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Mahâyâna and the Gift: Theories and Practices

  • Author(s): McCombs, Jason Matthew;
  • Advisor(s): Schopen, Gregory R.;
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the theory and practice of a crucial aspect of the premodern religions of India: gift giving. Although much has been written on gift giving in India, rarely have the theory and practice of giving in India been considered simultaneously. I focus in particular on the role of the gift in Indian Mahâyâna, a Buddhist movement that appeared around the beginning of the Common Era and lasted until the disappearance of Buddhism from India in the late medieval period. Very little attention has been paid to gift giving and Indian Mahâyâna Buddhism, in part because the scholarship on Indian Mahâyâna has concentrated largely on its origins and early sources.

Mahâyâna gift theory is analyzed through a close reading of a range of textual sources, including both Sûtra and Shâstra, two major genres of Indian Mahâyâna Buddhist texts. As part of this project, I categorize the various types of discourses on the gift that appear in Mahâyâna Sûtras. I also translate two Mahâyâna Buddhist texts that have until now not been translated into a Western language. The first text I translate is the Dânapâramitâ-sûtra, which is preserved only in the Tibetan Kanjur. The second is the Dânapatala, a chapter of a Mahâyâna Shâstric text called the Bodhisattvabhûmi that is still extant in Sanskrit. The Dânapâramitâ-sûtra exhibits parallels with some Mahâyâna Sûtras in their treatment of gift giving, but sharply diverges from others. And even though the Dânapâramitâ-sûtra and Dânapatala ostensibly address the same topic and come from the same religious tradition, they are markedly different texts. It is clear that Mahâyâna textual discourse on the gift is extremely diverse. There are competing Mahâyâna gift theories rather than a unified Mahâyâna gift theory.

Mahâyâna giving in practice is explored through the epigraphic record. After first establishing how to identify a Mahâyâna inscription, I catalogue and analyze the content of Mahâyâna donative inscriptions. Two key patterns emerge. First, many Mahâyâna donative inscriptions express the wish that all beings attain a kind of knowledge possessed by awakened beings. Second, almost all Mahâyâna inscriptions record gifts of images. In neither pattern do we see much evidence of Mahâyâna textual theory, a discrepancy that raises important questions.

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