Early European histories of India frequently reflected colonialist agendas. The idea that Indian society had declined from an earlier Golden Age helped justify the colonial presence. It was said, for example, that modern Buddhism had fallen away from its original identity as a purely rational philosophy that arose in the mythical 5th-century BCE Golden Age unsullied by the religious and cultural practices that surrounded it. In this book Robert DeCaroli seeks to place the formation of Buddhism in its appropriate social and political contexts. It is necessary, he says, to acknowledge that the monks and nuns who embodied early Buddhist ideals shared many beliefs held by the communities in which they were raised. In becoming members of the monastic society these individuals did not abandon their beliefs in the efficacy and the dangers represented by minor deities and spirits of the dead. Their new faith, however, gave them revolutionary new mechanisms with which to engage those supernatural beings.
Drawing on fieldwork, textual, and iconographic evidence, DeCaroli offers a comprehensive view of early Indian spirit-religions and their contributions to Buddhism-the first attempt at such a study since Ananda Coomaraswamy's pioneering work was published in 1928. The result is an important contribution to our understanding of early Indian religion and society, and will be of interest to those in the fields of Buddhist studies, Asian history, art history, and anthropology.