Environmental Ethics in Ancient India
Funding in 2014-15 was provided by a British Academy Mid-Career Research Fellowship
Environmental ethics in ancient India
This project focuses on the long term relationships between religion, ecology and economics in ancient India, drawing primarily on archaeological research, as well as collaborative links with colleagues working in the fields of Classical Indology, and Historical Ecology.
The project examines early Indian concepts of human wellbeing in relation to environmental ethics and human ecology, and the question of how emergent religious traditions both within orthodox and heterodox frameworks responded to new environmental challenges in the mid to late first millennium BC, in particular, in the face of rising urbanism and major changes in social and political structure. There is a strong focus also on the interface between modern and ancient environmental realities.
The project has two major stages: Stage 1 focuses on the Heterodox, and particularly, Buddhist tradition, whilst Stage 2 examines the ecological basis of
History and development of 'Buddhist economics'
An interest in ‘well-being’ as an indicator of
economic status has continued to run through various strands of economic and
political thought particularly since the publication in 1973 of E.F.
Schumacher’s influential Small is Beautiful: economics as if people
mattered which drew in part on historical systems of ‘Buddhist economics’
in Southeast Asia.
This project examines
the history and development of a specifically ‘Buddhist economics’ in the
centuries between the original teachings of the historical Buddha in north
India, and its subsequent spread to other parts of South, South-east and East
Its primary focus is on environmental ethics, and in particular the role that Buddhism and other religious institutions played in the management of land and natural resources and their strategies for dealing with the economic and human fallout of environmental stress.
The study draws initially on the results of Sanchi
Survey project which sought to relate Buddhist monastic sites in central India to
archaeological patterns in their surrounding landscape. Landscape data including ritual sites,
settlements, water-resource structures and land-use evidence present a spatial
model for understanding Buddhism’s role within the wider social and economic
Despite their distinct placing within the landscape, Buddhist
monasteries were part of an interdependent economy with close parallels to
systems of monastic landlordism known in Sri
Lanka and Southeast Asia. Lay support of Buddhist monks was
essential to the latter’s survival, but practical services provided by the
monastery, in particular water for domestic and agricultural use, formed the
backbone to changing social and economic conditions during the early centuries
BC including urbanisation and agricultural ‘involution’. The monasteries’ close relationship
with agricultural improvement and water management was an important instrument
of lay patronage, but it was also closely related to the Buddhism’s deeper preoccupation
with human suffering (dukkha) and the means of its alleviation: one of
the key messages that arose from the Buddha’s Enlightenment was that we suffer
if we do not live correctly.
This project focuses on one particularly practical
way of tackling such erroneous living and consequent suffering, viz, the sangha’s involvement with water and land
management, a role which was in later years usurped by competing religious
frameworks. It also examines the wider ecological message of early Buddhist teachings in relation to the impact of the environment on human suffering and well-being, and attitudes towards the body, diet and health.
- Shaw, J. (In Preparation), Archaeologies of Wellbeing and Suffering: environmental ethics and Buddhist economics in ancient Indi.
- Shaw, J. (Ed.), (In Preparation, 2016), Archaeologies of Environmental Ethics. Special volume of World Archaeology 48(4) (Routledge).
- Shaw, J. (Ed.), (2013), Archaeology of Religious Change. Special volume of World Archaeology 45(1) (Routledge).
- Shaw, J. (2013), ‘Introduction’. Archaeology of Religious Change. World Archaeology 45(1): 1-11.
- Shaw, J. (2013), 'Archaeologies of Buddhist propagation in ancient India: 'ritual' and 'practical' models of religious change', in J. Shaw (Ed.), Archaeology of Religious Change. World Archaeology 45(1): 83-108.
- Shaw, J. (2011). 'Monasteries, monasticism, and
patronage in ancient India: Mawasa, a recently documented hilltop Buddhist
complex in the Sanchi area of Madhya Pradesh', South Asian Studies 27
- Shaw, J. (2007), Buddhist Landscapes in Central India: Sanchi hill and archaeologies of religious and social change, c. 3rd century BC to 5th century AD. London: British Association for South Asian Studies, The British Academy / Leftcoast Press
- Shaw, J., and J.V. Sutcliffe (2005), ‘Ancient Dams and Buddhist Landscapes in the Sanchi area: New evidence on Irrigation, Land use and Monasticism in Central India’, South Asian Studies 21, 1-24.