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Henry Albery M.A.

Focus Area: Constructions of "the Beautiful"
Postdoctoral Fellow: April 2018 - September 2020


Ritual Practices of Ancient Indic Buddhism
Whilst ritual in the Indic context has enjoyed a wealth of treatment, in the case of Buddhism it is an under researched, and hence poorly understood phenomenon. This lacuna may be attributed to two factors. First, is the enduring scholarly predilection of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which envisaged Buddhism either as a rehashing of a mytho-naturalistic system, or as a rational philosophy and antithesis to the sacrifice based Vedic society from whence it emerged in the c. 4th century BCE – any ritual elements in Buddhist literature were hence rejected as degradations of a supposedly philosophical rationale. Second, and notwithstanding firm revisions to the above positions, is the notable dearth of evidence in this regard – no single source type, material or textual, provides a comprehensive picture of ritual practice, an issue compounded by the majority being devoid of context and historicity. That is not to say we hold a tabula rasa – there are sporadic forays into Buddhist ritual practice to be found dotted throughout scholarship. But the majority of studies are biased to a single source group, often divorced from socio-historical circumstances.
Seeking to concurrently address these lacunae and methodological issues, this project represents the first attempt to classify and conceptualise the ritual practices of ancient Indic Buddhism. Following the principle that ritual cannot be understood apart from context, it advances a methodological framework, which utilises all the above sources in conjunction. Therethrough the fragments of ritual practice offered by each may be arranged into something more akin to a whole, and the historical manifestations of ritual practice, witnessed by material remains, may serve to contextualise and balance their highly standardised illustrations in textual sources. The central thrust of this project is to examine Indic Buddhist rituals as both normative systems of practice, mechanisms of radical change, dependent on localised economic, gendered, social and political structures, and structured by distinct behavioural, cognitive, causal, social, spatial and temporal conditions.