Ash on an old man’s sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
There is a broken song that we all have hummed. That the rather irreligious religion of the Buddha—more a way of thinking and living the middle path—was blackballed from the very land of its origins. And by the thirteenth century, as brahmanism latched on to the populist bhakti-driven modes of worship fuelled by incandescent poetry, Buddhism was shovelled six feet under. After all, the Buddha is said to have said that there is no god, no soul, no heaven, everything is anicca, impermanent. Only suffering, dukkha or shoka, is permanent. And perhaps shunya (void, nothing). Such and such were offered as noble truths. In time, even those who were inspired by such profound reflections on sentient life as shoka, like the great Ashoka, were forgotten. His edicts became decor and art installations for latter-day kings. Dhamma lipi became gibberish. Buddhist structures were pillaged, and many pagodas and stupas were converted and reshaped into temples for Siva, Vishnu and their many forms. The Dhamma Raja was exiled, and his ideas and icons and texts sought refuge in neighbouring and distant lands. The throne gathered dust.
Water and fire succeed
The town, the pasture and the weed.
Water and fire deride
The sacrifice that we denied.
And it is believed that British and European archaeologists and historians literally dug up a lot of this history and reintroduced to us Siddhartha Gotama, Ashoka, his edicts, the Sanchi stupa, the English language, democracy and so forth. The near-extinct Thus Gone One slowly returned to the public imagination, and today he helps a wounded world peddle mindfulness as a solution to the dukkha of mindless consumption. At home, Babasaheb Ambedkar’s conversion was seen as the apogee of this revival in the twentieth century.
And as I fixed upon the down-turned face
That pointed scrutiny with which we challenge
The first-met stranger in the waning dusk
I caught the sudden look of some dead master
Here, at last, is a book that makes us rethink all this received wisdom. Each sutta of the Buddha begins with Evam me sutam: Thus have I heard. Some fifteen years ago, Douglas Ober set out in search of all that we have not heard and not been told, leading to a PhD with the University of British Columbia. At Navayana, we commissioned the manuscript in 2020, and many experts weighed in, with disbelief and awe. In the process, we also came to terms with what the very word ‘navayana’ means and its modern and ancient histories.
So here we are with what Ober has unearthed, Dust on the Throne: The Search for Buddhism in Modern India. Through extensive examination of disparate materials held in archives and temples across South Asia, Douglas Ober explores Buddhist religious dynamics through the course of expanding colonial empires, intra-Asian connectivity, and the intellectual pursuits of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Indian thinkers. Dust on the Throne recovers the integral role of lesser-known Indian anti-caste activists and non-Indian Buddhist monastics in the making of modern global Buddhism. Ober also accounts for the powerful influence Buddhism exerted in shaping modern Indian history.
The book comes crowned in praise. Buy it. Read it. Spread the word.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of motives late revealed, and the awareness
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
That we turned to TS Eliot’s last quartet in the Four Quartets, The Little Gidding, to frame this letter to you is nothing but a fortuitous dependent arising, a contingent and necessary misreading.
A version of this article previously appeared on Scroll.in.