The Discovery of a Lost Religion

I’ve been reading my way into the works of Charles Allen, one of those Brits who knows far more than anyone should about far too many things. My latest read is an arcane and fascinating book, The Search for the Buddha: the Men Who Discovered India’s Lost Religion.

When I mentioned this book to my brother-in-law he was appropriately puzzled. What do you mean, Buddhism “discovered?” Discovered by the West? But the sense of discovery is far more comprehensive. By the 18th century Buddhism was almost entirely forgotten in India, the land of its birth. Curious Brits kept stumbling on ancient ruins, monuments and coins with inscriptions that no one could read. They had no idea what they were looking at, or what period these artifacts dated from, and neither did any of their sophisticated Indian informants. Eventually they learned that a few Buddhist monks from Burma and Sri Lanka retained some memory (and some manuscripts) from the past. Mostly, though, it was entirely unknown that Buddhism had any connection to India. Even the fact that Buddhism was shared by countries throughout Asia, including Tibet and Japan, was obscure. They had lost the once-strong links to each other and did not recognize each other as cousins. It took considerable patient and scholarly detective work for British scholars—who were essentially amateurs, using their spare time—to recognize that all these diverse traditions stemmed from one tree, that they were all Buddhists. Only over the course of decades was the history of Buddhism reconstructed and tied to the specific locations where Buddha lived, preached, and died, and where his followers (especially the emperor Ashoka) systematically set out to spread his message.

It’s a fascinating story, which matches up with the June National Geographic’s “Caves of Faith” (here). Hundreds of caves in Mogao, a treasure trove of Buddhist monuments in western China, lay buried in sand for centuries and then were found (and looted) by European scholar/explorers.

It’s hard to grasp how little people understood their history—even when they were living on top of monuments and ruins. Slowly, patiently, scientists and scholars have pieced it together. The process goes on in the attempt to understand human evolution by studying fossils and prehistoric tools.

Such historical inquiry is an often-neglected aspect of the Enlightenment. It shone light not only onto the physical world—geology, biology, astronomy, physics—but also into the past. As a consequence our lives have changed unimaginably. We can see.

We once lived in a single room where the candlelight barely reached the walls; now we are masters of a castle with a thousand glittering rooms. Our reach and our mastery have been vastly extended in many different directions. It’s a heady reality. Tempered, of course, by the stubborn facts that we are no better morally than we ever were, that it doesn’t make us happy, and that we all die. (I’ve been reading Ecclesiastes, too.)

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