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Trade Networks and the Early Transmission of Buddhism throughout and beyond South Asia

This project addresses historical and economic contexts for the movement of Buddhism across geographical and cultural boundaries between South Asia and Central Asia by retracing overland routes between the Indian subcontinent, the Indo-Iranian borderlands and Central Asia. I aim to link Buddhist mobility to the growth of networks for commercial exchanges of high-value commodities. By investigating patterns of early Buddhist transmission, I intend to elucidate factors which acted as catalysts for Buddhist transmission across Asia via multiple itineraries. This diachronic study of the formation and expansion of Buddhism from the time of the Buddha in the 5th century BCE is based on a synthesis of primary sources, especially recent discoveries of manuscripts, inscriptions, and other artifacts.

The main goal of the project is to complete a book on Trade Networks and the Early Transmission of Buddhism. The publication includes an introduction to theoretical models for Buddhist mobility and to issues in the study of religion and economy, as well as a methodological guide to relevant material and literary sources. An extensive historical overview addresses the emergence and growth of renouncer movements in competitive social, economic religious environments and re-examines initial phases in the establishment of Buddhism in early India. Various exogenous groups migrated to South Asia along routes which were also used in the transmission of Buddhism in the opposite direction to their former homelands, thereby enhancing contacts between India, Iran and Central Asia. The 'Northern Route' (uttarāpatha) and 'Southern Route' (dakṣiṇāpatha), which generally designate geographical / cultural regions of northern and southern India, were major arteries of commercial and cultural exchange linked to overland and maritime networks. The Northern Route extended to Gandhāra, a pivotal border region located in modern northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. Archeological remains of stūpas and monasteries, distinctive artistic traditions, donative inscriptions, and recently discovered collections of early manuscripts amply reflect the deep impact of Buddhism in Gandhāra. Interconnected capillary routes through the deep valleys of the Upper Indus, Gilgit, and Hunza rivers and across passes through the western Himalayas, Hindu Kush, and Karakorum mountains directly connected multiple Buddhist centers in Gandhāra, Swat and Kashmir with branches of the so-called silk routes in the Tarim Basin of eastern Central Asia. Diverse Central Asian and Chinese Buddhist traditions resulted from complex processes of transplantation, transmission, and transformation. Intermediate and long-distance trade routes across topographical, linguistic, and cultural boundaries enabled Buddhist missionaries to transmit the BuddhaÂ’s teachings (dharma) at elite and sub-elite levels. The ability to change with shifting conditions of economic support and to appeal to a wide audience of potential patrons contributed to the lasting success of Buddhist religious institutions. An exploration of paths and processes of Buddhist transmission helps to answer longstanding questions about how and why various Buddhist communities have been able to flourish outside of the homeland of the historical Buddha.

Update (August 8, 2011)

The project has been completed and the book has been published with Brill:

Jason Neelis, Early Buddhist Transmission and Trade Networks Mobility and Exchange Within and Beyond the Northwestern Borderlands of South Asia (Dynamics in the History of Religions 2), Leiden: Brill, 2010.