Early Buddhist Society

The World of Gautama Buddha

By Xinru Liu

Subjects: Buddhism, Asian Studies, India And South Asian Studies, World History, History Of Religion
Hardcover : 9781438491233, 223 pages, December 2022
Paperback : 9781438491226, 223 pages, June 2023

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Table of contents

Preface and Acknowledgements

1. The Time of the Buddha

2. Ahura and Asura: Persians and Indians in the Time of the Buddha

3. The Maladies of Urban Life: Epidemics, Asava, and the Problem of Addiction

4. Supporters in the Cities: Gahapati, Setthi, Visakha, and Women Who Fed the Sangha

5. Bimbisara, Pasenadi, Ajatasattu, and the Vajji Rajas

6. Queens and the Buddhist Sangha

7. Patacara and Refugees Who Fled from Cities

8. Newcomers from Forests, Mountains, and Waters

9. From Aryans to Candalas: A Mobile Hierarchy in the Buddhist Universe

10. Sanchi and Bharhut: Visual Memories of Early Buddhist Society


1. Sanchi Stupa 1, eastern torana, south pillar, north face
2. A member of Delegation VI, Lydians, on the east side of the Apadana Palace at Persepolis
3. Sanchi Stupa 1, foreigners worshipping a stupa
4. Sassanid motif relief on Sanchi Stupa 2, ground balustrade, north entrance panel on pillar
5. Bharhut Stupa, Persian patron
6. Sirima Devata, Bharhut Stupa
7. Orchestra and dancing in the heavens
8. Ajatasattu worshipping the lord. The Buddha is represented here by a pair of sandals
9. Women worshipping the Buddha, Amaravati Stupa
10. The inscription reads: “Vedisa Chapadevaya Revatimita Bhariyaya pathama danam”
11. Suchiloma Yakkho, great railing of Bharhut Stupa
12. Celebrating the enlightenment of the Buddha
13. The realm of the gods, Bharhut Stupa
14. Kubera Yakkho
15. Sanchi: Ashoka and the Naga king worship the Buddha
16. Bharhut: Aya Isidinasa Bhanakasa (reciter) danam. Erapato Nagaraja Bhagavato Vadate
17. Sanchi: Nagaraja Mucilinda
18. Sujata feeds a dead ox, Bharhut
19. Stupa 1, Sanchi, general view from the south-east
20. Sanchi Stupa 1, southern gate, east face of left pillar, showing Ashoka’s visit to Bodhgaya and worship of the hair and turban of the Buddha
21. Bimbisara, king of Magadha, going out of the city of Rajagaha, Sanchi Stupa 1, northern gate,
east pillar of west face
22. Royal procession of Pasenadi going out of the city of Savatthi, Sanchi Stupa 1, northern gate, north side of the east pillar
23. Battle for the relics of the Buddha, Sanchi Stupa 1, southern gate, north face of lower beam
24. Bharhut Stupa, great railing
25. Devata Culacoka, great railing, Bharhut Stupa
26. Cada Yakkhi, Bharhut Stupa, great railing
27. Virudhaka Yakkho, Bharhut great railing pillar
28. Gangito Yakkho, great railing pillar
29. Cakavako Nagaraja
30. Mahakapi Jataka, great railing, pillar
31a and 31b. Monkeys capturing elephant, Bharhut Stupa, great railing crossbar

A richly scholarly yet accessible and imaginative account of society in the time of the Buddha.


What might daily life have been like in India in the time of the Buddha? Who were some of the rulers, monks, philosophers, devotees, and doctors with whom the Buddha would have interacted and had discussions? What was involved in spreading the message of Buddhism and setting up the Buddhist sangha (order)? What were the schisms and factions, and what was the nature of opposition to Buddhism from Brahmin hegemony?

A great deal is known about Buddhist tenets and doctrine, but very little exists on the lived context of the Buddha himself. Early Buddhist texts in Pali reveal a society in ways that other texts relating to Buddhism, as well as the Brahmanical literature, do not. Xinru Liu reads this literature, along with the earliest Buddhist artworks on stupas, to argue that the historical Buddha does not really exist in the imagination of most people, including Buddhists. In this book, she sets out to plug this gap in our understanding of Buddhism, illuminating and eliminating many misconceptions along the way. Gender, religion, and caste in early India come alive in this richly scholarly yet accessible and imaginative account of society in the time of the Buddha. This is a book for students, teachers, and everyone interested in the living universe of India 2500 years ago.

Xinru Liu is Professor Emeritus of History at the College of New Jersey. Her previous books include The Silk Road in World History and Ancient India and Ancient China: Trade and Religious Exchanges, A.D. 1–600.


"Liu's beautifully researched and eminently readable book is, by her own telling, an account of the people one encounters most frequently in Buddhist narrations and of the context, nature, and motives of those encounters … Highly recommended." — CHOICE

"Early Buddhist Society is a well-researched book written in simple and accessible language, and as such it is well placed as a reference text for introductory courses in Buddhist studies and world history … The field of Buddhist studies is enriched by this book and by Xinru Liu's dedication of her immense skills as a historian to the important topic of the life and times of early Buddhist society." — H-Net Reviews (H-Buddhism)