In "Greater Magadha, Johannes Bronkhorst defines Greater Magadha as a non-Vedic ‘society’ with its own ‘inhabitants’, a ‘population’ who had their own ‘culture’. Greater Magadha emerges as coherent polity with particular beliefs, god(s), funerary practices, medicine, notions of time and so on. We learn that this society was an ‘empirico-rational’ counterpart to its ‘magico-religious’ Vedic neighbour further West. Most importantly, it was the source of the karmic ideologies which appear in the textual record from around the 5th century BC onwards.
This model is unrealistically static and essentialist, and based on a faulty method and simplistic arguments. The possibility that karmic ideology was due to dynamic change within Vedic tradition is never considered; Brahmins must be Vedic Brahmins, incapable of developing new ideas from Vedic and non-Vedic sources. Moreover, anything non-Vedic must belong to Greater Magadha, rather than be regarded as a general cultural feature of northern India.
The thesis of Greater Magadha is particularly weak in its analysis of spiritual praxis. The notion of an inactive self realised through severe asceticism is not the position of early Brahminic sources – the early verse Upaniṣads and Mokṣadharma. In fact the early Brahminic sources propose a quite different spiritual solution to karma, one focused on realising the macrocosmic essence through inner meditation.
In all important details, early Buddhist texts deviate from Bronkhorst’s construction of Greater Magadha. In the Pali Suttas the Buddha is also located mostly in Kosala and its capital, Sāvatthī; Pali is also a Western dialect, there being no direct evidence that any Buddhist texts were ever composed in Māgadhī. More importantly, these texts distinguish the meditative mainstream from Jaina-like asceticism: the Buddha experiments with inner meditation before turning to the ascetic solution. The same texts locate these different approaches in different regions: Kosala for the meditative tradition of Āḷāra Kālāma, and Magadha for severe asceticism.
To understand better the complexities of northern Indian culture in the second half of the first millennium BC, the idea of ‘Greater Magadha’ should be abandoned. A more realistic model would assert that the main cultural features of this period, including karmic ideology and the various spiritual solutions to it, did not stem from a single culture. World-renunciation occurred in unorthodox Brahminic circles as well as non-Brahminic milieux, in response to internal pressues and the major social factor of the period: urbanization. In this respect the notion of ‘ethicization’, proposed by Gananath Obeyesekere but ignored by Bronkhorst, is a better model with which to explain the phenomenon of world renunciation.