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Segment of the vedika (low wall) from the Bharhut Stupa excavation in Madhya Pradesh. Photograph by Joseph David Beglar, 1874. Courtesy University of Leiden

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Why Indian Buddhism has gardens, not monasteries

Segment of the vedika (low wall) from the Bharhut Stupa excavation in Madhya Pradesh. Photograph by Joseph David Beglar, 1874. Courtesy University of Leiden

by Simran Agarwal + BIO

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Wishing trees, jewels, unfading flowers – what place do these sensual pleasures have in the ascetic life of Buddhist monks?

Words like ‘monasteries’ or ‘cloisters’ – evoking images of chaste, austere and isolated spaces – that we commonly use to refer to Buddhist establishments are quite unlike the vocabulary that Buddhist ascetics, in early historic India (c500 BCE-300 CE), used for such places in both texts and inscriptions. They called them vihāras or ārāmas instead, Sanskrit terms meaning ‘a place of recreation, pleasure-ground’ or a ‘place of pleasure, a garden’. For the contemporary urban population, such terms would have evoked visions of gardens brimming with birdsong, teeming with the sounds of bees and abounding in flowers and fruit trees – settings that recur constantly in Sanskrit poems and plays as the material and moral prerogative of the elite who went into them to enjoy a vast array of pleasures, especially amorous liaisons and romances. So why would the Buddhist monk – famous for his ascetic striving – use such a vocabulary to describe his home, his dwelling place once he returns to the city to recruit new monastic candidates and spread the teachings of the Buddha?

The Buddhist garden in early India represents two contrary ideas: of indulgence in worldly pleasures (associated with the garden) and their renunciation (associated with the ascetic). The durability of the garden lies in its ability to structure contradictions without collapsing them. To discuss it is to be drawn into its complex of meanings, which integrates the worldly garden and its associations of sensual, carnal pleasures while connecting them to a higher, moral cosmos, one that can only be reached by transcending the socialised and cultivated realm.

To understand the dwelling of the ascetic, we must begin with the character of the dweller. Derived from its Greek root ascesis, the term ‘ascetic’ conveys the assumption of a life of striving or labour as denoted by its Sanskrit counterpart śrama, which characterises the career of the ascetic. This striving or labour brings with it the abandonment of social and familial ties to become a ‘hermit’ (from the Greek, meaning ‘living in a desert’) or vānaprasthi (Sanskrit for a ‘forest-dweller’), making renunciation the necessary precondition for asceticism. The urge for self-transformation unites these practices, arrived at through rigorous psychophysiological practices of ascetic striving. This is why Buddhist and other Indian literary traditions chronicle the perfected ascetic as the mahāpuruṣa, someone who is a great being, who transcends the human condition, and who is, perhaps, a superhuman.

The Buddha gave his first sermon in a deer park near Kāśī and, as an ascetic, resided in gardens and groves

The dwelling of the ascetic is much greater than the rationale of shelter; it concerns the purpose and principle of renunciation: how can the ascetic, who has renounced home life, continue to have a home? Living under a tree, for instance, was sanctioned by all forms of asceticism but became more codified in early Buddhist ascetic practice. With the coming of the Buddha (around the 5th century BCE), and the augmentation of the idea of him as a super-ascetic, the notion of the great being living in the wilderness or peripheries of human settlement came to constitute a god-like potency and spirituality. The ascetic-renunciant, in a way, gained his charisma from his unusual, or rather extraordinary, existence in a counter-social space; but, once established, his wandering nature carried that association wherever he travelled.

So what happened when the Buddhist ascetic came back to the social space of the city, where the growing atmosphere of urbanism encouraged the pursuit of wealth (artha) and pleasure (kāma) along with the fulfilment of social duty (dharma) – worldly practices whose denial, in order to attain release (mokṣa), was the core idea of Buddhism?

According to the historian Romila Thapar, ideologies of a wilderness retreat initially arose in agropastoral society represented in the Vedic corpus (a set of sacred texts composed between the 15th and 5th century BCE). However, they only became popular through the discourse that happened in the kutūhalaśālās – literally meaning spaces that sparked curiosity – as a result of the social changes that accompanied urbanisation in early India. These kutūhalaśālās were located on the peripheries of towns – the space of gardens, groves and parks – where people gathered to listen to the sermons of the Buddha and other heterodox thinkers who sowed the seeds of various new ideologies by renouncing the regularly ordered social system.

When Anāthapiṇḍika, a wealthy banker and early patron-follower of the Buddha, returned to his hometown Śrāvastī (in present-day Uttar Pradesh, India), he did not enter it, looking instead amid the city’s parks, groves and gardens for a place to set up a monastery. The Buddha gave his first sermon in a deer park near Kāśī and, as an ascetic, resided in gardens and groves. Gardens in early India also had unique and essential roles in urban and courtly societies as private, intimate and versatile spaces of enjoyment – common architectural extensions of elite households where, much like the forest, everyday social customs and ethics were suspended. Different courtly activities such as the celebration of festivals, enactment of romance-dramas, pursuit of leisurely games, picnics with companions and clandestine meetings with courtesans and lovers took place there. Thus, even though the purposes of the Buddhist monastery and the pleasure garden were quite different, they still formed related institutions in terms of their geographical proximity to the city and social distance from the householder’s lifestyle. This relation was so intimate that the workforce of both spaces was referred to by the same term – aramikas. Gardens, therefore, could easily be converted into monasteries, serving as a liminal space between the varied philosophical concerns associated with rising urbanisation and the forest retreats celebrated in orthodox literature.

Through brilliant wordplay, Śūdraka’s ancient Sanskrit play Padmaprābhritaka actually has an example of the two connotations – the monastic and the erotic – at work together. Here, a Buddhist monk is caught rushing out of a whorehouse. When questioned, he responds by claiming that he was just arriving from the ‘monastery’ (vihāra) which, technically, is true for he is arriving from his ‘pleasure-ground’ (vihāra). On hearing this, his accoster retorts: ‘Indeed, I know the real meaning of your vihāra,’ rendering the innuendo unmistakably clear.

The Buddhacarita, an epic poem by Aśvaghoṣa (c1st-2nd century CE) also has an episode that depicts a bodhisattva (a person on the path to becoming a buddha) walking in the pleasure garden in the company of courtesans who try to seduce him. The scene unfolds as follows:

Then surrounded by the women, the prince wandered through the garden, like an elephant through the Himalayan forest, accompanied by a herd of females. In that lovely grove he shone with the women in attendance on him, like Vivasvat surrounded by Apsarases in the pleasance of Vidhrāja. Then some of the young women there, pretending to be under the influence of intoxication, touched him with their firm, rounded, close-set, charming breasts. One made a false stumble and clasped him by force by her tender arm-creepers … Another, whose mouth with copper-coloured lower lip smelt of spirituous liquor, whispered in his ear, ‘Listen to a secret’.

The Buddhist monks who compiled these works layered these meanings, presenting the garden as a polysemy – a source of proliferated interpretations.

The Buddhist paradise-garden, in contrast to its courtly counterpart, was an extremely sensual but desexualised place

Early Indian courtly and religious literature imagined gardens as the ideal abode of great beings. Sources such as the Kāmasūtra suggest that the royal pleasure garden – as a botanical wonder and mansion of great delights​​ – constituted a crucial adjunct of the king’s larger household. Its ability to transcend the expectations of everyday life made it paradisal, indicating the greater eminence of the king’s household, which was a fabulous place, like the house of God. Other powerful beings, such as nāgas (wealthy half-human, half-cobra divinities of the underworld), were also assumed to reside in celestial gardens.

For Buddhism, this pervasive garden imagery seems to have facilitated the imagination of the place of enlightenment as a highly embellished and miraculous garden. And, in the early Mahāyāna texts, this idea gets further developed into the concept of a ‘paradise’, where the Buddha preaches and lives eternally. The Buddha Amitābha’s paradise (Sukhāvatī or ‘Pure Land of Bliss’), in the Sukhāvatīvyūhasūtra, for example, has seven rows of tāla trees, nets with bells, jewel trees, lotus ponds made from precious gems, and showers of scented mandārava flowers accompanying the wind, each of them filled with jewels. Flowers covered the ground like a carpet but disappeared miraculously, just before withering, only to reappear on the trees. The Pure Land of Bliss had no faded flowers (aparikliṣṭa puṣpa).

Unlike the gardens of the kings and nāgas, the Buddha’s paradise gardens, as described in classic works, barely include any description of the beauty and enjoyment of apsarases (female spirits). According to the Larger Sukhāvatīvyūhasūtra, a vow made by the bhikṣu Dharmākara meant that no female could reside in the Buddha Amitābha’s paradise. And even though the work passingly makes a mention of apsarases, there is no exaltation of their beauty. This minimal indulgence of female figures and their erotic beauty in textual descriptions, according to the work of the historian Akira Shimada, shows the ability of the bodhisattvas and Buddhas to overcome the lure of kāma. In Amitābha’s paradise, moreover, bodhisattvas were not born from wombs but, miraculously, in lotus pods. Thus, the Buddhist paradise-garden, in contrast to its courtly counterpart, was an extremely sensual but desexualised place, where erotic pleasures were replaced by refined forms of sublime and spiritual (non-worldly) bliss.

Aside from the use of garden imagery in Buddhist literature, we can also locate its presence in the sculptural programmes of stūpas, the Buddha’s eternal abode in this world. Between c200 BCE and 300 CE, central India and the Deccan witnessed the spread of Buddhist stūpas and monasteries in commercial centres and along major trade routes. Besides the narratives of the Buddha’s life, the gateways and railings of these early stūpas depict different kinds of plants as well as figurative, fantastic motifs associated with plants.

At the Bhārhut stūpa in central India, the railing depicts twisting vine scrolls that produce budding leaves, flowers, fruits and even jewels, as if they were kalpavṛkṣas or kalpalatās (wishing trees or wishing creepers) – plants that produced fabulous wealth and were familiar items in both courtly and Buddhist representations. The coping also features a narrow band representing the net with bells that we encountered in Amitābha’s paradise (Sukhāvatī), in the Sukhāvatīvyūhasūtra (Figure 1). The highly regularised forms of these vine-creepers and decorative elements, moreover, indicate that they are not representations of ‘real’ plants but, rather, invocations of the miraculous gardens described in the early Mahānyāna scriptures.

Figure 1: Section of a rail coping, c150 BCE, Bhārhut. Courtesy the Cleveland Museum of Art

But, unlike the highly diminished role of erotic female figures in the gardens of these texts, early Buddhist stūpas abound in erotic imagery featuring seductive women; and in their gardens, amorous couples, shaded by bowers, enjoy various illicit and quasi-illicit pleasures (Figures 2 and 3). Alongside these images, we have Ṛṣyaśṛṅga – born without desire and a symbol of ascetical power – reminding us of the bodhisattva resisting the seductive courtesans in the pleasure garden of the Buddhacarita (Figure 4).

Figure 2: Corner railing pillar with drinking, dancing and music, from Mathurā, Kuṣāṇa period, 2nd century CE. Courtesy the Cleveland Museum of Art

Figure 3: Stūpa railing found at Bhūtesar mound, Kuṣāṇa period, Indian Museum, Kolkata. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Figure 4: Ṛṣyaśṛṅga, Kuṣāṇa period, c2nd century, Mathurā Museum. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

What is most interesting, however, is the architectural location of these erotic images, confined as they are to the outer faces and peripheries of the stūpas (Figure 3); and, thus, spatially excluded from the more significant inner spaces facing the Buddha, which depict sacred legends such as the narratives of the Buddha’s lives. As I see it, such careful differentiation and hierarchisation of the erotic and the sacred in the sculptural programme of the Buddhist stūpas rendered the act of entering the stūpa into a symbolic transition from the outer, mundane world into the inner, phenomenal world of asceticism. And by so doing, they imagined, like the scriptural texts, the Buddha’s paradise gardens as transcending the sphere of worldly pleasure.

But then, how does one explain the appearance of wealth-bestowing, wish-granting plants, whose descriptions clearly arouse fantasies of opulence, in the celestial gardens of Buddhist literature?

The historian Daud Ali has argued that such descriptions and representations embody an aesthetics of plenitude which ‘saw flowers, jewels, and ornaments as the necessary, felicitous and beautiful accoutrements of a morally sanctioned world’. Buddhist teachings urged householders to ‘sow’ their deeds in the ‘fields of merit’ and cultivate virtues that would ‘bear fruit’; and, according to the Pali text Vimānavatthu, such actions, indeed, delivered rewards like a wishing tree, or kalpavṛkṣa. That the Buddhist construction of paradise – where laypeople (many from the urban and courtly milieu) would reap the reward of their earthly merits – integrated the values of contemporary society is hardly surprising given that Buddhist literature also relied on accounts of contemporary courtly practices to reconstruct much of the Buddha’s early life as a prince. What is important is how this integration reworked the imagery of courtly opulence and extended it into a metaphor of virtuous plenitude, gained by reaching the very edge of civilisation – through ascetic striving and renunciation – and becoming a great being.

This Idea was made possible through the support of a grant to Aeon+Psyche from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation. Funders to Aeon+Psyche are not involved in editorial decision-making.

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4 December 2023