SAS: ‘Like milk without butter or cream’: Money, Politics and the Hinduization of Indian Buddhism, 1920 – 1950

March 10, 2022 - 5pm

Douglas Ober, Visiting Fellow, Neubauer Collegium, The University of Chicago

The idea that the Buddha was ‘born, lived, and died a Hindu’ and that Buddhism is a branch of Hinduism is one of the most popular tropes in India today. The novelty of this idea is only apparent, however, when one considers that the wider Brahmanical Hindu attitude towards Buddhists and Buddhist institutions at the beginning of the nineteenth century was one of hostility or at best, ambiguity. This talk traces the developments that led to this monumental transformation through an exploration of the temple-building activities of the Marwari Hindu industrialists, the Birlas, and in particular, the eldest son, Jugal Kishore (JK). From the 1930s to 1950s, JK Birla built more than a dozen Buddhist temples in India, in addition to supporting various other Buddhist initiatives. Yet JK was also a devout Hindu who simultaneously promoted a “muscular” Hinduism and the political projects of Hindutva ideologues. With the assistance of the All-India Hindu MahaSabha, the temples he constructed were part of a broader effort to reimagine the subcontinent’s past as part of a singular Hindu nation. Although the Birlas and the MahaSabha were not the only figures and institutions involved in the 20th century effort to Hinduize Buddhism, they were at its forefront and a close examination of their activities reveals the wider dynamics underlining the transformation of modern Buddhism in India, and by extension, modern Hinduism. By taking an approach that considers textual and art historical sources, this talk analyzes the planning and construction of several key sites built by the Birlas from the 1930s – 50s. In doing so, it explores the Hindu right’s impact on re-narrativizing the landscape of Buddhism in India, especially in light of concurrent efforts among Indian leftists and Dalit-Bahujan Buddhists to craft a radically different vision of India’s Buddhist past.

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