A deity revealed

William McGowan is author of "Only Man Is Vile: The Tragedy of Sri Lanka" and "Coloring the News."

Edward Said’s 1978 book, “Orientalism,” accusing Western scholars of filtering their “discoveries” through a grid of prejudice in order to bolster an imperialist worldview, whipped the academic discipline known as post-colonial studies into a lather. Since then, the term “Orientalism” has been uttered almost solely in contempt and Orientalists as a class have been reductively vilified as little else but tools of imperial oppression.

This is unfair and intellectually dishonest, says Charles Allen in his latest book, “The Search for the Buddha: The Men Who Discovered India’s Lost Religion.” Without the amateur antiquarians and gentleman philologists of British India, much of Buddhism as we now know it would have remained in obscurity, its artifacts, alphabet and esoteric teachings buried beneath centuries of jungle growth in the land of its birth. The Orientalists initiated the recovery of South Asia’s lost past, and both the Western discovery of Buddhism and the resurgence of Buddhism in South Asia, Allen argues, stem directly from their activities: “They also established the methodology upon which the subcontinent’s own historians, archaeologists, philologists and students continue to base their studies” -- in essence laying the foundation for South Asians to know themselves. Their accomplishment is hardly something to sneer at.

Of course there were many imperial functionaries who agreed with historian Thomas Macaulay that Indian culture was “barren of useful knowledge [and] fruitful of monstrous superstitions.” But there were also quite a few imbued with a profound sense of cultural conservation. It was a “duty” of empire to preserve “the monuments of a pagan art” and “the sanctuaries of an alien faith,” Lord Curzon, viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, maintained. “What is beautiful, what is historic, what tears the mask off the face of the past, and helps us to read its riddles, and to look it in the eyes” was to be protected.

Allen, author of “Soldier Sahibs” and other popular histories of the Raj, well describes how difficult it was to piece together the Big Picture from the tiny shards and bits that were first available. Indeed, like the explorers gazing at the “mighty maze” of the Himalayas, these scholars of the sprawling subcontinent had no grid to make sense of things and felt their way in the dark as they tried to answer fundamental questions. Was the Buddha a historical personage? Where did he live and teach? How did Buddhist doctrine develop and spread? Was Buddhism an offshoot of Hinduism or was it Hinduism’s predecessor? And how did it disappear almost entirely in its birthplace even as it became “India’s greatest export,” embraced in other parts of South and Southeast Asia?


Allen cleverly explores these questions by focusing on the eccentric colonial servants who asked them. In so doing, he emphasizes the philosophical underpinnings of Orientalist curiosity and cultural respect, crediting the British enlightenment and its regard for “scientific progress” and “shared humanity.” This he counterposes to the indifference (and occasionally the active antagonism) of the Brahmin elite, who on the whole would have preferred the Buddhist past to remain lost. Indeed, for decades Brahmin pundits refused to share their knowledge of Sanskrit, the language of classical learning, making it difficult for the British to conduct any meaningful philological or archeological work.

Allen begins with Francis Buchanan, a physician who journeyed through the Kingdom of Ava, now Myanmar, and in 1799 published “On the Religion and Literature of the Burmas,” the first scholarly account of Buddhist religious thought and practice. He then takes up the pivotal figure of William “Oriental” Jones, a Calcutta jurist who founded the Asiatick Society in 1784, dedicated to exploring the culture, morality, geography, religion, botany and languages of India, among other things. The Asiatick Society gave Jones and his colleagues a forum for making sense of the confusing evidence they had begun to uncover. Jones was also important for having learned Sanskrit, courtesy of a maverick pundit. He saw a kinship between that ancient language and Greek and Latin, and went on to translate numerous Sanskrit classics.

Another colorful chap was the baby-faced James Prinsep, a Calcutta-based monetary official given to wearing Bengali mufti. Prinsep founded the Society for the Suppression of Vice, to give idle sons of empire literary and theatrical distraction so that they would have no leisure time for “carnal pleasures.” He also made breakthroughs in deciphering ancient inscriptions on recovered temple stones. Prinsep was a believer in racial equality and argued against the “reforms” backed by Macauley in the 1830s, which called for the anglicization of Indian education and the rejection of India’s “useless” culture.

One of the odder Orientalists was Edwin Arnold, a newspaper feature writer who later became editor of the London Daily Telegraph. An unlikely publicist for Buddhism as it first became popular in the West, he is famous for having composed, in 1879, “The Light of Asia,” an epic poem depicting Buddhism as a form of Asiatic Christianity. (“Conquering the world with spirit of strong grace.”) “The Light of Asia” was widely hailed in Western literary and intellectual circles; Oliver Wendell Holmes, Allen notes, “thought it worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as the New Testament.”


Other unlikely propagators of Buddhism included Col. Henry Steel Olcott, an American Civil War veteran from New Jersey, and Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, a Russian noblewoman turned clairvoyant. The pair played a pivotal role in reviving Buddhism in Ceylon and, indirectly, in popularizing the practice of meditation, which had almost died out among Sinhalese Buddhist monks, who had grown worldly and corrupt.

Through the work of these and other figures, Western scholars were able to determine that despite its many commonalties, Buddhism was separate from Hinduism and had begun as an outgrowth of it; indeed, it was considered a heresy. Buddhism was founded “on a historical personage” -- Gautama Buddha was born Siddartha, an Indian prince in what is now Nepal -- and arose from the teachings that this personage gave in the 6th century BC. According to the collective scholarly view, Buddhism flourished in substantial parts of India but was eclipsed by Hinduism in the 8th and 9th centuries. It then disappeared on the subcontinent.

The Mughals, some centuries later, would overwhelm large parts of Hindu India at swordpoint; the waning of Buddhism was more subtle. Allen says that Tantric practices from Bengal corrupted monkish dedication and sowed disorder in monastic ranks by undermining discipline. He cites too the growing popularity of local Hindu devotional cults that might better have met the needs of the average layperson, who found Buddhism’s ideals somewhat abstract and inaccessible. He also notes that Hinduism underwent a reformation of sorts in the 8th and 9th centuries, curbing Brahmin excess and adopting those Buddhist doctrines that resonated popularly.

Allen does not spare his subjects their right to stumble. Notable among the erroneous theories he mentions was the idea that the Mahavamsa, or Great Chronicle of Ceylon, was a work of Buddhist history, as Edward Upham and Alexander Johnston maintained in their much hailed “The Sacred and Historical Books of Ceylon,” when in fact, as another British scholar would point out, it was “one of the most extraordinary delusions perhaps ever practiced on the literary world.” (And a dangerous delusion it has shown itself to be; the Mahavamsa is at the center of the long ethnic struggle between Tamils and Sinhalese in contemporary Sri Lanka.) Allen also describes the easy and false parallels that some drew between Buddhism and Christianity: They wrongly likened the Buddha’s teachings, or Dharma, to Moses’ commandments and the concept of nirvana to that of paradise. The Buddhist view of nirvana, Allen says, is actually profoundly unsettling, a place of “final annihilation.”

The stage Allen constructs is a crowded one. And yet characters that should make at least a cameo appearance do not. Although the explorer Richard Burton’s focus was on Tantric Hinduism and Islam, his scholarly work, conducted at roughly the same time as the period under discussion, deserves at least a passing reference. Allen might also have emphasized a bit more how evangelical Christian forces came to dominate British colonial policy in the 1830s, which caused a policy of tolerance -- and curiosity -- to curdle into chauvinism and created a headwind for those dedicated to cultural restoration.

But the book’s most significant shortcoming is its tediousness: “The Search for the Buddha,” unfortunately, is very much like the archeological explorations it describes: long, painstaking and worth the effort only if you are obsessed.