November 23, 2010

In early South Asia, Buddhist luxury was no contradiction

Businessmen today don’t have a reputation as the most virtuous workers, but it was likely a different story in early South Asian empires, according to Andy Rotman, a professor of Religion at Smith College, who spoke in Swift Hall Tuesday.

His lecture, titled “Buddhism, Merchants, & Mercantilism,” explored how the confluence of those three systems helped form the morals of the early South Asian middle class. Rotman touched on both archeology and literature in the early centuries of the Common Era.

As trade increased between Eastern and Western societies, merchants interacted more with monasteries. This increase was particularly demonstrated in donations, which had huge effects on early Buddhist morals, Rotman said.

Merchants were inclined to give to the monasteries, which Rotman believes contributed to a “commoditized morality,” because of Buddhist inclinations toward luxury at the time. "It is perhaps the quest for ‘magnificence,’ to echo Aristotle, which helps explain why Buddhists at this time incorporated various luxury goods into their rituals," Rotman said.

Rotman also said that merchants’ concern with the afterlife might have contributed to their relationship to monks. "According to Buddhism’s ‘market morality’... merit and money are convertible forms of capital,” Rotman said. “The places and procedures that allow individuals to exchange one form of capital for the other are much more explicit and readily accessible.”

"Many of the stories read like merchant’s fairy tales, with merchants gaining wealth easily, almost inevitably, and their large stockpiles of wealth indicating their equally large stockpiles of virtue," Rotman said, referring to ancient Buddhist narratives of the Kuṣāṇa and Sātavāhana empires. "Merchants, it seems, can turn the wheel of dharma, too, and they can do so quite well.”