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Religion of the East through the eyes of the West

by David Burleigh

THE BUDDHA AND THE SAHIBS: The Men Who Discovered India’s Lost Religion, by Charles Allen. John Murray, 2003, 322 pp., £8.99 (paper).

The story begins with a botanist. At the end of the 18th century, a Scottish doctor named Francis Buchanan was employed to carry out surveys of Burma and Nepal, neither of them with ease, the latter with great difficulty, while on missions to those countries. While he was engaged on this, he obtained glimpses of a new religion.

It was a new religion to the British, employees of the Honorable East India Company (EICo), but an old one to the subcontinent where it had been born. Its fate was curious: Like Christianity, this faith had faded from its land of origin, but been taken up with enthusiasm in surrounding countries, and extended its influence, in varying forms, over most of a continent. It was now about to be rediscovered.

“Discovered,” in this context, means by Europeans and the Western world. This faith had not vanished in the many lands where it continued to be practiced, but the European preoccupation with Islam had long obscured knowledge of anything preceding or beyond that. The new EICo recruits, explains Charles Allen, were only familiar with the East through classical accounts, which did not allude to this religion.

Allen, who has written extensively of the British involvement with India, and who comes from a family that worked in the region for six generations, fills in the educational background. He concisely describes the intellectual furniture that the new recruits brought with them: a knowledge of Latin and Greek, but an ignorance of India before the Muslim Middle Ages, except where it touched upon the adventures of Alexander the Great, and perhaps those of Marco Polo.

It was a 17th-century shipwreck in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) that brought the first proper written account of Buddhist belief and practice. But the most remarkable advances in knowledge of this new religion were made later by an English linguist, Sir William Jones. Jones founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal in the 18th century, and thus provided a forum for the dissemination of knowledge and scholarly debate. He was then able to supplement the observations of Francis Buchanan.

In addition to founding a society for scholars and editing a journal of their researches, “Oriental Jones” learned and began translating Sanskrit. The slow production of versions of ancient texts in European languages (for other nations were doing this as well) helped to expand the picture of the past. Much of this had to do with Hinduism. Allen shows us the remarkable insights gained by these scholars, by diligence and good fortune, as well as their misapprehensions and delusions.

One of the common misapprehensions about Buddhism in the early days of this investigation, was that the religion was of African origin, because of the tightly curled hair on the statues of its founder. This idea was soon laid to rest, as evidence accumulated. The unearthing of the remains of Borobodur in Indonesia, and the translations of Tibetan scriptures by an eccentric Hungarian (immortalized as a bodhisattva in Japan), contributed to the expanding picture. But there were still many puzzling elements.

Some of the unsolved mysteries were contained in inscriptions that nobody could read. A talented young Englishman named James Prinsep, who contributed much to the welfare of ordinary Indians and was adept at acquiring languages, managed to break the code on one important column. This had wider consequences than at first appeared. “Prinsep’s unlocking of the Delhi No. 1 script . . . remains unquestionably the greatest single advance in the recovery of India’s lost past,” says the author.

Numismatics also formed a part of the Prinsep’s investigation, and Allen explains in detail some of mysteries that he unraveled. When he died, still a young man but exhausted by his work, the native people, independently of the British, “raised a subscription of their own to build a ghat in his memory.” Prinsep’s Ghat still exists, on the banks of the Ganges in Benares, though it is now “popularly known as Princes Ghat.”

Because of these remarkable men’s work, “by the end of 1836 the Indian origins of Buddhism had been established beyond doubt.” The next stage was to uncover the historical sites connected with the personage of Prince Gautama, and this was done by means of an archaeological survey, supported by the British. Some of the structures had already been dismantled to make use of their bricks, but the sites were successfully located, with help from Burmese devotees and the records of visits by Chinese pilgrims.

Buddhism, then, was not only much older than other known religions, but strongly appealing to the West. The Victorian poet, Sir Edwin Arnold, enjoyed a stupendous success with his poem, “The Light of Asia,” “a distinctly Protestant version of Buddhism” relating the life of its founder. These, and many other related strands to the story are fully explored. In India, after an initial triumph, a weakened Buddhism was absorbed into a renewed Hinduism, while in the West it has been taken up by theosophists and others.

In a concluding chapter to this fascinating, learned and well-written book, Allen brings us down to the situation in Bodh Gaya, the Buddha’s birthplace, today, when it has become a center of worship for adherents from around the world. The current worldwide boom in Buddhist studies would almost certainly not have been possible without the work of these pioneering early scholars.