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The Domestication of ‘Hindu’ Asceticism and the Religious Making of South and Southeast Asia

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - DHARMA (The Domestication of ‘Hindu’ Asceticism and the Religious Making of South and Southeast Asia)

Reporting period: 2019-05-01 to 2020-10-31

The religion known today as “Hinduism” is a major world religion and the main religion of the world’s largest democracy, India. But the history of “Hindu” institutions is not limited to India. DHARMA will study the history of “Hinduism” in comparative perspective, focusing on the period from the 6th to the 13th century. During this period, the Bay of Bengal served as a maritime highway for intense cultural exchange. The resulting process of “Indianisation”, marked notably by the spread of “Hinduism”, of an Indian writing system and of India’s sacred language Sanskrit, touched large parts of South and Southeast Asia.
The Sanskrit word DHARMA can designate the cosmic law that is upheld both by gods and humans. But it is also often used to refer to any of the numerous temple-related foundations made to support this law. The DHARMA project seeks to understand the process of “institutionalisation” of “Hinduism” by investigating the roles of various agents, from kings and noblemen to priests, monks and local communities. It emphasizes social and material contexts of “Hinduism”, which requires a multi-regional, multi-scalar and multidisciplinary methodology, to forge a real synergy of scholarship on premodern South and Southeast Asia.
Our approach will be based on the correlation and contextualisation of written evidence from inscriptions and manuscripts and material evidence from temples and other kinds of archaeological sites. The project will be carried out in four task-forces. Three regional task forces will focus, respectively, on the inscriptions and archaeological sites of the Tamil-speaking South of India (A), of Central through Northeastern South Asia into what is today Myanmar (B), and of mainland plus insular Southeast Asia (C). A fourth, transversal task-force (D), led by Dominic Goodall (EFEO) and Florinda de Simini, will focus on textual material transmitted in manuscript form. For our operations in Asia, the EFEO regional centres in Pondicherry, Siem Reap, and Jakarta will serve as anchors.
Inscriptions are the main sources for the history of premodern South and Southeast Asia. But they are not all accessible, even less so in a machine-processable format. For the large-scale comparative research that we propose to undertake, making as much as possible of South and Southeast Asian epigraphy available, in a digital database, is therefore a core objective of this project. South and Southeast Asian manuscripts, normally written on palm-leaf, preserve a rich textual archive relevant to the history of “Hinduism”. We will produce editions with translations of texts that have so far remained unpublished, and therefore untapped, by historical research. These include descriptions of religious practices, as well as prescriptions that deal both with lay religiosity and with religious life in temples and monasteries. As for archaeological evidence, we are in an ideal position — thanks to the long-term collaboration between French and Asian archaeologists — to initiate surveys and excavations at sites which are known to be rich in data and which will thus enable us to confront our findings in the inscriptions and texts with the archaeological record. The archaeological operations will be led by experienced French archaeologists in Bangladesh, Cambodia and Indonesia.
The kick-off meeting took place in Berlin (16-22/09/2019) and gathered for the first time most of our international team. Presentations were made about the organisation of the work (task-forces), tools, practicalities, sub-projects and other projects in digital Indian epigraphy. One core element of the kick-off meeting were the comprehensive EpiDoc training sessions provided by leading specialists.
Collaboration took place with activities of the project Shivadharma (ERC n° 803624).
Workshops/conferences were organised by DHARMA alone or in ad hoc collaborations: (1) international conference on Buddhist monasteries, in collaboration with the JSPS-funded VIHARA project (Tokyo, 27-28/05/2019); (2) workshop on asceticism in the Mediterranean and in Asia, in collaboration with the Ecole française d’Athènes (Athens, 22/11/2019); (3) workshop on Cambodian epigraphy (Siem Reap; 19-26/01/2020); (4) workshop on editing Sanskrit texts (Coimbatore; 14-16/02/2020); (5) online workshops for core-members of the project (17/03/2020, 28/05/2020).
DHARMA members also participated in non-DHARMA workshops/conferences and produced several publications under the aegis of DHARMA.
Core-members of the project collaborated on the writing of the various forms of project documentation, some already released (guides on Transliteration; Encoding of Diplomatic Editions; use of Zotero; file naming conventions), others still under construction.
Various tools have been set up: (1) a GitHub repository, for collaborating on the encoding of texts, which at the time of reporting contained, besides various other files and guidelines, 830 XML files of epigraphical editions at various stages of completion, as well as 659 XML files reused from earlier projects, to be disseminated and displayed on the project’s database; (2) a Zotero library, for managing the bibliographical references of the project ( which contains more than 6,000 bibliographical entries; (3) a blog serving as the primary communication and dissemination channel of the project, which is regularly updated.
Other current or completed tasks concern the management of and the workflow for the metadata of the project, the authority lists for ancient place-names (participation in Pleiades) and for controlled vocabularies, as well as the development of the project’s database (the online website for publication and search of DHARMA digital editions of inscriptions and transmitted texts).
DHARMA archaeological operations took place in Bangladesh and Cambodia, as well as fieldwork in Asia before the pandemic crisis.
Recent ERC-funded comparative research on medieval pious foundations and endowments has demonstrated the need for more regional analyses of the impact of religious patronage on premodern societies. Our project will broaden the data for such intercultural research. It will also furnish comparative material for the humanities and social sciences more broadly, on such issues as cultural transfers that are not mediated by military conquests; on the mixed motives underlying patronage in a cultural context with no unified “Church” and where the agents are diverse (kings, royal women, laity, religious communities).
An important part of what we propose as output is something that some might regard as a “mere” tool. We do include a substantial number of monographs and articles among our projected deliverables, but one of our main products—a searchable epigraphic archive of reliable texts, images and information—is indeed intended to serve as a reference-work. Compiling tools of reference may not have quite the glamour of penning volumes that forge revolutionary theoretical frameworksbut reference-works are thumbed through more often, sometimes daily, by many more users (enthusiasts, students and scholars of every stripe), and therefore can have a much greater impact, particularly when they unite and organise large bodies of fascinating material for the first time.