How India rediscovered Buddha
The Hindu, SUNNY SEBASTIAN
24 January 2012
The work by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) in the 19th Century and the political correctness of the religion helped the revival of Buddhism in India. If British masters found Buddhism a “neutral religion” in the 19th Century India, in the 20th Century Jawaharlal Nehru too treated it with an equal vigour, noted a session on “Rediscovering India’s Buddhist Heritage” at the Jaipur Literature Festival over the weekend.
It was only natural that the name of Alexander Cunningham, the founding father of the ASI, came up repeatedly — in fact, he remained the central theme — in the session, supported by The Hindu , in which eminent British author-journalist John Keay was in conversation with archaeologist-historian Nayanjot Lahiri. For it was the discovery of the Mahabodhi site by General Alexander Cunningham (1814-93) that signalled the revival of Buddhism in the country.
Mr. Keay, author of several narrative histories of India and China, said re-emergence of interest in Buddhism — in a period when nobody could connect the name of Buddha to religion, not only in India but also in the neighbourhood — was after the discoveries of the Buddhist sites of Taxila, Gwalior, Khajuraho and Mahabodhi.
“The Buddha was more a historical figure. He was not worshipped in India or in the neighbouring countries. In the first half of the 19th Century all this changed with the extraordinary discoveries by General Cunningham,” Mr. Keay pointed out. “This breakthrough in Buddhist studies restored India’s historical identity, the claim of being a classical civilisation.”
Mr. Keay said General Cunningham in his 25 years as the first head of the ASI had done outstanding work in excavation, classification and protection of India’s extraordinary architectural heritage, particularly the Buddhist stupas and monasteries.
Prof. Lahiri, however, was not in full agreement with Mr. Keay on some of the observations. “General Cunningham was one of the many explorers, who couldn’t look beyond Buddhist stupas. ” Moreover, as sin the case of many archaeologists, he too not only discovered the monuments but also became instrumental in their destruction as well, she noted. “He never got the monuments repaired after discovering them,” she said, citing the case of Amaravati in this context.
General Cunningham had also overlooked other important elements of classical Indian civilisation that were also uncovered. “He was more interested in religious landscape than archaeological aspects. He left out other forms of architecture and went after the stupas ,” Prof. Lahiri argued.
“There was this big fuss about Buddhist sites in the early 19th Century because as far as the British Government was concerned, it was ‘neutral’ since the excavations did not privilege either the Hindu or the Islamic cultures,” Mr. Keay noted. As for the next Century, it was for the first Prime Minister of the country to make such a fuss over Buddhist symbols again, he pointed out.
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