THE WAY IN WHICH the history of Indian Buddhism has been studied by modern scholars is decidedly peculiar. What is perhaps even more peculiar, though, is that it has rarely been seen to be so. This peculiarity is most readily apparent in what appears at first sight to be a curious and unargued preference for a certain kind of source material. This curious preference, although it may not be by any means uniquely characteristic of the study of Indian Buddhism, is particularly evident there; so too is the fact that it has no obvious scholarly justification. We might first look at a small sample of statements expressing this preference and at its consequences. Then we must at least ask what can possibly lie behind it.
When Europeans first began to study Indian Buddhism systematically there were already two bodies of data available to them, and the same is true today. There was, and is, a large body of archaeological and epigraphical material, material that can be reasonably well located in time and space,1 and material that is largely unedited and much of which was never intended to be "read."2 This material records or reflects at least a part of what Buddhists--both lay people and monks--actually practiced and believed.3 There was, and is, an equally large body of literary material that in most cases cannot actually be dated 4 and that survives only in very recent manuscript traditions.5 It has been heavily edited,6 it is considered canonical or sacred, and it was intended--at the very least--to inculcate an ideal.7 This material records what a small, atypical part of the Buddhist community wanted that community to believe or practice. Both bodies of material, it is important to note, became available to Western scholars more or less simultaneously.8 The choice of sources for the scholar interested in knowing what Indian Buddhism had been would seem obvious.
Originally published in HIstory of Religions 31 ( 1991): 1-23. Reprinted with stylistic changes with permission of the University of Chicago Press.