The Buddha preached in north-east India in about the fifth-century BC. He claimed that human beings are responsible for their own salvation, and put foward a new ideal of the holy life, establishing a monastic Order to enable men and women to pursue that ideal. For most of its history the fortunes of Theravada, the most conservative form of Buddhism, have been identified with those of that Order. Under the great Indian emperor, Asoka, himself a Buddhist, Theravada reached Sri Lanka in about 250 BC. There it became the religion of the Sinhala state, and from ther it spread, much later, to Burma and Thailand.In this book, Richard Gombrich, a leading western authority on Buddhism, shows how Theravada Buddhism has affected and been afected by its social surroundings. He explains what the Buddha owed to his predecessors and what he was arguing against. Buddhism began as a largely urban religion, appealing to a new middle class, but in Sri Lanka it became the culture of the agricultural society. In the nineteenth century, British colonial rule, and especially contact with Protestant missions, initaited fundamental change. Now, as Gombrich shows, in independent Sri Lanka the rapid urbanization of an exploding population threatens to schange the religion beyond recognition.

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