Thursday, July 9, 2009

3rd Phase – Rediscovery of Buddha

“But the fortunate discovery of the travels of the Chinese pilgrims……has thrown such a flood of light upon this hitherto dark period that we are now able to see our way clearly to the general arrangement of most of the scattered fragments of the ancient geography of India”--- Alexander Cunningham

Mid 19th century marked a major turn around for the rediscovery of Buddha, with the deciphering of Ashokan Brahmi script by James Princep in 1837 and the translation of the travelogues of Fahien (visited india-399-414 AD) and Xuanzang (visited during 629 to 645 AD).These two events truly complemented each other and provided the much needed push for resurrecting the Buddhist history of India.
As we hinted to it before, Princep was a perfect heir of Jones’ legacy. He became the secretary of Asiatic Society in 1836 and his first major step was to expand the scope of studies under the society.
The period of Asiatic society, between these two luminaries’ had a few important contributions made by likes of Colin Mackenzie but the lack of effective guidance during this period is generally marked by large scale cursory digs by enthusiasts. By 1816 most precious parts of Amravati and Sarnath was lost in act of vandalism, in looking for treasure and in quarrying of bricks. Pillars were displaced from its original location and large scale tampering of structures affected our understanding about the place. Before Mackenzie left the scene he contributed all his collection of 1600 manuscript to the Asiatic society. He also made the drawings of Amravati stupa; he is also credited with the impressions of the rock edicts of Dauli.

Up ahead are a series of discoveries and interpretations that could have led to major contributions but for lack of effective leadership at the Asiatic society all that was done was cataloguing of Mackenzie’s and others’ contributions.
Stirling reported about yet another stone pillar from Allahabad, a part of which was used for leveling the roads by the local contractor.
In 1819 remains of Bhilsa caught attention of infantry officers camping in the surroundings engaged in a small battle of supremacy with Marathas. Edward Fell, one of the officers sent a detailed report of the finds and later Bagnold sent a detail sketch of Bhilsa to the offices of Asiatic society.
In 1824 James Alexander accidently brought to light the existence of cave structures near jungles of Aurangabad, now known as Ajanta caves.
All these discoveries didn’t cut enough ice among the scholars of the then Asiatic society, but the curiosity about the origins of the religion, its link with the existing religions etc was stirred and many interpretations were made about the religion and its founder; curly hair and prominent lips led to the theory of African origin of Buddha and in 1821 john Davy even identified Buddha with Vishnu. Upham and Alexander Johnston quoting Pali texts claimed Ceylon as the centre of activities of Buddha.

It was with Princep’s leadership that the society got a new direction. He started collecting information from all corners of the subcontinent; texts, translations, impressions of the inscriptions, coins, events etc and his efforts were complemented by all enthusiasts and orientalists.
All the manuscripts and items of interest that were littered around in stores of Asiatic society were compiled and efforts were made to establish some sort of sequence to draw a meaningful link among them. His efforts were well augmented by those of Tournour from Ceylon, Hodgson from Nepal and De Koros on Tibetan literature.
A few things could easily be established like the Pali origin of Buddhism in the subcontinent and the differences and similarities in the way this religion was practiced in different countries of the sub continent. By 1836 the Indian origin of Buddha was established with his score of other names which finds mention in various other texts and also that it was basically a reform movement.

King Ashoka, one of the greatest leaders in the history of India found another reference by George Burney with the mention of a marble slab in Bodhgaya, the first reference being in the list of kings prepared by William Jones. That particular plaque was found to be erected in 13th century to mark a repair work done at the temple. The inscription was in early form of Burmese Pali about a king Athauka who erected the first temple at the site.
Ceylon Almanac in 1833 and history of Ceylon, a translation of a part of Mahavamsa in 1836 by Tournour was a milestone in many ways. It helped in establishing that king Ashoka was not a fictional character as assumed by many scholars. The chronicle provided a detail account of life of Buddha and Ashoka’s contribution in establishing Buddhism in Indian subcontinent & Sri Lanka.

It could be very difficult to comprehend at this time when the discovery is made and the complete picture is right in front of our eyes to analyze and criticize but at the time… despite the presence of plethora of information, the fitting of all the pieces of puzzle was still missing. It was tough to piece them together with no idea about how the picture should emerge.
We could gather that the origin of the various religion have a common source but the complete sequence of events based on the Buddhist texts from Ceylon, Ava, Nepal, Tibet, Purana and from other Hindu texts and from Megenthases accounts was not coming together.
Many curiosities remained a big question mark like, who erected the massive pillars, what is inscribed on them, where are those other five places that the envoy from Ava couldn’t locate.
These five places according to the envoy from Ava were lumbini, where Buddha was born; kapilvasthu, where he spent his early life; Sravasti, where he spent maximum rain retreats; vaisali, where he gave his last sermon and kushingar, place of his death.

23rd May 1837, was the day that opened the door to the possibilities of answers to the questions above and myriad others. It was the day when Princep wrote to Cunningham that he successfully decoded the mystical script that we today know as Ashokan Brahmi.
This journey began sometime back as Princep collected impression of all possible inscriptions from pillars and rocks of Dauli, Girnar, Delhi, Sanchi, Saran, Allahabad, Ellora, Lauriya Nandangarh, Sarnath and Bakhra. First thing he noticed was that they were all written in same script which he referred to as “Pseudo-Greek”. He started with the idea that the short inscriptions from Bhilsa could be recording of donations like he knew from a few earlier examples of inscriptions in Gupta Brahmi and Sanskrit elsewhere. He deduced from his analysis that it was the work of the “Beloved of the gods” Devanamapriya Piyadasi.
Another Ceylonese chronicle ‘Dipavamsa’ contributed to the inferences so far and attributed the epithet ‘Beloved of Gods’ to Ashoka, the king from Maurya Dynasty. That piece of information helped put the picture together linked with the geographical location as before that it was assumed that Devanamapriya piyadasi was some Sri Lankan King.
During the same era, a lot of relevant information came from the travelogues of Chinese pilgrims Fahien and Xuanzang. Both the pilgrims had visited the sites of Buddhist significance in 5th and 7th century respectively and had left a very detailed description of the area they traveled. Translations of their travelogues from Chinese into western languages equipped the explorers with the information they required to identify the places associated with life of Buddha.

The combination of these two discoveries was magical. It was like the perfect winds to sail the boat in the right direction. Decipherment of Ashokan brahmi helped in identification of Lumbini and Kapilvasthu amidst the dense terai forest. The Ashokan pillar inscription established Rumanidie as site of Lumbini, the birth place of Buddha. As per the Niligiva pillar inscription it was known that the stupa was associated with Kanakmuni Buddha as mentioned by Xuanzang who took his measure to Kapilvasthu from Kanakmuni stupa.

The stage was set for a new phase of exploration & excavation and preservation.
The life history of Buddha and its references to the geographical locations led to the identification of sites such as the relic stupas, birth place and place of Parinirvan of Buddha, site of 1st sermon. A new generation of inspired explorers like Kittoe, Cunningham, Smith, Stein, Foucher, Masson, Waddell and others, took expedition to unknown places and made a remarkable contribution to world history.
The travelogues also laid the foundation of archeological survey of India and Archeological survey department in many other countries of central Asia.
 NEXT: 4th Phase ---Systematic excavation and restoring the past  


Moninder said...

Tremendous.... is the word to start with. when you posted some pics related to this discovery on Orkut, it didn't make much sense to me. Even when I had first look of this blog, it felt little boring...frankly.
But now when i have read every single word on your blog...I am short of words to thank, to congratulate you people for this work. You know, most of us today are so busy in our present and to shape our future that Past seems of no use or consequence to us. But Past is full of treasure and great are the people (like you)who are working to explore and bring this treasure for all of us to cherish.
If someone else had started this blog, I might have not even read this. But it is by Deepak Anand so i have to. And after reading this, I am yearning for more. This is the Quality of work people expect from Deepak who know him and love him. Cheers !!!

Moninder Walia said...

Few Questions Deepak:

You've also mentioned about vandalism of Buddhist sites. I've read somewhere that Fanatic Hindu Kings had Vandalised most of the Buddhist Sites in India Long Back. And in revenge of that even some Buddhist people helped Mughals when they invaded India. How true it is ?