BUDDHISM IN INDIA: Challenging Brahmanism and Caste, by Gail Omvedt, Sage Publications 2003, ISBN 0 76 199 6648, pp. 304, ￡29.99 hardback.
A thoroughly bad book presents the reviewer with a melancholy dilemma. Would it not be kinder to author and publisher to say nothing, to leave the book unreviewed? But then, should the public not be warned? And should one not try to preserve standards?
I agreed to review this book because I was attracted by the subtitle. The Preface explains: 'This book grew ... out of the "Dalit Visions" project sponsored by the Karuna Trust in England'; the Introduction which follows begins by quoting Ambedkar's adaptation of Marx: 'The purpose of Religion is to explain the origin of the world. The purpose of Dhamma is to reconstruct the world'; and the next few pages seemed lively and intelligent. All this was promising, so that I was looking forward to an Ambedkarite view of the history of Indian Buddhism. Moreover, the book is handsomely produced.
Alas, the book's contents belie its appearance; I have been bitterly disappointed. The book is appallingly slapdash and inaccurate at every level. Almost half the Preface is devoted to explaining why (for reasons with which I am in sympathy) the author has 'used the Pali forms for most words' (p. xi). One then finds that this is simply untrue and that the author has little or no idea of Pali: the Pali word for monk, 'bhikkhu', which recurs constantly, is misspelt almost throughout; what should appear as Pali 'bodhisatta' is usually 'bodhisattva'; and even Pali proper names are given in Sanskrit or Hindi forms -- Buddhaghosha and Buddhaghosh appear on the same page (p. 98). The English is even worse: 'tooths' and 'more bigger'. Ungrammatical sentences abound. This sloppiness permeates the presentation of both fact and argument. How can one publish a statement such as '[T]he first millennium BCE. was one of intensified debate' (p. 41)? Only a few lines on, we read: 'Indian Brahmans as they have evolved over the centuries represent one of the most unique elites that any society has produced.' Then the Bhagavad Gita appears as part of 'The Background to Buddhism' (p. 49). There is ample evidence that the author understands neither the basic doctrine of early Buddhism nor its evolution into different schools -- p. 103 alone has enough mistakes to prove both. Although she quotes from my book How Buddhism Began, in which I show at length why the traditional understanding of Nirvana as 'blowing out' is correct, as it is part of a fire metaphor, she prefers to translate it as 'unbinding'.
An alarm bell rings in the Preface, when Uma Chakravarty is praised as 'one of the first to argue that Pali texts are an unparalleled source for the study of early India ....' The bibliography confirms that books ranging from Rhys Davids' Buddhist India (1903) to my own Theravada Buddhism: A Social History (1988) have escaped the author's notice. Maybe she did not have access to a library?
The book seems to have been compiled from a random selection of secondary sources, although they are not always accurately reported, and contradictions are blithely ignored. Let one short passage suffice as illustration. On p. 123 she gives the date of Kanishka's accession as 78 CE, then writes: '[T]he council that marked the beginning of Mahayana Buddhism was supposed to have been held under him. It was during his time that the first recorded Buddhist missionaries ... left for China in 65 CE.' First, the secondary source to which she refers correctly states that modern scholarship dates Kanishka's accession to c. 128 CE. Even by her own wrong dating, 65 CE is not during Kanishka's time. Also, the first recorded Buddhist missionaries were despatched by Asoka; those missions are not mentioned in this book. She may mean that this was the first recorded mission to China, but it is not recorded in any source generally accepted as reliable. Moreover, the council referred to had to do with the Sarvastivada not the Mahayana.
The author asks: 'How can the impact of Buddhism on society be really measured?' (p