A Higher Criticism of Archaeology


The canonical texts are entirely silent about Aśoka, and do not authorize his interference in the Sangha. This is one of the basic reasons why early generations of Buddhist scholars concluded they were in the main completed before Aśoka. This seems to have escaped certain modern scholars who regard any suggestion of a pre-Aśokan provenance for canonical texts as sheer fantasy. This has led to a worrying decline in the understanding of these sources: if we are to take seriously the claim that the Pali canon cannot be dated before the 5th century, we obliterate the fundamental distinction between text and commentary that has allowed us to make sense of the dizzying collections of Buddhist texts.

Let us take just one example, Lars Fogelin, who has published a recent and excellent description of some early Buddhist monastic sites called Archaeology of Early Buddhism. I must apologize in advance for the crtiticism that follows: it really is a very good book, and I learnt a lot from it. Fogelin tries hard, and usually succeeds, to steer a ‘middle way’ between various extreme approachs, including the text/archaeology divide. But his perspective on Buddhist textual studies is largely derived from Gregory Schopen. I have directly critiqued Schopen’s work elsewhere, but here I am concerned with how his programmatic perspective distorts the writings of those he influences.

Fogelin says: ‘According to the Pali Canon, Ashoka actively proselytized for Buddhism, sending missionaries to Sri Lanka, redistributing relics of the Buddha, and supporting Buddhist monks’. (Fogelin 24) This is of course nonsense, and Fogelin is confusing the canon and commentaries. The problem is not merely an isolated mistake. Fogelin is  following modern trends in heavily relying on scholars like Schopen, and has inherited the results of his deeply programmatic attempt to undermine the findings of Buddhist textual studies. In this case the attrition of knowledge has proceeded so far that we have lost touch with the most basic of distinctions.

Fogelin speaks of the two phases of western Indological studies: the first phase depicted a rarified and ethereal Buddhism of unworldly spirituality; the inevitable reaction emphasizes the physicality, even worldliness of monastic life. The lonely ascetic hero striving to subdue his passions in the forest has been supplanted; and in his place is a hook-nosed Bhikkhu Fagin, clutching his pot of gold with one claw, while with his other he other dispenses ‘relics’ to the exploited masses. Thus the western philosophical Frankenstein of mind/body dualism flourishes in Buddhist studies.

This manifests as an epistemological apartheid, where things we learn from rocks and realia are ‘certain’, while things we learn from texts are ‘assumptions’. I hesitate to preach Buddhism to such confirmed sceptics, but it does rather occur to me that a reading of basic Buddhist epistemological Suttas, such as the Cūḷahatthipadopama Sutta or the Caṅkī Sutta, would serve as a reminder that all conceptual knowledge is based on inference, and as long as ignorance persists in the mind, we can regard nothing as certain.

Fogelin discusses the ‘higher criticism’:

‘The method, on the surface, is both simple and compelling. Those textual and doctrinal elements that are shared by the disparate textual existing sources are most likely to have the greatest antiquity.’ (Fogelin 38)

Simple, yes, not to say simplistic. I doubt that anyone familiar with the painstaking, detailed, and multi-layered reading that is required by any serious grappling with Buddhist literature would recognize their own work in this description.

Fogelin does admit that: ‘The actual practice of higher criticism is much more complicated than the simple outline presented above.’ But this is in his presentation of the modern critiques of the higher criticism, as if those engaged in the study themselves have no comprehension of the difficulties of their own task.

Fogelin goes on to say:

‘Despite claims by its proponents, commonalities in Chinese and Sri Lankan texts only demonstrate that the common text existed at an unspecified time prior to the existing texts in the fifth century A. D. There is no reason to believe that this reconstructed Buddhism resembled anything propounded by the Buddha.’ (Fogelin 38)

Such claims again misrepresent the methods of the higher criticism. The basic hypothesis – which is always subject to testing and modification in specific circumstances – is that the postulated ancestor text pre-dated the separation of the existing textual traditions. In Buddhist context, the scriptures are usually found to be associated with a particular school, which preserves its own textual redaction. Thus the common ancestor is hypothesized to belong to a period before the separation of the schools.

Again, while this is far from absolute,  it remains a valid generalization, confirmed by the recent work of Salomon, for example, who shows that the Dharmaguptaka Gandhārī version of the Saṅgīti Sutta is very close to the Dharmaguptaka Dīrgha Āgama version of the same sutta in Chinese, and is less close to the Pali and other Chinese versions. The prevailing view has been that the schismatic period started around the time of Aśoka. Thus the common texts are, on a preliminary basis, assigned to that period. In this work I have questioned the dating of the separations to Aśoka or pre-Aśoka, and have argued for a separative period in the centuries following Aśoka. However, this does not change the hypothetical dating of the scriptural collections: rather, it changes the basis on which the texts were separated. The texts were not separated into distinct sectarian or dogmatic collections until some time after Aśoka; nevertheless, they were clearly separated geographically from the time of Aśoka, perhaps even earlier in some cases.

Fogelin admits that the higher criticism becomes more robust as the schools become further spread out, but claims that the schools lived close to each other in earliest periods. But, as the chances of history would have it, most of our early texts derive from schools located in two places: Kaśmīr/Gandhāra and Sri Lanka. These were established as part of the missions around the Aśokan period, and are at the very opposite peripheries of India, 3000kms apart. It is methodological madness to assume that schools at the polar ends of India primarily derived their common canonical texts from later borrowings.

As  long as the texts are relatively (not totally!) isolated, we may regard their history as primarily (not completely!) separate. The existence of borrowing is a modification of details, but does not change the overall picture, unless it can be demonstrated that borrowing has taken place on a  very large scale. Things fall down according to the law of gravity: I can throw a ball in the air, but I don’t dash off a thesis claiming to have disproved Newton.

While this principle is doubtless important, to suggest it is the sole or main method of textual criticism is highly misleading. In fact, the whole enterprise of modern Buddhist studies, including the general stratification of texts still use use today, was established in the 19th Century by the European Indologists. And in those days, there simply were no comparative studies available. There were a few remarks and occasional translations, but no systematic work on comparing the Chinese or Tibetan scriptures with those in Pali was undertaken until Anesaki and Akanuma in the 20th Century. Not only was the comparative method not the sole method, it was not used at all! What then did they do? Here are some remarks by T. W. Rhys Davids, from his Buddhist India, published in 1902:

As to the age of the Buddhist canonical books, the best evidence is the contents of the books themselves—the sort of words they use, the style in which they are composed, the ideas they express. Objection, it is true, has recently been raised against the use of such internal evidence. And the objection is valid if it be urged, not against the general principle of the use of such evidence, but against the wrong use of it. We find, for instance, that Phallus-worship is often mentioned, quite as a matter of course, in the Mahābhārata, as if it had always been common everywhere throughout Northern India. In the Nikāyas, though they mention all sorts of what the Buddhists regarded as foolish or superstitious forms of worship, this particular kind, Siva-worship under the form of the Linga, is not even once referred to. The Mahābhārata mentions the Atharva Veda, and takes it as a matter of course, as if it were an idea generally current, that it was a Veda, the fourth Veda. The Nikāyas constantly mention the three others, but never the Atharva. Both cases are interesting. But before drawing the conclusion that, therefore, the Nikāyas, as we have them, are older than the existing text of the Mahābhārata, we should want a very much larger number of such cases, all tending the same way, and also the certainty that there were no cases of an opposite tendency that could not otherwise be explained.

On the other hand, suppose a MS. were discovered containing, in the same handwriting, copies of Bacon’s Essays and of Hume’s Essay, with nothing to show when, or by whom, they were written; and that we knew nothing at all otherwise about the matter. Still we should know, with absolute certainty, which was relatively the older of the two; and should be able to determine, within a quite short period, the actual date of each of the two works. The evidence would be irresistible because it would consist of a very large number of minute points of language, of style, and, above all, of ideas expressed, all tending in the same direction.

This is the sort of internal evidence that we have before us in the Pali books. Any one who habitually reads Pali would know at once that the Nikāyas are older than the Dhamma Sangaṇi; that both are older than the Kathā Vatthu; that all three are older than the Milinda. And the Pali scholars most competent to judge are quite unanimous on the point, and on the general position of the Pali literature in the history of literature in India.

But this sort of evidence can appeal, of course, only to those familiar with the language and with the ideas…

So Buddhist studies were established  primarily on the basis of the internal evidence of the texts themselves. The next section of Rhys-Davids’ work discusses the epigraphical evidence, which he interprets, surely reasonably, as showing a broad correspondence with the existing texts. While the epigraphic findings do not themselves prove the existence of a closed ‘canon’ in the time of Aśoka, they certainly prove that similar  texts existed. Aśoka’s wording clearly indicates he is presenting a collection extracted from the Buddhavacana, and the demonstrated links between Buddhavacana and Aśokavacana provide further evidence that other canonical texts existed and influenced Buddhist practice. Aśoka was obviously not trying to describe the Buddhist canon, but to select a few specially recommended texts. While the sceptics would try to leap on the absence of a reference to the overall categories of ‘Tipitaka’, etc., as evidence that such things did not exist, the edicts in fact suggest that texts that we now regard as canonical did exist, while texts we now regard as post-canonical did not. Thus, far from undermining the overall picture of the development of Buddhist literature, Aśoka’s inscriptions are perfectly in accord with the findings of the higher criticism.

So the internal evidence of the texts, and comparison with Brahmanical and Jaina literature, is tempered with archaeology, but the direct comparative method is not used.

Practically, the situation has not changed all that much. While there is a small but vigorous circle of scholars pursuing comparative studies, and a tiny group of greats who have mastered a wide range of texts in the Buddhist languages, the reality is that most studies, even today, are based on the texts of only one school or tradition, with occasional references to other traditions, usually based on secondary sources. Comparative study is not a monolithic orthodoxy that needs destroying so that Buddhist studies can get modern, it is a fledgling and undernourished inquiry that needs long years of support before we can truly evaluate its worth.

But, and again this seems to have totally escaped the modern critics, direct comparison of corresponding texts is merely a starting point. Having established a hypothesis that the texts may be pre-Aśokan, we then test this. Do they actually refer to Aśoka? Contra Fogelin, the canonical Pali texts, despite what must have been a great temptation, do not. This suggests that they are pre-Aśokan; moreover, it implies that by the time of Aśoka they were already regarded as in some sense fixed or canonical, so that at the very least blatantly later things were not added, but were reserved for the commentarial or other post-canonical literature. Similarly, though we think the texts were transmitted to Sri Lanka about this time, there is no mention of Sri Lanka in the body of the canonical literature.

Next we might look at the state of doctrinal development evidenced in the texts. As is well known to textual scholars, the canonical Suttas must, in any meaningful inquiry into Buddhist doctrines, be considered fundamental. Doctrinal variation within the early strata exists, but is startlingly minor. Significant development emerges with the class of literature known as Abhidhamma, which must postdate the Sutta literature. But it is not until the latest strata of Abhidhamma literature (as evidenced by doctrine and the testimony of the schools) that we start to see fully articulated sectarian doctrines. Again, much of the philosphical content of the Mahāyāna suttas only makes sense as a reaction to late- and post-canonical Abhidhamma doctrines such as the svabhāva. But the Mahāyāna began around the beginning of the Common Era. Thus we must see the entire course of doctrinal development pre-dating this time. Doctrinal development was slow and inherently conservative, and to allow sufficient time for this complex evolutionary process we find ourselves once more back in the time of Aśoka or earlier.

I have yet to see any attempt by archaeological radicalists to explain how such a situation could exist if we abandon the evolutionary perspective developed by the higher criticism. Perhaps Buddhaghosa wrote his commentaries in the 5th century and deliberately forged a whole body of canonical literature in order to authorize his own doctrines. I am reminded of the fundamentalist Christian argument that God placed dinosaur bones deep in the ground to test our faith in creationism; similarly, it would seem that the conniving Buddhist monks, with a degree of textual sophistication hitherto unknown to humanity, deliberately created a highly stratified literature in order to separate the goats of higher criticism from the sheep of the archaeological faithful. It would be impolite to point out that, just as textual scholars are supposed to rely on the equation ‘common = older’, archaeologists rely on the equation that ‘lower = older’. Isolated from the complexities of real digging, this is as ludicruous as the caricature of textual crticism we find in the archaeological radicalists. Indeed, Fogelin notes that the received datings for South Asian chronologies has been recently upturned. Back to the drawing board.

Again, we might ask what is the language of the texts? Pali is not the same as the Sinhalese tongue. It is inconceivable that the Sinhalese would have deliberately composed a canon in a foreign language, so they must have brought their scriptures from the mainland, where they were already relatively fixed in a a canonical language.[1] The persistence of the scriptures in a non-native tongue is further evidence of an early date for the Pali canon.

I could continue at some length, but perhaps the point has been made, though no doubt it will have to be made again. The conclusions of Buddhist textual studies were not made on the basis of the childish assumptions described by Fogelin and his mentors. They are the outcome of a long, patient, and detailed examination of a vast corpus of texts, scrutinized from every possible angle. Of course this process is imperfect, of course the findings do not always agree, of course we can pick holes in one approach or the other. But the stability of the findings – and in broad outlines, there has been a remarkable degree of stability – is indicative of their substantial and varied foundations. The findings of the archaeological revisionists have not withstood such a test of time.

And indeed, if we are to take the more radical claims seriously, they are distressingly uroboric. Wynne has already pointed out that we often would not know how to interpret the inscriptions without a knowledge of the terminology of the texts. But the problem goes deeper than that. If we are to stick with what we ‘actually know’, we would have to admit that we have no texts earlier than the first centuries C.E. And there are no Pali texts until some time later than that. Schopen has a touching faith in the existence of the Pali canon from the time of Buddhaghosa, since he wrote the commentaries on them: but in fact our information about Buddhaghosa is slim, so we should really push the date back much later.

Clearly, we cannot use evidence for such late texts to refer back to the early period. This, and let us take a deep breath as we prepare to take this seriously, also includes the grammars, without which we could not read Indian languages. Of course, the Hindu writers of the grammars can hardly be regarded as objective scholars, so in utilizing them we may be unconsciously reading later concepts back into the early writings. Thus we cannot even read the inscriptions.

Let alone read them, we cannot even presume that they are writing. There is, after all, a lively debate as to whether the Indus Valley script is a writing system. We note that the Indian Hindutva scholars are the ones who claim to be able to decipher this script, and they are clearly driven by ideology. Could not the same be the case for the early inscriptions? Could not the much later Hindu/Buddhist grammarians have devised a system for reading meaning into arbitrary symbols?

Having sternly forgone the whimsical reliance on later texts, we are left with no notion of what, say, a ‘monastery’ is. Fogelin’s exemplary examination of the sites at Thotlakanda must be entirely redone, removing the text-based, and hence unreal, assumption that we ‘know’ what a monastery is.

In fact, I begin to doubt more and more the possibility of knowing anything at all from Fogelin’s work. All I have is a book: this contains markings that I assume are writing, and that I can decipher according to a symbol-system I learnt as a child. But how does Fogelin use that symbol-system to convey meaning - does meaning not manifest in the dynamic interaction between text and reader? Is Fogelin, then, a reflection of my own dark side, an illegitimate spawn of my repressed fear and doubts regarding the the truth of my own chosen path?

Indeed, in the absence of any actual concrete evidence, we would be better advised to speak of pseudo-Fogelin, the purported writer of a book which appears, on the basis of admittedly incomplete investigations, to be about early Buddhist archaeology. Perhaps the best evidence I have for the existence of pseudo-Fogelin is the undoubted fact that I, Sujato, am writing a critique of his critique of the higher criticism. But, when I see thus set in bald concrete reality the self-referential and self-validating nature of the critical process I am engaged in, I begin to doubt even my own essay.

For my authorship too is an assumption, one which demonstrably flickers in and out of existence with the speed of thought, not bound and solid like a lump of rock, implacable and unimpeachible in being. I am only Sujato when I think of it. And of all the Sujatos in the world today, which one am I? I believe I am the same Sujato who has written several complicated and polemical diatribes on matters of Buddhist practice, doctrines, and texts that are of interest to himself alone. But this is a mere memory, as unreliable as the memories of the monks who, supposedly, were responsible for the oral transmission of the Buddhist scriptures.

Thus, I am forced to admit, in the interests of scholarly precision, that I do not know who I am. Henceforth I will refer to the author of this essay as pseudo-Sujato. Like Zaphod Beeblebrox, whose sunglasses – on both his heads – would turn pitch black at the first hint of danger, pseudo-Sujato shall close his eyes at the first hint of uncertainty, taking refuge in the only thing that he really knows for certain: the utter darkness of ignorance.

But a small doubt will not give up its nagging: just what was the point of all this in the first place?


[1] There are a couple of references in the late Parivāra, as well as in one colophon in the Cūḷavagga, but these are obviously not part of the basic canonical texts. I am not suggesting that no changes were made in Sri Lanka: there were, but these were minor alterations to a pre-existing mainland literature.