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The Light of Asia into western eyes

The Buddha and the Sahibs
Charles Allen
John Murray Publishing, 2003

It came as something of a surprise to me that so much that is now known about the Buddha (the “Wise One”, not an exclusive title in his time) seems to have been discovered by Europeans, who, later joined by the Americans, played a large part in the revival of Buddhism in the East, as well as its spreading into the West. It may be a fault in this book that the reader is really left in the dark as to the actual tenets of Buddhism. There have been plenty of investigators eager to claim significance for their discoveries, but their painstaking translations are rarely quoted and Asoka’s famous much-carved edict, triumphantly deciphered after 2000 years of incomprehensibility, and generally deploring violence, is more noted for the rarity of such an expression of its sentiments than for anything profound or even unusual about them.

Undoubtedly a historical person, the Buddha was born Siddhartha, prince in a small Sakya kingdom on what is now the Indian-Nepali border, into the Gautama tribe or clan: Sakyamuni and Gautama are thus other designations, as well as Burkhan (holy). The trouble with written records in the subcontinent at this time and for many centuries to come is that they were extremely perishable, ranging from bark in the north to palm leaves in the south. There were inscriptions on rocks and pillars, but ability to read them had long been lost. Oral traditions, however venerated, could not be regarded as reliable.

Most histories and reference books I have looked up give 568-463BC for the Buddha, or a few years earlier, linked to the known reign of the Mauryan king Asoka, 273-232BC. Allen favours the Sri Lankan source for 624-542BC, as Buddha’s lifespan, while Keay in his India, a History puts his death between 400 and 350BC, two or three generations before Alexander the Great’s incursion.

Enter the sahibs, from the late 1700s on, mainly younger sons or others from impoverished families or both, joining the East India Company, where it was possible to make a fortune, if one survived, for in that climate mortality was heavy. Enough of them manifested curiosity about the country to which they’d come to learn its languages and look at its monuments. Sanskrit (spelt Sanscrit by those who wrote about it at the time), the ancient language, from which the various languages and dialects of North India were derived, was kept by the Brahmins as far as possible a secret from others trying to find out anything about it. After this barrier was breached, it became apparent, somewhat to the amazement of European scholars, that Sanskrit had strong affinities to their own languages, and even more to Greek and Latin, their ancestral classical languages; its grammatical structure being much more elaborate and systematic. In the often quoted words of William Jones (1746-94), though he was not the first to study it, it was found to be “of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin and more exquisitely refined than either.” In fact (though this is not mentioned here) the discovery of the affinities of the Indo-European languages should be credited to James Parsons, FRS, whose book, published in 1767, The Remains of Japhet, Being Historical Enquiries into the Affinity and Origins of the European Languages, has, according to J.P. Mallory in his In Search of the Indo-Europeans, languished in obscurity because of its length and tediousness.

William Jones went badly off the rails in his speculations about a common culture embracing Egypt, Ethiopia and India – before any documents from Egypt or Mesopotamia, let alone Ethiopia had even been discovered, let alone deciphered. He did, however, manage to find the date of the Indian king Chandragupta, by identifying him with Sandrokottos, cross-referenced by Greek historians for his contact with the post-Alexander Seleucids in 303BC. From a reasonably reliable list of Indian kings with their lengths of reign, other dates could be established, the most important, from the connexion with the Buddha, being the reign of Asoka (268-233BC), third in line after Chandragupta. This king, after a successful campaign to add territory to his dominions, was so sickened by the death and devastation involved, that he decided to put into practice the precepts of the Buddha, to which he had so far merely nominally subscribed. He had numerous (forty two discovered to date) pillars and rock faces inscribed to this effect, made peace with his neighbours and forbad animal sacrifices.

If this seems an unduly prolix and discursive introduction to Buddhist origins it merely matches the author’s, who sets the scene of general ignorance, as of a jungle through which numerous characters metaphorically, and often literally, had to hack their way to add some fragment of information to be assembled, jigsaw like, into a final solution. I should be sorry to have missed information on any of these who all had to pursue their investigations in their spare time. But to pick just one: easily the most attractive is James Prinsep (1799-1840), of whom there is a charming picture, confidently lecturing, aged 20. As employee, later Master of the Calcutta Mint, he found that by early rising he could complete his duties by 10 o’clock, and turn his attention to other matters, including making a detailed map of Benares, which led to his scheme of draining its pestilential swamp.

This, and other benevolent projects, won him the gratitude of the Indians, who built a ghat on the Hooghly in his honour, its name, unfortunately, worn down into “Prince’s”. Any normal person, but not James Prinsep, would have had no time or energy left to work on the deciphering of the Asoka inscriptions, to which his expertise in numismatics contributed; any knowledge of the scripts had long been lost. It is sad to record that his passion for work contributed to his early death; he suffered a complete mental collapse and, carried back to England in this condition, died of “an affection of the brain, which proved to be a softening of the substances”.

To be fair, the sahibs in India were looking at the most difficult place, though, to excuse them, they hardly knew what they were looking for. Buddhism had long disappeared from India as a living faith, and the last two witnesses to its presence there are the Chinese pilgrims Fa Hian (400AD) and Huang Tsang (537AD). There is some evidence that in Kashmir Buddhism had been forcibly replaced by Hinduism around the earlier date, and it is uncertain to what extent persecution or simply assimilation of multiple incarnations of the Buddha to Hindu Gods was responsible for its disappearance in India. There was a Buddhist kingdom in Bihar as late as the 12th century, but it and its Buddhist institutions were destroyed by the Muslims at its end.

Looking for Buddhist origins in India therefore was a matter of archaeology and it was a triumph in this field that, working with the itineraries of the two Chinese pilgrims, the site of the capital of the state where the Buddha was born was discovered. There was a rogue archaeologist who was exposed as such and had to resign, but the other two, Waddell and Smith, must get the credit. Rather typically, Waddell never got back to the site, his military duties taking him to India’s North West Frontier and to China to participate in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900 (Allen has these in the wrong order).

Somewhat earlier than the sahibs who began their investigations in India, others were doing the same in Ceylon, the coastal region of which had been taken over by the British from the Dutch, together with all their other overseas possessions, when Holland was conquered and then “allied” with the French Republic. Here they found a population that was largely Buddhist, together with a literature which, when translated, gave an account of its origins and how the religion had been brought to the island by one of Asoka’s sons (not his successor) and a daughter, around 270BC, and therefore during Asoka’s lifetime. It is from this source that Allen takes the anomalous dates for the Buddha’s lifespan.

From Ceylon Buddhism had spread to Burma and Siam. This branch of Buddhism, originating in Ceylon, is known as Theraveda Buddhism (the Doctrine of the Elders) or Hinayana Buddhism, the “Lesser Vehicle”, as distinct from Mahayana Buddhism, the “Great Vehicle”, which from its original source in North India spread to Nepal, Tibet, Mongolia, China, Korea and Japan. Allen pays little attention to this form, presumably because sahibs had little or nothing to do with it, repelled by the extreme filth of its Tibetan practitioners. The ultimately sanguinary “Mission” to Tibet in 1903-4, led by Francis Younghusband, a military sahib not actually that different from the sahibs of this book, tended to confirm the opinion that Buddhism there was a very degenerate form of that religion.

It is rather difficult to evaluate the effect of this unearthing of a religion by Western investigators, intellectually curious rather than expecting or seeking to find a system of beliefs that might satisfactorily replace their own. There was approval of its basically pacific tenets, contrasted with the warlike substratum of both Hinduism and Islam. In the later part of the nineteenth century Buddhism became, as it were, a sort of supplementary religion for some of these investigators.

Two people were important in this regard. One was Thomas Williams Rhys Davids (1843-1922), who encountered Buddhism as a civil servant in Sri Lanka. Even so, its Scriptures were in a dead Indo-European language, Pali, descended from Sanskrit and unrelated to the languages of South India and Sri Lanka. Rhys Davids undertook to organize the translation and printing of Pali texts: “the sacred books of the early Buddhists have preserved to us the sole record of the only religious movement in the world’s history which bears any close resemblance to Christianity,” he enthused. Steering Western interest towards Hinayana Buddhism, Rhys Davids had no hesitation in characterising it as a pure, “Protestant” form of the religion, compared with the corrupt, priest-ridden, “Catholic”, northern Mahayana Buddhism, overlaid with demonism, various hells and (one should not forget) physical dirt. It is debatable, says Allen, whether Rhys Davids considered himself a practicing Buddhist, but his own words come close to saying as much:

Buddhist or not Buddhist, I have examined every one of the great religious systems of the world and in none of them have I found anything to surpass, in beauty and comprehensiveness, the Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha. I am content to shape my life according to that path

The other, probably the greatest populariser of Buddhism in the English speaking world was – perhaps still is – Edwin Arnold (1832-1904) whose 50,000 word blank verse Tennysonian-type poem The Light of Asia (1879 and still in print) gave an account of the Buddha’s life and teaching in an accessible form, sympathetic to the Protestant Victorian mindset on both sides of the Atlantic. Arnold had gone to India when he was 25, with a wife and child, to take up the post of Principal of Deccan College in Poona. He did not stay there long (though long enough to master Marathi, the local language, and to learn Persian and Sanskrit), returning to England to become a journalist and ultimately, for sixteen years, editor of the Daily Telegraph. His poem, he said, “was composed in spare moments, being jotted down on anything that was available and transcribed later.” It received tremendous acclaim, and was even turned into an opera. I cannot give a personal opinion of the work, for I have mislaid my copy, but remember it as a “good read”, though from many years back.

Inevitably perhaps, more dubious disciples from the West took to this newly discovered religion, whose vague theology left it open to individual manipulation. Easily the most notorious of these was Helen Petrova Blavatsky (1831-91), estranged wife of the Governor of Erevan in Russian Armenia. When exposed as a fraudulent medium by the Society for Psychical Research, she was forced to leave India and the Theosophical Society she had founded with an American colleague, Colonel Olcott. He had his problems with her equally strong-minded successor, Annie Besant (1847-1933), whose interest, however, was deflected from the Theosophical Society (of which she remained President until her death) by her taking up the cause of Indian Independence. Another questionable character that caused the Society trouble was ex-Anglican priest Charles Leadbeater, whose paedophilia in these times would certainly earn him a gaol term and probably bankrupt the Society. The bizarre and austere life of its followers, is well-recorded, for those interested in it, in the autobiography To Be Young, of Mary, the youngest daughter of the architect Edwin Lutyens, long-suffering husband of Lady Emily Lutyens (nee Lytton), devotee of the Society and of its reluctant Messiah, Krishnamurti, a title later repudiated by him.

Buddhism has settled down in the West as one of the many movements that are untainted by accusations of brainwashing and kidnapping. The general public here seem to be reluctant to accept one possible implication of its dogma of reincarnation, that disabled people are expiating sins and crimes committed in a previous life. When a football coach, whose name I have forgotten (perhaps everyone else has) made such a suggestion a few years ago, the outcry against him was universal, including a condemnation by the Prime Minister, who thought, as everyone did, that he should lose his job, as, of course he did. No Buddhist organization or individual came to his rescue, nor, being what he was, could he defend himself, his pronouncements being usually of the level “the boy done good.”

As for the East, it would be strange if the spread of authentic texts and moreover ones printed and cheap did not have considerable impact. One cause of a Buddhist revival in Ceylon, for instance, was Olcott’s Buddhist Catechism, approved by the highest Buddhist authority, to be learnt by heart by believers, despite its “rationalist views that in many instances ran contrary to the Buddhist practices then prevailing on the island.” The practice of meditation by lay persons resulted from the translation of a Pali text (of course incomprehensible to all but scholars) by Rhys Davids, entitled The Manual of a Mystic. Other results were not so happy: there were squabbles about sacred sites, all of which, if recognized as such and supposed to retain any holiness, were occupied by Hindus.

This book is harder to read (and review) than the author’s previous one, Soldier Sahibs, the Men Who Made the North-West Frontier, whose activities were of a more simple and straightforward nature: “There was nothing but God above and duty below,” as one of them put it, and if their peace-keeping duties sometimes involved considerable bloodshed, it was not because they stood idle while massacres took place nearby. Nor is likely that the sahibs who searched for the Buddha in their spare time would shirk their duty when called upon to do their real job.

The publishers, as so often is their habit, provide an irritation by putting on the cover of its paperback edition a picture of a tall, gaunt military figure, leaning against the leg of a giant statue, reaching about to its mid-calf. There is nowhere in the book or on its cover any indication of who it is.

9 comments to The Light of Asia into western eyes

  • gudone

    On the subject of buddhism, and in the light of the current terrorist threat, i here quote Alan Watts (60’s Zen maestro), from his essay on The Value of Psychotic Experience …..

    Now in Arabic countries, where the Islamic religion prevails, a person whom we would define as mentally deranged is regarded with a certain respect. The village idiot is looked upon with reverence because it is said his soul is not with his body, it is with Allah. And because his soul is with Allah, you must respect this body and care for it, not as something that is to be sort of swept away and put out of sight, but as something of a reminder that a man can still be living on Earth while his soul is in Heaven. Very diffent point of view.

    I gather he was suggesting this was a good thing. Shame all the village idiots are over here with us now 🙁

  • Verity

    Findlay, what is interesting is how one person becomes the definer, or the embodiment, of a certain strand of spiritual thought. Jesus Christ, from an obscure, totally ordinary family and Guatama Buddha, a prince.

    And the lessons they taught and that are associated with their names live today, 2,000 and 2,500 years later. That’s a long, long time – hundreds of generations – to be an influence on the human race. Why them?

  • Agent Smith

    When a football coach, whose name I have forgotten (perhaps everyone else has) made such a suggestion a few years ago

    That would be ex-footballer, popstar and manager, Glenn Hoddle. Currently manager of Wolves.

  • David B. Wildgoose

    Excellent Review, Thanks Very Much.

  • Luke

    You should read Pankaj Mishra’s recently publiched ‘An End to Suffering’ – an excellent book about the Buddha in his world and how his legacy and thought were influenced by the tensions and turmoils of his age – tensions that Mishra shows are with us still. Seriously, I recommend the book highly.

  • Verity

    Tony Blair got Glen Hoddle fired for believing in karma. He sat on a TV couch and said it was inappropriate for Hoddle to have a religion that was different from his own. And when asked if he thought Hoddle should be relieved of his post, Tone nodded and said, “Yes.”

    Only Tone ‘n’ Cher can decide what people can believe. Blowing yourself and dozens of others up for allah – very inconsiderate and serious, but Cher can understand it. Believing that one’s actions in one life will have repercussions in the next life – don’t approve! Sack him!

  • Findlay Dunachie


    Christianity and Buddhism both have strong potential for encouraging benevolence and even love. Most of history testifies to the failure of such potential to deliver, but the message has never quite got lost: God is love, for Christians.

    Moses and Muhammad? Yet the Jews have discarded their genocidal history. Can we wait for the Muslims to catch up and discard their hatreds?

    Watch your arithmetic! 2000 years = 80 generations, at 25 years per generation; 2500 = 100.


    Thanks for the book recommendation

    Many thanks to the supervisor who put in the link I asked for “Soldier Sahibs . . .” And for linking the whole poem “The Light of Asia” by Sir Edwin Arnold (and much more). I must replace my lost copy.

  • Ian Robertson

    Fascinating! Many thanks.

  • > in that climate mortality was heavy

    one third of all Europeans in Calcutta in the late eighteenth century died each monsoon season, according to William Dalrymple in his (excellent and highly recommended) White Moguls

    Interesting review of what sounds like a fascinating book. Thanks.