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The Royal Supervision of Monastic Religious Endowments in Medieval India: Jurisprudence and Epigraphy

Attached to Paper Session

While excellent scholarly work (including Gregory Schopen’s Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks and Jonathan Silk’s Managing Monks are two superlative examples) excavates the practical, managerial history of Buddhist monastic institutions as centers of economic activity, a better understanding of the monasteries (maṭhas) of ‘Hindu’ (in the sense of Vedāntic, Śaiva, Vaiṣṇava, and other sectarian disciplinary orders) remains a desideratum. True, Arjun Appadurai and Leslie Orr have provided invaluable analyses of the foundation and legal regulation of temple endowments (and wider temple networks) in southern India – and Appadurai’s notion of sovereigns as “administrators” responsible for arbitrating temple-related disputes is integral to most contemporary scholarship on the legal administration of Hindu religious endowments in medieval India. Nevertheless, the monastery, as opposed to the temple (and the legal distinctions between the two is sometimes nebulous) is a neglected phenomenon within these and related studies. Indrani Chatterjea’s seminal theories (see, for example, her monograph, Forgotten Friends: Monks, Marriages, and Memories of Northeast India) of “monastic governmentality” (the management of disciplinary orders) and “monastic geographicity” (the role of monasteries in  mapping “the patchworks of ritual, economic, social and political relationships across various ecological niches” in South Asia) provide an invaluable point of departure for the central queries of my paper: 1) how did medieval Indian sovereigns regulate monastic endowments legally; and 2) what were the religio-philosophical (i.e., Dharmaśāstric) justifications for these sovereigns’ role as protectors of monastic governmentality?


Taking the second query – what were the Dharmaśāstric roots of the sovereign’s role as arbiter of monastic institutions – first, my paper draws on the work of Robert Lingat (invoked, explicitly in Appadurai’s scholarship), Gunther Dietz-Sontheimer (whose “Religious Endowments in India: The Juristic Personality of Hindu Deities” is the locus classicus for all philologically-informed studies of Hindu religious endowments), and Donald Davis to explicate the classical Sanskritic theory of the royal supervision of religious endowments (including monasteries). For example, Arthaśāstra 1.19.29 notes that a king must “try the cases—those relating to gods, hermitages, members of religious orders, Vedic scholars, farm animals, and holy places; those relating to children, the elderly, the sick, those in distress, and the helpless; and those relating to women—in that order, or according to the gravity of the case or its urgency” and 1.19.31 explains further that “he should try cases pertaining to gods and recluses within the fire hall.” The Dharmasmṛtis and Dharmaśāstras argue that,

“Cultivators, artisans, artists, money-lenders, persons belonging to particular religious sects and robbers should adjust their disputes according to the rules of their own profession” (Bṛhaspatismṛti 1.26-30)

and that,

“Among heretics, followers of the Veda, guilds, corporations, troops, assemblages and other associations, the King shall maintain their usages and customs—whatever be their laws, their duties, their rules regarding attendance, and the particular modes of livelihood prescribed for them, that the King shall approve of. The King shall prevent them from undertaking such acts as would be detrimental to the interests, either of their own associations or of the King himself, or despicable in their very nature.” (Nārada 10.2-7)

This brace of passages is representative of the theory in Sanskrit jurisprudence that monasteries (Buddhist, Jain, Śaiva, Vaiṣṇava, etc) are governed by conventional (sāmayika) dharmas which, in turn, are protected by the sovereign (to the extent that they do not go against his personal dharmas). Monasteries were, as a matter of principle, free to manage their assets and initiates as they pleased, but, when internal systems of administration proved insufficient (or corrupt) the king was duty-bound to rectify the situation.

Having outlined this juridical theory, my paper surveys India’s rich epigraphic record to demonstrate how this theory was applied in concrete, practical terms – monastic governmentality and royal supervision in operation. For example, an early 11th Century inscription in the temple of Kālakāladevar in Tamil Nadu records the royal confiscation (and re-distribution) of the assets of  Śaiva monastics on account their breach of dharma: the priests, allegedly, appropriated their deity’s property and broke their vows by associating with Vaiṣṇava monastics. Furthermore, the collected records of an erstwhile (9th-11th Century) Brāhmaṇical maṭha in Sanjan, Maharastra attest to the complicated – and contingent – relationships between different maṭhas in a particular location, the tutelary deities of those maṭhas, temple complexes, and interreligious jockeying within wider political formations. A copper-plate from the reign of the Rāṣṭrakūṭa Emperor Kṛṣṇa III (r. 939-967) records a bitter property-related row between the maṭha in Sanjan and a neighboring temple. Kṛṣṇa III brokered a settlement (vyavasthā), invoking his dharmaśāstric role as a protector of conventional dharmas. Intriguingly, an earlier epigraphic record notes that this dharmaśāstric role (along with the wider rule of the region) had been delegated by Indra III (r. 914-929) to a governor of Arab origin (tājikānvaya) named Sugatipa Madhumati (which D.C. explained as a Sanskritised calc of ‘Muhammad’) who patronized and protected the maṭha. The broader point – one displayed most poignantly in Sultanate and Mughal-era firmāns (royal decrees) granting lands or protection to, inter alia, Hindu shrines – is that the dharmaśāstric model of the supervision of the sāmayika dharmas of monasteries was a role into which sovereigns of varied personal religious persuasions could, and did, adopt. Several 8th-9th Century donative inscriptions from Bengal, for instance, feature donors with Buddhist names, but dharmaśāstric legal paradigms. 


These are but two samples – illustrative ones, I trust - of the numerous examples that my paper surveys in formulating the theory and practice of the legal management of maṭhas by medieval Indian sovereigns. While I focus on Brāhmaṇical and sectarian disciplinary orders, a wider argument of mine is that dharmaśāstric theories of sāmayika dharma (several dharmaśāstric commentaries such as the Vijñāneśvara’s 11th-12th Century Mitākṣarā on the Yājñavalkyasmṛti, explicitly argue that a king much protect ‘heretical’ monasteries such as those of the Jains and Buddhists) played a central role in the royal governance of Jain and Buddhist institutions in medieval India (even if the adherents of those disciplinary orders did not countenance dharmaśāstra as operative on themselves). Finally, as a conclusion, my paper examines how the Sanskritic theory and practice of the royal supervision of monasteries was adopted and redeployed by the administrators of the British East India Company in their formulation of colonial Anglo-Hindu Law and continues to play a central (if attenuated) role in the post-colonial Indian state’s legal regulation of Hindu religious institutions.

Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 150 words)

My paper examines the relationship between Sanskrit jurisprudential literature (Dharmaśāstra) and epigraphic records concerning the royal supervision of monastic religious endowments in medieval (600-1400 C.E.) India. Dharmaśāstra articulates a juridical model in which (often richly endowed) monastic institutions are sui iuris: religious communities enjoy the privilege of formulating their own internal laws (dharmas) which govern their members’ conduct, their modes of succession, and, most importantly, the administration of their assets. In this model, the sovereign must ensure that monastic communities observe their conventional (sāmayika/paribhāṣika) dharmas – to the extent that they do not violate public order and safety – and intervene to rectify the situation when breaches of dharma occur. I explore several epigraphic records concerning the foundation - and concomitant sāmayika dharmas – of monastic endowments in connection to historical cases where disputes concerning the maladministration of these endowments (tax evasion, expropriation, diversion of resources to purposes other than those specified in the grant) elicited direct royal intervention. Drawing on these representative examples, I outline a legal phenomenology of ‘breach of dharma’ as it pertained to monastic religious endowments in medieval India and explore the remarkably consistent manner in which sovereigns invoked Dharmaśāstric principles to justify their interventions.