Theravada is the branch of Buddhism preserved in Sri Lanka and parts of continental south-east Asia; there are also now quite a few Theravada monasteries in Western countries. Theravada means 'Doctrine of the Elders', the elders in question being the senior monks. In this book Richard Gombrich looks at the history of this form of Buddhism from the earliest times to 1988, when the book was published. It thus covers a wide expanse of time, and its scope is larger than the subtitle might suggest; it is concerned with Buddhist ideas and beliefs as well as with purely sociological aspects of the subject.
One thing which Gombrich emphasizes is the differences among those systems of thought which we label collectively as religions. For Christians, belief in God is pretty much central, although admittedly there are a few ultra-modern theologians who are willing to relativise even this. For Buddhists, on the other hand, God is not the issue; as a monk once remarked to Gombrich, 'Gods are nothing to do with religion'. For Buddhists, gods are powerful beings who can grant worldly favours. There is no creator god, no omnipotent or omniscient deity, and even the gods are subject to death and decay; they just live much longer than we.
The book begins by discussing the situation in which Gotama Buddha found himself. It has often been noted that the Buddha's message was couched in the form of a medical diagnosis and prescription (this is the problem, this is its cause, here is the way to relieve it), and Gombrich takes this idea further by suggesting that this may reflect the actual circumstances in which the Buddha lived. At that time large urban societies were just starting to arise in India and it is likely that epidemics due to overcrowding and insanitary conditions were becoming frequent. These conditions may have determined the way the Buddha described the human predicament.
The Buddha was not content merely to preach, but he went on to establish the monastic order, the Sangha, that was supposed to formalize and preserve his teaching. More than half the book is taken up with discussion of how Buddhism arose and developed in ancient India. One might think that little could be known about these long-ago events, but Gombrich is able to reconstruct a surprising amount without indulging in unjustifiable speculation. He succeeds remarkably in making these earlier periods come to life.
Only in the last few chapters does the book look at Theravada Buddhism as it is today. Here the main emphasis is on Sri Lanka, where Gombrich has spent a lot of time. Buddhism has long been the main religion there, but the ancient ideal of the monk as a wandering ascetic has been replaced by monks who are members of the village community and landowners. Organization by caste has tended to reappear as well. There is a good discussion of the reasons for this decline, which seem to be connected, paradoxically, with the support given to the religion by monarchs and other wealthy benefactors.
The nineteenth century saw the development of what Gombrich calls Protestant Buddhism, by which he means the reaction of Buddhists to attacks by Christian missionaries. The salient characteristic of this was the increased importance of the laity and the perception by Buddhists of Buddhism as a total religious system on a par with Islam or Christianity.
The last chapter, on 'Current trends, new problems', has inevitably dated somewhat, since a lot has happened in the intervening period: the civil war with the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the growth of Theravada Buddhism in the West. The revival of traditional meditation techniques by forest monks in Burma and Thailand is not touched on here, but this has been the cardinal feature that has ensured the success of Western Theravada Buddhism. It is doubtless time for a new edition. Meanwhile, however, the book is essential reading for anyone who wishes to attain more than a superficial acquaintance with this form of Buddhism.