A first-rate account of the colonial officers and scholars, mostly British, who picked through the ruins and lost libraries of India to recover the founding texts and artifacts of Buddhism.
It’s not quite accurate, as the subtitle asserts, to say that Buddhism has ever been a “lost religion” in India; its practitioners there have numbered in the thousands and millions ever since Buddha walked the earth. But, as India-born British historian Allen (Soldier Sahibs, 2001) writes, Buddhism had indeed been largely displaced by Hinduism in the most populous parts of India by the time the British arrived; “the widespread adoption of Hindu tantric practices from Bengal,” he notes, “had fatally weakened the Sangha from within, but the real hammer-blow was the transformation of Brahminism in the eighth and ninth centuries into the Hinduism we see in India today,” caste system and all. It was left to brilliant linguists and archaeologists of the 18th and 19th centuries, among them Sir William Jones, Alexander Cunningham, Colin Mackenzie, and Alexander Csoma de Koros, to reconstruct the origins of the religion some two and a half millennia ago. Working with ancient Pali texts and overgrown ruins, they turned up material evidence of Prince Gautama’s existence and that of his earliest disciples and traced the growth and decline of the religion over the centuries. Some of their findings have been dismissed or revised, as Allen notes, and some of their theses continue to be debated today. Still, he writes, it was largely through their labors that Buddhism was introduced to the West—even though their version of Buddhism tended to be a very Protestant one: a rationalist rendition stripped of its corrupting “Mahayana accretions, rather as the early Christian teaching had been corrupted by Roman Catholicism.”
Well written, well researched: a pleasant excursion in comparative religion and British colonial history.