Indians themselves don’t know!

This review has to be read in the context of the criticism made about the speech of the Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh when he accepted a Hon degree from Oxford University.

Discovering India’s past for the sake of Indians!
The Buddha and the Sahibs

The men who discovered Indian’s lost religion
Charles Allen, John Murray, pp 322

This is a remarkable book. This is written by an old India hand, Charles Allen has produced so many books of the Raj days, and he himself comes from a British family that had served India for six generations! This book is rather gripping in its intense truth telling passion, a passion I hope Indian readers share and reciprocate for what the author had done for restoring a great discovery of which, I doubt how many of this generation, from scholars to general readers, would be prepared for anticipating and once discovered how much they would reflect and gain by such an understanding of India’s past glory.

In brief the book tells how Buddhism disappeared from India in the 7th century onwards and how the Muslim invasions starting with Mahmud, the Lion of Ghazni invaded and destroyed all idols, the motive was to eliminate all idolatry. For the next seven generations it went on, the mission! The author, one afternoon relaxing at the compound of the Taxila archaeological museum found out the very process of excavation of the Indian ruins came about and how the whole of the Indian subcontinent got the benefit of Lord Curzon’s interest in archeology the discovery of the relics of the Buddhist era were made possible and how we Indians were given the opportunity, the historic opportunity of an invaluable kind to re-discover our own great past and our own great religion of Buddhism.

Each and every sentence in this book is worth reading and pondering over for a longer time. Such is the details of the journey of Alexander the Great to the Indian Taxila in the fifth century BC and he met the exiled Indian king and how the Maurya dynasty was established. King Bindusara, the son of Sandrokottos (Chandra Gupta?), was the first king and the first emperor of India, one who propagated Buddhism. Then, were the kushanas. Kanishka was the great king of this dynasty. Then the Huns, persecuted and he destroyed Buddhism, and by the time the third Chinese pilgrim, Huan Tsang(the other earlier two being Fa Hian who visited Gandhar in 400 BC, then another Chinese pilgrim, Sunyun, after one hundred and twenty years) when he visited Ghandara Buddhism was in decline. Then came the Turks, Mahmud of Ghazni being the most prominent and the first!

The author writing in 1997, noted how the Bamian Buddhist colossi was dynamited by the Taliban in March 2000 and says likewise, the destruction of the Buddhist shrines was a task carried out by the invaders in India and, says even the ancestors of the Hazara people were the original ancestors of the then new adherents to Buddhism before finally converting to minority Shia sect.

So, it looks the wars of religion and the wars of terrorism never seem to end in any one religion’s victory. Rather men search for answers through much destruction of what they see as their enemies and finally no one seems to win. He narrates so many little bits of details about how the old relics were destroyed, sometimes used as bricks and building materials for government offices and PWD engineers recycle them for variety of uses!

Then, came the one man, John Marshall, in 1903 at the age of 26 to take up the post of Director General of Archeology and it was Marshall who announced to the world in 1924 the discovery of “the remains of the long forgotten civilization”: the ancient Indus Valley Civilization of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, which had flourished for 1,200 years in 3000-2000 BC.

Then, started the real discovery of India, even for the British who were the conquerors and who too believed they had conquered an uncivilized(barbarians)people very much like the Barbarians of the West, every new conqueror believes the one whom he conquers, like the ancient Athens did about the ancient Persians, the Roman civilization was destroyed by the Barbarians!

So, Indians were discovered by the British conquerors as the most civilized people in the world. This discovery was made possible by many dedicated British officials, civil servants, not always great scholars and the discovery is told in this book in such detail that every small detail is really touching and really moving!

The condition of the neglect of precious historic sculptural items in Pakistan is also described. The religion comes into this entire subcontinent’s lack of historic sense, historic realities. How then, the Orient lists(there is a very intelligent chapter on the subject of Orientals worth  its own reading pleasure in the book, more so when we in India, in the East, must be seriously conscious of what it means to  be understood as Orientals after Prof.Edward Said’s own, rather twisted interpretation of the very historic perspectives of our own understanding of the West and the Orientals).In fact, we find that  the very British officials who have joined together under the Asiatic Society of Bengal are the true Orientalists, as contrasted with the official Anglicization initiated by Thomas Babington Macaulay as against the Orientalists who went too far to bring out the great beauties and wisdom in the arts and architecture of the Indian past).

Once the work of the Orientalists became known to the outside world, the true worth of the Buddhist religion and its philosophy which were sought to be wiped out by the Brahmins through the revivalist Adi Shankara and the alternative religion of Hinduism came to dominate the subcontinent. Allen notes so perceptively that  Hinduism itself sought to incorporate features of Buddhism, says he that “the nationalist Indian historians have less to say about the destructive role of Brahmin zealots in the over throw of the Buddhist viharas and the absorption of Buddhist beliefs and iconography into reformed Hinduism”(page 7).

There is a very absorbing chapter, in fact two chapters on the remarkable man, William Jones whose mastery of the Sanskrit language in fact revolutionized the discovery of Indian wisdom. Jones, like the great German writer, Goethe, was products of the European Enlightenment. There was much on learning and liberty and these drivers of progress impacted whatever these men did.

The most moving and the most poignant description is about the discovery of the Saranath Asoka  four -lions pillar and how it was restored, almost piece by piece by a dedicated excavator, F.O.Oertel. There are so many men with fascinating skills; one who stands out, after Sir John Marshall is Alexander Cunningham, who became after his army service the Archeological Surveyor of the Government of India. The book is full of small but valuable bits of information, how the same family members, serving different countries, one  in India, the other in Constantinople, they supply the most needed connecting threads of intellectual discoveries. The British were curiously all interested in antiquarian knowledge; they called themselves proudly as antiquaries or antiquarians. Thus, the world’s first best-seller in archeology, the 1849 publication of Nineveh and its Remains by Henry Layard’s excavations in Nimrud, at Mesopotamia between 1845 and 1851 stimulated  public interest in ancient civilization. So, Cunningham became interested to do the same in India and thus he came to play the most crucial role in Indian excavations.

Space doesn’t permit more on the very many discoveries but the one chapter is on “Epilogue: The Sacredness of India”(280).Here we encounter Lord curzon, perhaps the greatest of the Britons to have served India and it was he who showed enormous interest in preserving the rare Indian historic monuments and it was Curzon who established the Archeological Survey of India. Curzon made a famous speech to the Asiatic Society in 1899; shortly he was installed as the Viceroy and it he said:” If there be anyone who says that a Christian government has no duty to preserve the monuments of a pagan art or the sanctuaries of an alien faith, I won’t argue with that man. Art and beauty that had evoked human genius or inspired human faith are independent creeds. What is beautiful, what is historic, what reveals the past, these are in themselves worth preserving”.

By the end of his six years of rule he revived the Archeological Survey under a properly qualified man, with proper allocation of funds and thus, in 1901, he secured the services of Marshall who was trained at the British School Archeology at Athens. India was lucky to have such a qualified person. He worked at Taxila, at Sanchi and at Mohenjadaro and Harappa and the pre-Aryan Indus Civilization was established beyond anybody’s doubts!

After Marshall, after Cunningham there were so many galaxy of dedicated men who combed the entire earth of northern India and brought out  so many discoveries, Kushinagar, Rajgir(it was one Dr.Waddell who devoted his free time to discover Kapilavastu(Buddha’s birth place)and Kusinagara(Buddha’s site of death) and what a great discovery! He did prove the great General Cunningham’s original sites wrong and he himself traveled, walked “some thousands of miles”,” several hundreds done on foot” and his discoveries (pages 259-260) read like real crime thrillers! And then the greatest assault, Saranath. This was in 1904. Marshall’s greatest achievement was this?

Curzon hovers over our imagination as we read through the books so many insightful passages and observations. Curzon’s brief to Marshall was:”To dig, and discover, to classify, reproduce, and describe, to copy and decipher, and to cherish and conserve”.

Curzon himself wrote later about the efforts he took to conserve the beauty of Taj Mahal. He said:” If I had never done anything else in India, I have written my name here, and the letters are a living joy”

India owes to Curzon so much for having done so much to discover India’s glories to Indians themselves without any prejudice to the British rule itself in India. So, I wanted to conclude my remarks about how the British rulers, from Winston Churchill to others were so ignorant and yet so much fame they built for themselves while there were equally famous Britons like Curzon and others(whose contributions the book celebrates)who were much more greater Britons in themselves.

More sad was my thought when I reflected that when we Indians go to England and talk about India and what we owe to Britain, as Manmohan Singh did when he accepted the Hon degree from Oxford University, we Indians don’t tell the Britons of today, what great men like Curzon or Marshall or William  Jones did for India but we seem still remain insensitive to our past but cringe before the British, as our PM regrettably did, by reminding the British what they gave us in terms of rather unflattering governance, often cruel and insensitive to the sentiments and ethos  of our people and our historic past. This book must be a text in all history and general education courses.

John Marshall unearthed the Mohenjadaro-Harappa pre-Aryan Indus Civilization. Alexander Cunningham unearthed the Buddhist relics and made known the life and teachings of India’s greatest son. Asoka, Kanishka propagated the religion. Warren Hastings initiated the rare job of getting the Sanskrit classics translated. So, did William Jones who founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Lord Curzon established the Archeological Survey of India. Others, James Princep, Vincent Smith, James Fergusson, Mackenzie, Edwin Arnold (of the Light of Asia) and many others made Buddhism the fashion in the West. These great Orientalists, not Macaulay, nor Winston Churchill nor the ICS fraternity, nor the Oxbridge Indians were the great pioneers who discovered India. India’s greatness.

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