delhi: Swati Publications, 1982). Remains of Bharhut stupas are in the Indian Museum, Calcutta. Bharhut Inscriptions, Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum, Vol. 2, Part 2, ed. H. Lüders, revised by E. Waldsehmidt and M. A. Mehendale (Archaeological Survey of India, 1963) provide information on the participants. Photos of the stupa sculpture can be found in the Photo Archives of American Institute of Indian Studies, in the Library of University of Pennsylvania.

The famous Chinese pilgrim scholar Xuanzang visited many Buddhist sites in the early 7th century ce, some were standing, some were in ruins. His records are useful to corroborate early Pali stories. Although there are English translations, those who can read original Chinese texts can detect many important nuances. See Da Tang Xiyu Ji Jiaozhu (Xuanzang’sTang dynasty account of [his] journey to the West, edited and annotated), ed. Ji Xianlin (Beijing: Zhonghua Shuju, 1985).

Further Readings

Bronkhorst, Johannes. Greater Magadha, Studies in the Culture of Early India. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.Find this resource:

Chakravarti, Uma. On the Social Philosophy of Buddhism. Shimla, India: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 2015.Find this resource:

Decaroli, Robert. Haunting the Buddha, Indian Popular Religions and the Formation of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.Find this resource:

Falk, Harry. Asokan Sites and Artefacts. Mainz: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2006.Find this resource:

Hawkes, Jason, and Akira Shimada, eds. Buddhist Stupas in South Asia. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Schwartzberg, Joseph. A Historical Atlas of South Asia. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1978.Find this resource:

Sekhera, Kalalelle. Early Buddhist Sanghas and Viharas in Sri Lanka (up to 4th Century A.D.). Varanasi, India: Rishi Publications 1998.Find this resource:

Sharma, J. P. Republics in Ancient India. Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1968.Find this resource:

Thapar, Romila. Sakuntala, Texts, Readings, Histories. New Delhi: Kali for Women Press, 1999.Find this resource:

Thapar, Romila. The Past Before Us, Historical Traditions of Early North India. New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2013.Find this resource:

Walters, Jonathan. “Communal Karma and Karmic Community in Theravada Buddhist History,” in Constituting Communities, Theravada Buddhism and the Religious Cultures of South and Southeast Asia. Edited by John Clifford Holt, Jaboc N. Kinnard, Jonathan S. Wasters. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.Find this resource:


(1.) This region is known as “Great Magadha” by Johannes Bronkhorst: Greater Magadha, Studies in the Culture of Early India (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007).

(2.) T. W. Rhys Davids, translated from Dialogues of the Buddha from Pali text Digha Nikaya (London: The Pali Text Society, 1899, reprinted by London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. 1977), 114–115.

(3.) The sacred pond in Vaisali had been maintained for many centuries, as witnessed by Chinese pilgrims. Archaeological excavation restored the pond. See Harry Falk, Asokan Sites and Artefacts (Mainz: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2006), 220.

(4.) Vinaya Texts, translated from Pali by T. W. Rhys Davids, Cullavagga, x, 1, pp. 320–327. (First published by the Oxford University Press 1885, reprinted by Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975.) The story in the following text is from this passage.

(5.) Ibid. p. 322.

(6.) Psalms of The Early Buddhists, trans. Phys Davids (Pali Text Society, 1909, reprinted by Routledge and Kegan Paul Lt. 1980), 120.

(7.) J. P. Sharma, Republics in Ancient India (Leiden, The Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1968), 104–105.

(8.) The story is from one of the earliest Buddhist texts, Vinaya Texts, translated from Pali by T. W. Rhys Davids and Hermann Oldenberg (Oxford University Press 1882, reprint by Motilal Banarsidass, 1974), VI, 30, 1–5.

(9.) Xuanzang, Da Tang Xiyu Ji Jiaozhu (Xuanzang’sTang dynasty account of [his] journey to the West, edited and annotated), ed. Ji Xianlin (Beijing, Zhonghua Shuju, 1985), 593.

(10.) This story is from the Book of the Great Decease, which is collected in the Digha Nikaya and Vinaya, both some of the earliest Buddhist texts. See Dialogues of the Buddha, translated from the Pali of the Digha Nikaya, T. W. and C. A. F. Rhys Davids, (the Pali Text Society, 1910, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1977), 94–98.

(11.) Xuanzang, 591.

(12.) J. P. Sharma, Republics in Ancient India, 123.

(13.) Dialogues of the Buddha, 74–75.

(14.) Dialogues of the Buddha, 76–77.

(15.) Udana in The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon, II, trans. F. L. Woodward (Pali Text Society 1935, reprinted 1985), 22–23.

(16.) Udana VIII, viii, in The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon, II, pp. 111–112.

(17.) Mahavagga 15, Vinaya Texts, T.W. Rhys Davids and Hermann Oldenberg, (Oxford University Press, 1882, reprint Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1974), 216–225, quotation on pp. 219–220.

(18.) Ibid. pp. 222–223.

(19.) Cullavagga, VI, 14, 1, in Vinaya Texts, Part 3, translated from Pali by T. W. Rhys Davids and Hermann Oldenberg (Oxford University Press, 1885, reprinted by Motilal Barnarsidass, Delhi, 1975), 130.

(20.) Magi were Zoroastrian priests, so that Ashura worshippers’ rituals were “magic”, i.e., trickes played by magi, to Vedic priests, Satapatha Brahmana, XIII. 4. 3. 11, trans Julius Eggeling, Part 5, (Clarendon Press, 1900; reprinted by Motilal Banarsidass, 1978), 368.

(21.) Satapata Brahmana, XIII 4. 4. 7–8, pp. 365–366.

(22.) Ibid., XIII 4.4.9–10, pp. 367–368.

(23.) Robert Decaroli, Haunting the Buddha, Indian Popular Religions and the Formation of Buddhism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 10 ff.

(24.) Ibid., 24–25.

(25.) The two passages appear in several versions of the XIII Major Rock Inscriptions of Ashoka. Inscriptions of Asoka, ed. and trans. E. Hultzsch, Vol. 1 of Corpus Inscriptionum Indicarum (Indian Government Publications, new edition by Indological Book House, Delhi, 1969).

(26.) Romila Thapar analyzes Sakuntala legend from Antiquity to modern times in the Sakuntala, Texts, Readings, Histories (New Delhi: Kali for Women Press, 1999), 10–11.

(27.) Jatakas no. 7, Jataka Stories, Vol. 1, translated from the Pali by Robert Chalmers (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press 1895, reprinted by Pali Text Society, London and Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. 1973), 27–29.

(28.) The heterodox features of the regions are discussed by Johannes Bronkhorst: Greater Magadha, Studies in the Culture of Early India (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007), “Introduction: The Separate Culture of the Greater Magadha,” pp. 1–9.

(29.) Theragatha, CCLIX, Sariputta commentary, Psalms of the Early Buddhist, II. Psalms of the Brethren, translated from Pali by Mrs. Rhys Davids, (Pali Text Society, London, 1913, distributed by Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd., 1980), 340–341.

(30.) Peta-Vatthu, Book 2, Stories of the Departed, translated from Pali by Henry Snyder Gehman, in the Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon (Pali Text Society, London, 1942, distributed by Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd., 1974), 29–30.

(31.) Ibid, Vol. 1, p. 342, no. 400; American Institute of Indian Studies, neg. photo no. 320.95.

(32.) Joseph Schwartzberg marks the territory of the Nagas in this region (EF4 of plate 21a), see A Historical Atlas of South Asia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

(33.) Romila Thapar, The Past Before Us, Historical Traditions of Early North India, (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2013), 381.

(34.) Op. cit., 399.

(35.) Himanshu Prabha Ray, “The Archaeology of Stupas, Constructing Buddhist Identity in the Colonial Period,” in Buddhist Stupas in South Asia, eds. Jason Hawkes & Akira Shimada. (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2009), 3–19.