A talk by Bruce Stewart, expanded for publication in collaboration with Luke Matthews
Historians differ on Gotama the Buddha’s actual birth and death dates. According to one accepted calculation, he was born around 563 BCE and died at the age of 80 in the year 483 BCE. He taught Dhamma for forty-five years, during which time there were other prominent spiritual teachers in India, including Mahāvira, revered by the Jains, and numerous ascetics who were not followers of the Buddha.
About 260 BCE, the aggressive Indian emperor Ashoka conquered a neighboring Indian kingdom. The extensive loss of innocent lives and widespread destruction filled him with remorse and caused him to repent his misdeeds. In subsequent years he was drawn toward the Buddha-Dhamma and became a devoted lay disciple.
In marked contrast to his previous reign of conquest and cruelty, Ashoka began espousing nonviolence and freedom of religion, and introduced within his empire certain features of a social welfare state, such as medical facilities, rest houses and elder care. Through his proclamations and edicts, often carved on rock outcrops and stone pillars, and the emissaries whom Ashoka sent to promote the Dhamma, the Buddha’s teachings spread across the Indian subcontinent and beyond, into Central and Southeast Asia, and westward as far as Greece.
Ashokan pillar, Vesālī
During the next two millennia, most traces of Ashoka’s dynasty and his immense contribution to the promulgation of the Buddha’s teachings faded from India’s oral and written record. So too did the very fact of the Buddha’s existence and his Dhamma legacy. This was due partly to changes within the Buddhist saṅgha (monastic order), partly to Brahmin zealots who saw in the Buddha’s teachings a threat to their status and influence, and later on to the twelfth century advance of Islam across the Indian subcontinent.
However, thanks to Ashoka, outside of India the Buddha’s words survived and flourished. About 1,000 years after the Buddha, Buddhaghosa, an Indian monk residing in Sri Lanka, wrote the Visuddhimagga, or Path of Purification, an exhaustive 900-page meditation manual containing a comprehensive description and analysis of morality, concentration and Vipassanā (insight) meditation techniques; of the various stages of progress on the Path; and of the supporting metaphysical theories and philosophy. The Visuddhimagga has thus had a significant influence on many Theravāda (Way of the Elders) traditions.
The British Arrive in India
In the mid-seventeenth century British merchants established a commercial enterprise called the East India Company to compete with the French and the Dutch in the Indian Ocean trade. The Company sent to the East an assorted workforce of administrators, professional employees and private military personnel, many of whom had both an interest and skills in geography, archaeology, philology, botany and other scholarly fields. Through them the erasure of India’s Buddhist past gradually came to light.
From this diverse and colorful collection of East India Company characters, there eventually emerged a subgroup, interested in Indian languages, literature and the indigenous religions, who called themselves the Orientalists.
In 1784 a few of these Orientalists formed the more purposeful Asiatic Society. Based in Bengal, its members comprised a hard core of India enthusiasts, less interested in colonial spoils than in learning as much as they could about the country, its peoples, culture, history, languages, and religions. They played a central role in researching and documenting ancient texts, inscriptions, coins, and archaeological sites—among them many relating to the Buddha and his teachings.