I am a recent student of the Theravada tradition and the Pali Canon. This excellent book by Dr. Gombrich is essential reading for anybody interested in the Theravada tradition. In this book Gombrich demolishes several misconceptions about Buddhism that have been persistent in the public's view of Buddhism. One such misconception is that Buddhism was preaching a religion that was attempting to "reform" or "replace" Brahminism/"Hinduism". In this Gombrich distinguishes between communal religions and soteriologies. Communal religions are used for life stage rites (birth, marriage, death, etc) and to alleviate material concerns for THIS world (praying to various gods, sacrifices, etc) while soteriologies are only concerned with the metaphysics that explain what happens to us after death. Original Sasana was a pure soteriology. It left the life stage initiation rituals to the brahmins and the lay Buddhists still worshipped Vedic gods and tribal deities (case in point: Sri Lankan president Rajapaksa is a regular visitor to the Hindu temple of Tirupati in south India). Even the Hindu Vedas say that by propitiating the Devas, only temporary earthly and celestial rewards are given, nothing permanent, which perfectly synchs with Buddhism. What the Blessed One did was introduce a soteriology that gave rise to Hindu soteriologies (Vedanta for example) and thoroughly ethicized the religious landscape. Tathagatha's prerequisite of ethical action in order to attain Nibbana was a very novel idea for the time, in fact he often redefined Vedic parables to lay out his Sasana. Another very unique thing proposed by Tathagatha was Anatta for the Jains and Hindus believed in the "Self" while the materialist Charvakas were no different from today's materialists. This book also emphasized that Buddha was the first ascetic (in a land of ascetics/yogis/hermits) to set up an organized monastic order: which was immediately copied by the Jainas (Shwetambaras more than Digambaras) and later copied by the Vedantins (Adi Shankara comes to mind). Due to this reliance on a centralized Sangha, it became important for Buddhists to find wealthy and powerful supporters hence the reliance on Kshatriyas (King Bimbisara) and Vaishyas (Anathapindika). In areas that were not civilized before being "civilized" by the culture of the Gangetic Plains (note I am using civilized in its technical sense meaning establishment of cities and complex forms of governance), Buddhist Sangha often became a state religion and was intimately involved with the royal dynasties of those regions (Cambodia, SL, Thailand, Burma), sometimes disturbingly so (as in supporting war). Gombrich notes that this uncomfortable truth involving the intimacy of the Sangha with regional dynasties is not a result of some fault in the Sasana but rather a consequence of history. Therefore I find it unfair when citing the examples of the Sangha getting involved with violence and politics, people often compare Buddhism with exclusive religions (which by their very nature are predatory) which I think is total gobar.
Part two of the review will be up shortly.