Book Review: Buddha in Gandhara by Sunita Dwivedi

Book Name: Buddha in Gandhara

Author: Sunita Dwivedi

Genre: Non-fiction/History

Publisher: Rupa

Rating: 5/5

Book Blurb: Buddha in Gandhara is the saga of ancient Buddhist cities of Gandhara—a region that extended from north-western Pakistan to eastern and north-eastern Afghanistan. It tells stories of cities that once dotted the highroad connecting India with Central Asia and China. It traces the network of Asian trade routes that nourished these cities with goods, people and ideas. It also trains the spotlight on the magnificent art of Gandhara that still clings to the ruins of these heritage cities and also those that are showcased in the museums of Asia and Europe.

Picture Credit: Rupa
Picture Credit: Rupa

Review: I first got interested in the rich Buddhist heritage after reading through the works of Rahul Sankrityayan. His books were expensive especially for a student like me but they were rich in material and meticulously researched. The other aspect was Vipassana- although I’ve never actually tried it, but I’ve read about it a lot and members of my family have undergone Vipassana courses as taught by S.N.Goenka in the tradition of Sayagyi U Ba Khin. Although, Vipassana practitioners are quick to dissociate themselves from Buddhism, but a strong linkage cannot be denied. And of course, as an Indian, we are taught about Buddhism in our history classes- in wide detail.

Writing about the expansive history of a particular religion is a very difficult task but Sunita Dwivedi has given this book an interesting treatment. A religion that later shaped political and historical discourses spanning over different countries and culture is a vast subject. Perhaps Buddhism is unique because it expanded rapidly but also declined rapidly and continues to survive in countries where it did not historically originate.

This is a scholarly work interspersed with anecdotes of her travels and makes for a delightful read. I haven’t come across a better book on the Buddhist heritage till now.

“Gandhara which is believed to be derived from Sanskrit, and literally means perfumed, was represented in the gandhakutis of Buddha wherever he resided”.

She chooses an interesting treatment for this massive work and follows the Buddha’s trails along the Silk route. A religion expands over centuries and to find the trails of the Buddha from India to Afghanistan is no simple task. The book covers a lot of region and has many interesting bits of information that I did not know. And I’ve read a lot of material on Buddhism.

She writes in detail about the Buddhist sites on the Delhi-Lahore route and covers Taxila in detail. This book has so much material that it should appeal to both- scholars as well as casual readers. It is good that this book has been written in a conversational tone and does not come across as a primary scholarly work.

“The relics of the Buddha were sometimes forcibly taken away by powerful kings. Asoka had himself opened several stupas to obtain relics of the Buddha. The relics were so much in demand that the Nagas of Ramagrama had to keep vigil, day and night, at the Ramagrama Stupa”.

There is a lot of discussion on the Buddhist heritage of Afghanistan. No discussion of Buddha is complete without a mention of the works of Xuanzang. Most researchers have written entire books from secondary material but this work is unique since it ties both secondary research with material and insights from travels and primary research. There is no substitute for hard work and primary ground-truthing, no matter how many years may have passed.

The route serves as a tying bond for this book. At the very end is an interesting discussion ranging from Jataka tales to the eventual decline of Buddhism. Buddha in Gandhara is by far the most complete such book- if you can have a complete book on Buddha ever. I got a hard copy, thankfully so I am going to keep it in my collection.

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