Central College News

Featured: Origin Story

July 30, 2012

“Religions are like everything else,” says Michael Harris, professor of English. “They live and die sometimes.”

That is especially true of Buddhism, the history of which Harris will be studying this year as part of the Fulbright Scholar Program. Gautama Buddha, the founder of the religion, was born in Nepal and spent most of his life teaching in northern India in the 6th century B.C.E. But by the 13th and 14th centuries C.E., Buddhism had immigrated to other regions in Asia—China, Japan and Thailand, for instance—and Hinduism was the major religion of India.

By the time Great Britain colonized India in the 19th century, many of Buddhism’s early sacred sites had been forgotten or mistaken as Hindu monuments. The British scholar James Prinsep first recognized that the sites were dedicated to someone named “Buddha.” Ironically, it was the British who identified this man as the same Buddha being worshipped in East Asia and thus re-discovered the original birthplace of one of the world’s great religions.

Harris has always been fascinated by religion and history. Before he earned his Ph.D. at Indiana University, he spent two and a half years in Nepal with the Peace Corps and then traveled throughout India for five months. The experience inspired his dissertation on post-colonial literature. For 20 years at Central, he has taught the literature of former British colonies like India, Kenya, Ireland and many Caribbean islands.

“My Peace Corps experience really opened my eyes to other world religions,” Harris says. “One of the first things that hits you when you go to that part of the world is how strong those religions are as a part of daily life.”

But when the British began studying the origins of Buddhism, the religion was a mystery to the Western world and most of India. Prinsep’s protégé, Alexander Cunningham, was the first archeological surveyor of India’s Buddhist sites. He developed many excavation techniques before the field was even invented. Harris plans to focus his research on Cunningham, who was a prolific writer of field notes. (They can still be purchased on Amazon.com.)

During his six months in India this fall and winter, Harris will be based in the city of Varanasi, home to Banaras Hindu University, which has a strong Buddhist studies program. From there, he will go out to visit many of the Buddhist sites where Cunningham excavated in the mid-19th century. Now these shrines are attractions for millions of pilgrims each year.

“One thing that underscores this project is the idea of change,” says Harris, “the idea that Buddhism would start in India and then actually disappear. That’s a huge social change.” Another transformation has been the resurgence of visitors at the Buddhist sites, which had been largely forgotten until 150 years ago. And finally, major changes that have taken place since Harris traveled in India 30 years ago. Since then, the country has become a major economic power in a globalized society.

The Fulbright Grant that allows Harris to return to India is extremely prestigious and difficult to apply for and receive. Only 1,200 are given to U.S. scholars each year. The grant provides the opportunity for Harris to pursue a career-long interest. When he returns, he hopes to present his research at Asian Studies conferences. More important, he will use the research to improve the capstone class he teaches at Central about Buddhist traditions in the Himalayas. It’s a dream that was sparked 30 years ago among the people of Nepal and India.

“For me, in a strange way, this is a kind of homecoming,” he says.

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