Environmental Ethics in Ancient India

History and development of 'Buddhist economics'

Water channels at the rock-cut Buddhist complex, Kanheri, Maharashtra

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 book ‘Small is Beautiful: economics as if people mattered ’ which drew heavily 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.

Related outputs

  • Shaw, J., (In preparation, 2013) ‘Archaeologies of well-being and suffering: environmental ethics and Buddhist economics in ancient India’
  • Shaw, J. (in preparation, 2013) (Ed.) Archaeology of Religious Change. World Archaeology, vol. 45.1 (Routledge).
  • Shaw, J., (in preparation, 2013) ‘Introduction’. Archaeology of Religious Change. World Archaeology, vol. 45.1
  • Shaw, J., (in preparation, 2013) ‘Archaeologies of Religious Change in South Asia’. Archaeology of Religious Change. World Archaeology, vol. 45.1
  • Shaw, J., J. Sutcliffe, and E. Brown. (In preparation, 2012). ‘Irrigation and complex society in ancient India: an archaeo-hydrological assessment’. Water History (journal).
  • 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.
  • 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. 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.

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