Love in a time of war

Historical map

Map of Gupta Empire and trade routes courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Buddhist Inner Tantra emerged in a time of social collapse, political chaos, and forced change.

The Vetali’s Gift is set in north-eastern India, around the year 700 C.E. It is a love story—but one set against a backdrop of horrific civil war. This was a Dark Age for India, coming just after its greatest Golden Age. This seems also to have been the place and time that Inner Tantra—which later became the high point of Tibetan Buddhism—emerged.

According to both the Tantric scriptures and Western academic histories, that is not a coincidence. It was a religion suited for its time. Our own time is one of rapid social change also, in which Sutric (“mainstream”) Buddhism may not survive. In some ways, Tantric Buddhism seems better suited for our time—as well as for Surya’s.

History can be dry; but you might like to know something about why Surya’s life is torn by war, and to understand something about the social forces that made Tantra effective at that time.

For three centuries, northern India had been ruled by a surprisingly decent series of emperors. The last, Harsha, died a few decades before Surya was born.

Buddhism had flowered during the Golden Age. Although it was never the state religion, the emperors supported Buddhism financially and legally. They had an explicit policy of religious tolerance. That was part of a general policy of suppressing internal conflicts. They quashed religious, ethnic, and caste rivalries. The Golden Age was a period of unprecedented peace.

The emperors encouraged education, research, and the arts. They founded and lavishly supported the world’s first universities—of which Nalanda (where our young monk was a student) was the most famous. There were magnificent achievements in poetry, drama, architecture, sculpture, and painting. There were remarkable advances in philosophy, logic, mathematics, science, and engineering.

It was a period of great prosperity, which historians attribute to the emperors’ economic policies of technological development, promotion of international and domestic trade, light taxation, and state spending on infrastructure, such as roads. The empire traded extensively with Rome, as well as China, South-East Asia, and elsewhere.

Buddhism was mainly the religion of the urban middle class. During the Golden Age, skilled craftspeople, traders, manufacturers, and money-lenders became numerous and well-off. Their financial support is what made large monasteries possible. They were well-educated and capable of understanding sophisticated religious teaching and practice. At this time, Buddhism was not much practiced by the rural poor, as it came to be centuries later.

The Golden Age ended when India was invaded by Huns—probably the same tribes that destroyed the Roman empire around the same time. Although (as in Europe) the Huns were eventually driven out, the chaos and devastation they left began Dark Ages on both continents.

The North-Indian empire collapsed into numerous tiny realms, held by “kings” who were probably mostly really “warlords” or “thugs who managed to collect enough followers to clobber the last lot of thugs.” These were perpetually at war with each other. Trade collapsed due to the difficulty of getting goods across hostile borders. Most likely the wealth of the middle class was also taken by rulers to fund their wars. Warlords generally have little interest in intellectual matters, and support for the universities and arts declined.

With the urban middle class largely eliminated, the monasteries that depended on them were hit hard. Historians say that Buddhism narrowly escaped total destruction at this time.

The survival of Buddhism depended in part on the development of new forms, useful to new supporters in new ways.

Buddhism could no longer be a religion that sought peace by retiring to a pleasant and quiet monastery in the suburbs. There was no peace to be found in India. Instead, Buddhism had to become a religion that embraced chaos, and provided tools for making creative use of it. It could no longer be a religion for those with the leisure to engage in extensive dedicated practice. Instead, the everyday life of busy people had to become religious practice in itself. Buddhism had to provide immediate practical benefits.

Inner Tantra was the Buddhism that met those needs. In a fictionalized form, it is the religion practiced by many of the characters in The Vetali’s Gift.

The novel is, in part, a fictional history of how Inner Tantra came to be. It is not the history told by the Tantric scriptures, which is mostly about transcendent Buddhas. It is not the history told by Western historians, which is mostly about warlords.

It’s mostly about vampires.

I like that better.