Light shines from Ajanta caves

Beyond Enlightenment
September 8, 2006

This is a first book by Richard Cohen, associate professor of South Asian religious literature at the University of California. Its core chapters are presumably based on his doctoral dissertation on Buddhism at Ajanta, the most famous Buddhist complex of western India. The book's scope, however, is more ambitious. It explores and critiques Western notions of enlightenment that have structured the study of Buddhism, in particular ideas about the Buddha's enlightenment. This phenomenon, described as the "discursive production of Buddhism", is examined on a general plane and in regard to the site of Ajanta.

Cohen's first culprit, in a manner of speaking, is Max Muller, whose forceful reimagining of religion in general, and translation of "Buddha" as "the enlightened" in particular, helped appropriate Buddhism into a Christian framework. Sakyamuni as a religious founder became the counterpart of Jesus, and Buddhism appeared akin to Christianity. The idea of enlightenment used to describe Buddha's awakening was itself rooted in the European Enlightenment, which Cohen carefully examines, along with more recent writings that reduce Buddhism to the status of a modern artefact.

His view is that beyond the modern ideological manipulations around it, Ajanta did have an objective existence as a site whose images and inscriptions can be interpreted within the codes of ancient patrons and renunciant bauddha/sakyas .

The book does, however, have two limitations. The first stems from its selective and episodic treatment of writings and themes. Among ancient Ajanta's modern historians, the ideas of Walter Spink, the greatest living authority on the caves, are examined. But there is silence on Ghulam Yazdani's monumental multi-volume work. Yazdani was the first director of the archaeological department at Hyderabad, whose Nizam paid for the restoration of Ajanta, which Cohen does mention.

Again, there is much that can be learnt from Cohen's critique of the "strategic brand management" of the caves as a Unesco World Heritage site, and of the Maharashtra Government's advertising, which juxtaposes past corruption with the need for present tourists to renounce private benefit for public good. Yet the role of the Archaeological Survey of India, the principal guardian of Ajanta, is not examined. However interesting a dinner conversation may have been with an Archaeological Survey officer, who in treating Ajanta as a living divinity provided the author with a textbook example of the failure of professional training to rein in the imagination, it cannot replace meaningful research into the ideology and practices of the organisation the officer represents.

The book's second limitation is its style. Cohen describes his book as postmodern microhistory. Actually, it requires patience to excavate the microhistory from the postmodern prose that surrounds it. A sentence that is particularly difficult to decipher concerns the final chapter's intent, which seeks a "wisdom that responds to the secular facticity of political struggle, not by projecting a chiliasm of politics transcended, but by articulating a politics compatible with irreducible pluralism".

Bertrand Russell in his memoirs recalled that he was advised to change the title of a lecture "Words and facts" in a US seminar because Americans would not respect such monosyllables. So he altered it to something like "The correlation between oral and somatic motor habits". Reading Beyond Enlightenment made me wonder why Americans continue to be so susceptible to this sort of prolixity.

Nayanjot Lahiri is professor of history, Delhi University, India, where she teaches Indian archaeology.

Beyond Enlightenment: Buddhism, Religion, Modernity

Author - Richard S. Cohen
Publisher - Routledge
Pages - 237
Price - £65.00
ISBN - 0 415 37294 1

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