Institute of Archaeology


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, Religious Studies, and the Environmental Humanities.

The project examines early Indian concepts of human v. non-human well-being and usffering in relation to environmental ethics and historical 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
Brahmanical orthodoxy.

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 Asia.

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 landscape.

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.

Related outputs

  • Shaw, J. (2017). Religion, 'Nature' and Environmental Ethics in Ancient India: Archaeologies of Human:Non-Human Suffering and Well-being in early Buddhist and Hindu contexts. World Archaeology 48 (4), doi:10.1080/00438243.2016.1250671
  • Shaw, J. (Ed.) (In Press, 2016), Archaeology and Environmental Ethics. Special volume of World Archaeology 48(4) (Routledge).
  • Shaw, J. (In Preparation, 2017), 'Early Indian religion, water and rice: archaeologies of human:non-human well-being, environmental control and and environmental ecological ethics', in M. Altaweel and Y. Zhuang (Eds.), Water Technologies  and Societies in the Past and Present. London: UCL Press.
  • Shaw, J. (In Preparation, 2018), Archaeologies of Suffering and Well-being: Environmental Ethics and Buddhist Economics in Ancient India.
  • Shaw, J. (In Preparation, 2018). 'Buddhist engagement with the natural environment', in K. Trainor, and P. Arai (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Buddhist Practice. Oxford University Press Handbook Series.
  • 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 (2): 111-130.
  • 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/ Routledge.
  • 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.


  • 2016-17:  British Academy / Leverhulme Small Grant
  • 2014-15:  British Academy Mid-Career Research Fellowship