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Buddhadharma : Summer 2007
buddhadharma| 59 |summer 2007 created the stupas and monuments that helped mark the sacred Buddhist sites, and Faxian and Xuanzang left detailed records that would provide the map for rediscovering and reestablishing these sacred sites. And they would need to be rediscov- ered, because in the thirteenth century Buddhism disappeared from the land of its birth, and by the nineteenth century many historians doubted that the Buddha Shakyamuni was anything more than legend and myth. The Buddhist Diaspora How could Buddhism, conceived in the great Gan- ges Planes of India, supported by emperors and a prosperous laity and rooted in the very fabric of Indian life, be so vanquished in the land of its birth that virtually all traces of it would disappear? In the early twelfth century, Buddhism was thriving in India. During the reign of the Pala kings (eighth–twelfth centuries), who were follow- ers of Buddhism, the great Buddhist universities of Nalanda, Odantapura, and Vikramasila flour- ished and attracted as many as ten thousand stu- dents from every Buddhist country in the world. Learning and scholarship expanded, and tantra developed. Then from Afghanistan came the Turaskas, fanatical Muslims who systematically destroyed every Buddhist community in their path. Buddhist monks with their shaved heads and their distinc- tive colored robes were easy targets and were massacred wholesale as idolaters. According to the Persian historian Minhaz, at Nalanda Univer- sity alone, thousands of monks were burned alive and thousands more were beheaded. Nalanda’s great library was set ablaze and burned for sev- eral months before all its books and records were devoured. Minhaz reported a similar assault on Odantapura. Chan Khoon San, author of Buddhist Pilgrimage, describes the effects of the disaster: The extermination of Buddhist monks dealt a fatal blow to the organization of the Sangha in India. With the monks gone, no one was left to carry on their work or to lead the demoralized laity who were forc- ibly converted to Islam or absorbed into Hinduism and Jainism. While India’s Hindus and Jains were also per- secuted, their priests and leaders were not so easily recognized and therefore not so easily killed. Enough survived to rebuild their communities. But for Bud- dhism in India, this was the end. The handful of Buddhist monks who survived fled with what holy treasures and scriptures they could gather. They scat- tered to remote monasteries or to ports from which they sailed to safety in Bangladesh or Burma. Others trekked northward across the Himalayas into Nepal and Tibet. This was the Buddhist diaspora. With the downfall of Buddhism in India, the shrines and monuments of the Buddha lost their meaning. They were plundered and destroyed, converted into Hindu temples, or just ignored and neglected. Chan Khoon San calls this period the saddest era of Buddhism – a period that, like the holocaust of the Jews in the twentieth century, should never be forgotten. For six centuries the sacred sites virtually van- ished. Then in the nineteenth and twentieth centu- ries, pilgrims and explorers began bringing them back. What we see today is the result of their devo- tion and dedication. Rediscoving the Past The rule of Islam in India was broken by the Brit- ish, who brought with them a passion for archeol- ogy and understanding the past. This passion was exemplified by Alexander Cunningham, the man most responsible for recovering the ancient Buddhist sites in India. Cunningham was neither a Buddhist nor a pil- grim, but rather a devout Christian. He arrived in India in 1833 as a lieutenant in the British army and proved a gifted surveyor, administrator, and engi- neer. As he traveled through India, he developed a remarkable knowledge of its ancient geography. Near the end of Cunningham’s military career, the British government decided to establish an archaeo- logical survey, and he was appointed its first direc- tor general. By this time, he had developed a keen interest in and respect for Buddhism. Taking the records of Faxian and Xuanzang as his guides, he began searching for the lost Buddhist sites. He soon proved that not only had the Buddha existed but also that major events of his life took place in iden- tifiable sites in northern India. Cunningham identified Kushinagar, where the Buddha was born, and excavated in Sarnath, where the Buddha first taught. He also verified many other sites, but of all the sites he found or reclaimed, none was more sacred than Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, the most revered of all Bud- dhist pilgrimage sites. Bodhgaya Our bus arrived at our hotel in Bodhgaya in the early evening. My fellow pilgrims and I tumbled out, exhausted and dazed, and were immediately