Caste and Buddhist Philosophy: Continuity of Some Buddhist Arguments against the Realist Interpretation of Social Denominations.

Author:Jackson, Roger R.
Position:Book review

Caste and Buddhist Philosophy: Continuity of Some Buddhist Arguments against the Realist Interpretation of Social Denominations. By Vincent Eltschinger. Translated by Raynald Prevereau in collaboration with the author. Buddhist Traditions Series, vol. 60. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2012. Pp. xxi + 235. INR 650.

The writings of the great Indian Buddhist epistemologists, of whom the most celebrated is Dharmakirti (6th or 7th century C.E.), have drawn the attention of modern scholars primarily for their contributions to Buddhist theories of logic, language, and knowing, and to some degree for their polemics against the metaphysics and soteriology propounded by various non-Buddhist schools of thought. Their works have not much been probed for evidence of Buddhist social attitudes--at least until now. Filling this lacuna, Vincent Eltschinger's erudite but lively volume, Caste and Buddhist Philosophy (first published in French in 2000), closely interrogates the writings of several key Buddhist epistemologists--most notably Dharmakirti and Prajnakaragupta--with an eye to understanding their views of the caste system and their distinctive reasons for rejecting Brahmin claims that the system represents a real, fixed, and natural feature of the world. Eltschinger sets his careful and nuanced analysis of the epistemologists within the larger frame of the history of Buddhist reactions to such "naturalistic" or "realistic" claims about caste on the part of Hindus. This makes the book more than just a specialized study of one sidebar in the Buddhist epistemological tradition; it is, rather, a lucid overview of the various sorts of reasons Buddhists adduced to reject Brahmin arguments for the ontological status of caste, from the earliest canonical writings to the last centuries of Buddhism's flourishing in India.

The book is divided into a preface, two substantial chapters tracing the history of Buddhist arguments, and a summary conclusion. Each of these will be summarized in what follows--though far too briefly, alas, to indicate the true sophistication of Eltschinger's analysis.

Eltschinger uses his short preface to establish what the book does and does not seek to accomplish. Its primary purpose, he says, is to extend our appreciation for Buddhist attitudes toward caste beyond the well-mined early canonical sources, so as to bring into view a range of important Buddhist thinkers of the first millennium C.E. He is concerned above all to establish the continuities in Buddhist arguments over the course of many centuries, while at the same time drawing attention to...

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