Buddha has returned not only to India but to all of South Asia, through the a book by Prof. Himanshu Prabha Ray. She had titled it 'Return of the Buddha. Ancient Symbols for a New Nation'. I came to know about the book after she had presented a paper at the National Archives, New Delhi, on 'Archaeology of Buddhism in India: Sourcing the Archives', in June 2015. Because I did not have the good fortune to listen to the presentation, I wrote to her requesting a copy of her paper, and she wrote to me that it was based on her book, 'Return of the Buddha'.
Dr. Himanshu Prabha Ray is Professor, Center for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Among the ongoing research projects undertaken by her is Digital mapping of archaeological sites through satellite imagery, and seafaring and maritime contacts. She is the recipient of many prestigious awards and appointments which include, Member of the Institute of Advanced Study (Princeton), Visiting Professor at North Texas University, Concordia University, and Foundation Maison des Science de L'Homme, visiting research fellow at Asia Research Institute and Shivdasani Fellow at Oxford Center for Hindu Studies.
She says, "The book essentially discusses the material remains of Buddhism, as archaeological sites associated with the life of the Buddha came to be discovered, identified and written about widely....discusses Buddhist imagery as it was created through archaeological investigations, as it entered the field of politics through distribution of relics and how it rose to the surface of visual rhetoric and communicated crucial messages of unity and liberation, as it was firmly enshrined in India's most significant political document, the Constitution of India....also traces their conceptualization within the itihasa purana tradition of the subcontinent that locates continued Buddhist presence in historical consciousness."
Prof. Ray's book is so full of archaeological facts, that this work is not just for the archaeologists and historians, but people all over the world who are interested in the Buddha Dhamma, and the millions of Buddhist pilgrims who visit India. She traces the earliest known pilgrimages to sites associated with the Buddha to the reign of Asoka and "the term stupa first occurs in the Nagalisagara pillar inscription of Asoka in Nepal."
Several years ago, a journalist in Sri Lanka wrote an article about how Buddhism disappeared from India. I had to respond then, that Buddha Dhamma had never disappeared from India, and in fact most Indians, whatever their religious faith was, were true followers of Buddha Dhamma. Prof. Ray reminds us that Independent India accepted the Asoka Chakra and the Sarnath lion capital, as symbols of the new nation.
As I continued reading 'Return of the Buddha', it dawned on me, that there was no need for Buddha to return to India, because Buddha has always been present in India, not only in the religious spaces and statues and paintings, but in the minds of all Indians. All followers of Buddha Dhamma owe their gratitude to Prof. Himanshu Prabha Ray for providing us all this information, and opening our eyes.
A more saddening realization was the devastation which had been caused to Buddhist sacred spaces during the 19th century in the name of archaeological excavations. Though we have to appreciate the contributions made by Cunningham and others for the discoveries they made, we also have to consider the extent of damages they would have caused and all the evidence and artefacts which may have been destroyed or lost to history. Today we cannot consider it as archaeological studies when 30 sites are visited in one season, or a site is excavated in one hour, "..at times these visits ended up as mere object-hunting expeditions where sites were cleared and sculptures and coins collected...Cunningham's primary interest was in relics and relic caskets..." While some of these explorers were only interested in filling up museums, others had even made money by selling the artefacts.
The British too had their own motives to encourage their officers to explore Buddhist sacred spaces. Prof. Ray quotes from Jonathan A. Silk. "Within a British colonial context it was mainly as a counter to the predominant Hindu system in India that the Buddha could be of use. The Buddha thus created was an opponent of caste and of the priestly system, which supported it, an advocate of social reform." Ray added, "The Buddha stood for social reform in the eyes of colonial officials and was thus a potent counter to the prevailing Hindu culture of the nineteenth-century India."
It is also saddening to realize how much more there is to be explored, not only in India, but also in all South Asia, for us to learn of the historical Buddha. The painstaking study done by Prof. Himanshu Ray, is a work that needs translation into Sinhala, perhaps by the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, and also into other Indian languages, specially Bengali, Hindi, Oriya and Telugu.
There is a need to have more discussions, conferences and study tours by the people concerned and involved, as she says, "We suggest that the archaeology of Buddhism is a promising field for interdisciplinary study that continues to be under researched, though it can provide deeper insights into the history of Buddha dhamma in South Asia."
It is in this context that the international conference On Archaeology of Buddhism, which was held in Colombo in 2012, organized by the SAARC Cultural Center has to be mentioned. It was a very useful, very timely conference, where the delegates from SAARC countries could share their work and discoveries. It is unfortunate that this discussion could not be continued, after the conference, which could have been kept alive in cyberspace. It is time for the SAARC Cultural center to organize a follow-up conference.