Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Buddhism, which had flourished in India for centuries, was already a tree dying from the top by the seventh century CE when the Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang traveled there in search of Buddhist scriptures. The final blows to the religion were delivered by the Muslim invaders, and by the Hindu revival at the expense of the Buddhists. By the seventeenth century it had died out so completely in India that Europeans had no idea that such a religion had ever existed in the land of its birth. The rediscovery of this dead religion, at least dead in India, began with the gradual piecing together of archaeological and scriptural evidence in India itself and comparing this with Buddhism as practiced in surrounding countries.

One of these archaeological clues was the great stupa at Sanchi right at the geographical heart of India. For more than a thousand years Sanchi was a center of worship, learning, art and trade. The panels of sculptural relief that cover the gateways portray the Buddha’s life and Buddhist history in crowded, bustling scenes.

The Great Tope of Sanchi, a water color by William Simpson painted in 1862.
The first man to attempt an account of what he called “the Ancient and Remarkable Building near Bhilsa” was Captain E. Fell. He had made the sixty-mile trek out from Bhopal in 1819 at the recommendation of a friend. He was not even sure to what religion the site belonged. The hilltop was strewn with statues. He thought he had recognized Brahma of the Hindus and Parasnath of the Jains, but the predominant figure was certainly the Buddha. If Sanchi was Buddhist though, where were the Buddha’s followers today?

The answer was almost everywhere—Ladakh, Nepal, Tibet, China, Burma, Thailand and Ceylon—except India. Buddhism encircled the subcontinent, but in India it was unknown. Stupas were thought to have been dedicated to the Hindu god, Siva, and to have been inspired by the Egyptians. “Whether Buddha was a sage or a hero,” wrote Francis Wilford, “the founder of a colony or a whole colony personified, whether… black or fair,” he was assuredly “either an Egyptian or an Ethiopian.”

This sort of speculation went on well into the nineteenth century. It was only from non-Indian sources that gradually a true and wholly unexpected picture of the origins of Buddhism emerged. William Chambers, the man who first reported on the boulder temples of Mahabalipuram, read a
French account of Thailand and made the important identification of the Thai god, known as Pout or Codom, with the Ceylonese deity known as Buddha or Gautama. He also suggested that this Pout or Codom had once been worshipped in parts of India. This was borne out by Francis Buchanan, a naturalist and surveyor, who visited Burma in the late 1790s. He made a useful study of Buddhist ritual there as well as reporting that the Buddha had been an Indian from Bihar.
"East View of the Hindoo Temple at Bode-Gya, in the neighborhood of Gaya in Behar, taken by Captain Crokatt": the earliest drawing of the Mahabodhi temple at Bodh-Gaya, probably painted by James Crockett, circa 1799. [Notice that a Hindu temple is turned into a Buddhist temple to justify the claim that Bodh Gaya was the place of Buddha's Enlightenment.]
Ten years later Buchanan’s surveying actually took him to Bihar: it was not long before he found further evidence. At Bodh Gaya, the name of which was a clue in itself, he declared that the extensive ruins including the pyramidal temple, were clearly Buddhist in origin. Statues of the Buddha were scattered through the neighborhood to a radius of fifteen miles and were now objects of worship to the Hindus. Indeed the temple itself was now in the charge of Brahmins. In 1811, a man of some rank with several attendants who came from Burma had claimed that the place had once been the residence of Gautama and that the temple was built by Ashoka, king of Pataliputra. These names meant nothing to Buchanan. Neither did he realize that Bodh Gaya was venerated, not as the residence of the Buddha, but as the place of his enlightenment.

It was not till the 1820s that Buddhist studies really got off the ground. Brian Hodgson had visited Sanchi soon after Captain Fell. His curiosity was aroused and, as the lone British representative in Kathmandu, he resolved to take advantage of his unique position in a still partly Buddhist country, and began “a full and accurate investigation into this almost unknown subject.” The Nepalese monks were far from cooperative, but Hodgson soon accumulated a horde of Buddhist scriptures and then found “an old Buddha residing in the city of Patan” who was willing to divulge some of the sect’s secrets. Hodgson drew up a detailed questionnaire and, on the basis of the old man’s answers, prepared a sketch of Buddhist beliefs. But when he proceeded to compare the results of the questionnaire with the textual evidence, he almost gave up. “I began to feel my want of languages, and (to confess the truth) of patience.”

Meanwhile, far away in the western extremities of the Himalayas, another scholar, in rather different circumstances, was poring over the sacred texts of the Tibetans. Alexander Czoma de Koros had originally armed himself with a stout stick and set off to walk from his native Hungary to China. In 1822, two years and several thousand miles later, he ran into William Moorcroft, the legendary explorer of the Western Himalayas. Moorcroft had traveled in Tibet and was deeply attracted to Buddhism. He urged de Koros to take up the study of the Tibetan texts and provided him with the limited funds he needed (de Koros lived off Tibetan tea, and his only possessions were a single change of clothes). Moorcroft then headed for Afghanistan and promptly disappeared; but, thanks to the intervention of the Asiatic Society, de Koros continued to receive a frugal stipend. In the cliff-top monasteries of Ladakh and Kinnaur he sat cross-legged through the cruel Himalayan winters, and compiled the first-ever Tibetan dictionary and grammar and began to make important contributions to the elucidations of the Buddhist mysteries.

After the 1830s intense raiding of stupas began when gold coins and other treasures were discovered in some of them. As yet there was little conclusive evidence, but it was beginning to look as if the stupas and their relics were Buddhist.

"The Samaudh of Rajah Booth-Sain at Sara-Nat near Benares": a first drawing of the surviving Buddhist stupa at Sarnath, known today as the Dhamekh stupa, drawn circa 1814, copied April 1819.
In 1834, Lieutenant Alexander Cunningham, only twenty years old and just arrived in India, began to take an interest in the well-known stupa at Sarnath just outside the city of Benares. Of several mounds at Sarnath, the Dhamek stupa,with its superb bands of sculptural ornament, was much the best preserved and most inviting. After digging down 110 feet from the top of the monument, the stone gave way to brickwork made of very large bricks. “Through this the shaft was continued for a further depth of twenty-eight feet, when I reached the plain soil beneath the foundation. Lastly a gallery was run right through the brickwork of the foundation… but without yielding any result. Thus ended my opening of the great tower, after fourteen months labor and a cost of more than five hundred rupees.”

Cunningham was bitterly disappointed. All he had to show was a stone with an unknown
inscription on it. But this was better than nothing and he sent a copy of the inscription to James Prinsep, an Anglo-Indian scholar and antiquary (shown at left). The letters were of the Gupta Brahmi script and the whole was identical to the one recently found on a broken pedestal in northern Bihar. Prinsep thought he could read it; but it did not make much sense, some sort of invocation apparently. By chance, Alexander Czoma de Koros happened to be down from the mountains at the time, and, in view of a possible Buddhist connection, was asked for his opinion. Instantly he recognized it as the standard Buddhist formula or confession of faith. There was therefore no question that the Dhamek stupa was a Buddhist monument of the Gupta period and that the key to understanding the purpose and sculptures of all the stupas lay in Buddhism. Not only had the Buddha been born an Indian, but his religion had evidently been widespread in India and flourished there for several centuries.

Further dramatic evidence of this would soon be provided by the translation of the Ashoka edicts by Prinsep. Cunningham later discovered a horde of Buddhist statues at Sarnath; this was not the end of Sarnath’s riches either. In 1904 the remains of yet another Ashoka pillar were found, the lion capital of Sarnath—the most celebrated piece of Indian sculpture and now the symbol of the Republic of India.

The Ashokan lion capital that now forms the national symbol of the Republic of India, with the base of the column in the foreground: recovered during F.O. Oertel's excavations at Sarnath in the Cold Weather season of
Until this time the only first-hand account of ancient India was that of Megasthenes by way of later Greek and Latin authors. Megasthenes was an ambassador from an Indo-Greek kingdom sent to the court of Chandragupta Maurya, Ashoka’s grandfather. Now, by an equally circuitous route, a Buddhist account of India at the beginning of the fifth century CE was brought to light; and it was soon followed by another from the mid-seventh century. These were the travelogues of Fa Hsien and Xuanzang, Chinese Buddhists who had journeyed through India in search of sacred manuscripts and to visit the scenes of the Buddha’s life. The travelogues were acquired by French orientalists, translated in Paris and expounded by Prinsep’s old boss, Horace Hayman Wilson, who was now the first professor of Sanskrit at Oxford.

To Alexander Cunningham the main point was that Buddhist India had been brought to life. “It is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of these travels,” he wrote, “before, all attempts to fathom the mysteries of Buddhist antiquities were but mere conjectures.” The purpose of the stupas were unknown, as was their significance, and even the names of the shrines and cities they had adorned. Now all was made clear. The eyewitness accounts explained the nature of the sites and described their location and layouts so clearly that they amounted to a map of Buddhist India and site plans of all the main shrines.

General Alexander Cunningham (center, balding, with beard) and fellow Sappers on leave in Naini Tal in October 1862 prior to starting his second archaeological season.
Sarnath, for instance, was indeed a notable spot. It was none other than the deer park where Buddha had preached his first sermon. Fa Hsien found four stupas there and two monasteries. By Xuanzang’s time it had grown considerably. There was a vast monastery, 1500 monks, lakes and gardens and, amongst the stupas, one 300 feet high. There was now the possibility of identifying so many of the mounds and ruins that littered India.
Only in 1801 does the Oxford English Dictionary record the use of the term Boudhism, changed to Buddhism in 1816 in the phrase of a contributor to the Asiatic Journal: “The name and peculiarities of Buddhism have a good deal fixed my attention.” In 1829 Edward Upham published The History and Doctrine of Budhism, the first work in English with the word, albeit lacking one d, in its title. [If, that is, we ignore this translation from the French published in 1691.] But even at the end of the nineteenth century, the referent was not always clear, and the spelling of the term was, in one famous case, intentionally altered. Madame Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Society, remembered as a key figure in the Buddhist revival in Sri Lanka, distinguished between the corrupt practices of Asian Buddhists, which she called Buddhism, and a more esoteric science of enlightenment, called Budh-ism, a synonym for Theosophy.
It is only with the invention of the category of religion, with its obligatory constituents of a founder, sacred scriptures, and fixed body of doctrine, that Buddhism comes to be counted as a world religion. Even then, it was judged by many Europeans as a rival to Christianity. During the nineteenth century, monks from a variety of traditions came to speak of a single pan-Asian Buddhism in an attempt to counter the attacks of Christian missionaries and colonial officials. One of the early attempts to unite Buddhism under a single creed (and a single flag) was made not by an Asian Buddhist but by a Theosophist, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. In 1891 he formulated a set of fourteen rather bland principles that, with some effort, he persuaded a variety of Sri Lankan, Burmese, and Japanese Buddhist leaders to endorse.
Also during the nineteenth century, Buddhism became a subject of academic inquiry in Europe and America, focused primarily on the study of texts. Since that time, scholarly knowledge of Buddhism has expanded and changed and continues to change. The date of the Buddha’s birth remains a topic of active scholarly debate; the circumstances led to the rise of the movement (or movements) known as Mahayana, the “Great Vehicle,” continue to be explored, as does the degree of its importance in India; cases of the direct plagiarism of Hindu tantric texts by Buddhists (simply substituting the word Siva with the word Buddha are being discovered; birch bark scrolls inscribed with the Buddhist texts continue to be unearthed; previously unknown works (at least in Europe and America) are being translated into English; meditation is being reconsidered, both in terms of the extent of its practice historically as well as its function as a form of private and motionless ritual; the events of the first centuries after the death of the Buddha and prior to the writing down of his teachings remain a source of active speculation and study, considering, for example, what prompted the act of writing. And scholars continue to speculate about the reasons why, apart from the obvious factors such as Muslim invasions, Buddhism seemed to disappear from India, the land of its birth, around the twelfth century. It if did not entirely disappear, what remained and why?
Sources: India Discovered, The Recovery of a Lost Civilization by John Keay; The Search for the Buddha, The Men Who Discovered India's Lost Religion by Charles Allen; The Story of Buddhism by Donald S. Lopez Jr.
The fly in the ointment to the story of the discovery of Buddhism by the West is that the location of the various sites connected with the Buddha was, as Cunningham admits, fixed with the help of Chinese travelogues written over a thousand years ago. According to Xuanzang, the last of these famous pilgrims, Buddhism in India was a religion dying at the top. All the places he visited were already in ruins. How was he able to identify these places? From what he was told by the locals living there, and they would have just been passing down local legends and myths.


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