Buddhism and Trade

The close relationship between Buddhism and trade is largely due to the reliance of the Buddhist monastic community on donations from lay supporters. Ideally, Buddhist monks and nuns were required to reject all worldly possessions and thus to depend on the lay community to supply all of their necessities, including food, clothing, shelter, and medicine. In practice, donations to Buddhist monasteries extended to a wide range of materials that were necessary to maintain resident communities of monks and nuns. Significant economic surpluses were needed to sustain large-scale Buddhist institutions, where, in return for donations, monks and nuns were available to give religious instruction.

In return for their material donations to Buddhist monasteries, donors received religious merit (punya), which was often shared with relatives, teachers, political supporters, and "all beings" (sarvasattva). Donations establishing the presence of the Buddha at particular places in the form of stupas, relics, images, and texts generated special merit, since such sacred gifts provided opportunities for more devotees to worship the Buddha's body or teachings. Wealthy merchants and powerful rulers were particularly encouraged to be very generous in return for practical benefits, such as refuge and protection from real and perceived dangers while traveling, and status or legitimacy by acting as patrons of religious institutions. Epigraphic records of donations to Buddhist stupas and monasteries in India attest to the importance of commercial and political patronage of Buddhist institutions.

The earliest donors and some of the most important patrons of the Buddha and his followers were caravan merchants and wealthy bankers. Buddhist literature contains many epithets, stories, examples, and rules related to long-distance trade. In one of the most important episodes, two merchants named Trapusa and Bhallika approached the Buddha in the seventh week after his enlightenment at Bodh Gaya and offered rice cakes and honey. After offering these gifts, Trapusa and Bhallika became the first lay disciples and received relics of the Buddha's hair and nails, which the Buddha instructed them to enshrine in stupas in their home countries. This event establishes a pattern for the prominent role played by merchants in the patronage and transmission of Buddhism. Anathapindika, a wealthy businessman, became a lay disciple after meeting the Buddha during a business journey to Rajagriha, and subsequently invited the Buddha and his followers to spend the rainy season in a monastery, which he donated at great expense. As the foremost early donor to the Buddhist community, Anathapindika is idealized for giving away everything he had. Based on the model of extreme generosity of Anathapindika, commercial patrons were encouraged to donate liberally to the Buddhist community in order to sustain the further expansion of monastic networks.

"Great caravan leader" (mahasarthavaha) is a popular epithet of the Buddha in Pali and Sanskrit literature. This epithet refers to the Buddha's role as a teacher, protector and leader of his followers during the journey from the worldly realm of the cycle of continuous rebirth to the "other shore" of enlightenment and cessation of the cycle of death and rebirth. The Buddhist teacher Nagasena explains to King Menander of Bactria that the Buddha "is like a caravan owner to men in that he brings them beyond the sandy desert of rebirths."1 Xinru Liu observes that "Abundant experience with long-distance trade provided the inspiration for these images of the Buddha as a guide for travelers and merchants."2

In Ancient India and Ancient China, Xinru Liu also proposes that Buddhist demand for the "seven jewels" (saptaratna) stimulated long-distance trade between northwestern South Asia, Central Asia and China.3 The seven jewels consisted of luxury commodities that were high in value but low in volume, such as gold, silver, crystal, lapis lazuli, carnelian, coral, and pearls. While such materials are intrinsically valuable and suitable for long-distance trade, ritual values associated with the establishment of Buddhism may have augmented their economic worth. Since Buddhist devotees sought these items as suitable donations, the nexus between long-distance trade and Buddhist monastic networks was strengthened. As the commodities forming the seven jewels became standardized and their religious value increased, Liu argues that "Buddhist values created and sustained the demand for certain commodities traded between India and China during the first to the fifth centuries AD."4 The processes of expanding lucrative long-distance trade networks and the long-distance transmission of Buddhism were mutually reinforced.

-- Jason Neelis


(1) T.W. Rhys-Davids, Questions of King Milinda (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1890-4), p. 274.

(2) Xinru Liu, Ancient India and Ancient China: Trade and Religious Exchanges AD 1-600 (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 114-5.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Ibid, p. 175.