Nathan McGovern’s dissertation on Buddhists and Brahmans

by Naomi

I have just been reading Nathan McGovern’s 2013 doctoral dissertation (submitted to the University of California Santa Barbara) ‘Buddhists, Brahmans, and Buddhist Brahmans: Negotiating Identities in Indian Antiquity’ and enjoying his novel approach to the whole question of the relationship between Buddhism and what I tend to call Brahmanical Hinduism (for want of a better term). This reading is part of my current work drafting up sections of the introduction to our project monograph, work that has taken me back to Bronkhorst and Gombrich as well as into new scholarship.

McGovern’s dissertation is seriously long, and contains several self-contained sections on such topics as the relationship between the Nikayas and Agamas, the oral transmission of early Buddhist texts (including the application of Parry-Lord Oral Theory), and the history of ‘encounter dialogues’ between the Buddha and brahmins. For me, however, the most interesting aspect was the way in which McGovern tries to reconcile Bronkhorst’s Greater Magadha theory with the pervasive presence of Brahmanical themes and terms in early Buddhist texts.

In brief, McGovern broadly accepts Bronkhorst’s theory that Buddhism arose in a non-Brahmanicised area and from a distinctive Greater Magadhan culture, and he broadly rejects the theory that Buddhism arose in reaction to a dominant Brahmanical culture. (His review of the scholarship on both sides of this debate makes interesting reading in itself.) However, he is not fully convinced that core ideas about karma, ātman and saṃsāra necessarily emerged out of Greater Magadhan culture, and in particular, he argues that the widespread presence of brahmins and Brahmanical terms and ideas in Buddhist texs cannot be readily explained if we assume that Buddhism emerged without Brahmanical influence. Thus he argues for a new model, in which we assume that there was a common set of terms and ideas in circulation, which were drawn upon by the different religious groups of the day. These later became more rigid as competition between groups increased.

A key example, for McGovern, is the term brāhmaṇa itself, which he argues did not always refer to what we now label brahmins (or Brahmans, in McGovern’s preferred usage) as a distinct social group defined by birth or Vedic learning. Rather, it was a general honorific used, like others such as muni, by a variety of religious groups, including Buddhists, who used it to describe the ideal person. Only later, as “new Brahmanism” (using Bronkhorst’s terminology, as McGovern does) rose in power and influence in the areas in which Buddhist groups were developing, did the Buddhist authors cede use of the term to their opponents, and reframe their perspective on brahmins in polemical terms.

Perhaps McGovern’s overall thesis is best summed up in his own words (from his conclusion on p.632):

I argue that these sectarian traditions [Buddhism and Brahmanism] cannot be understood as essentialized, metahistorical agents, such that one could arise purely in “reaction” to another. Rather, they must be understood as fluid, constantly interacting entities that emerged out of a common substratum and only coalesced as discernable sects through a long process of identity-formation, wherein terms such as “Brahman” were hotly contested between different groups – in this case, the early Buddhists and the proponents of the new Brahmanism.

I hope that McGovern will find a suitable avenue for the publication of his work, which makes a real contribution to an important debate about how we understand the interaction between Buddhist and Brahmanical groups during their formative periods.

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