The striking archaeological discoveries of recent years have both confirmed and added to our knowledge of the earliest period. Pre-eminent among these is the discovery, by Mr William Peppé, on the Birdpur estate, adjoining the boundary between English and Nepalese territory, of the stūpa, or cairn, erected by the Sākiya clan over their share of the ashes from the cremation pyre of the Buddha. About 12 m. to the north-east of this spot has been found an inscribed pillar, put up by Asoka as a record of his visit to the Lumbini Garden, as the place where the future Buddha had been born. Although more than two centuries later than the event to which it refers, this inscription is good evidence of the site of the garden. There had been no interruption of the tradition; and it is probable that the place was then still occupied by the descendants of the possessors in the Buddha's time. North-west of this another Asoka pillar has been discovered, recording his visit to the cairn erected by the Sakyas over the remains of Konāgamana, one of the previous Puddhas or teachers, whose follower Gotama the Buddha had claimed to be.
These discoveries definitely determine the district occupied by the Sākiya republic in the 6th and 7th centuries B.C. The boundaries, of course, are not known; but the clan must have spread 30 m. or more along the lower slopes of the Himalayas and 30 m. or more southwards over the plains. It has been abandoned jungle since the 3rd century A.D., or perhaps earlier, so that the ruined sites, numerous through the whole district, have remained undisturbed, and further discoveries may be confidently expected.
The principal points on which this large number of older and better authorities has modified our knowledge are as follows: -
1. We have learnt that the division of Buddhism, originating with Burnouf, into northern and southern, is misleading. He found that the Buddhism in his Pāli MSS., which came from Ceylon, differed from that in his Sanskrit MSS., which came from Nepal. Now that the works he used have been made accessible in printed editions, we find that, wherever the existing MSS. came from, the original works themselves were all composed in the same stretch of country, that is, in the valley of the Ganges. The difference of the opinions expressed in the MSS. is due, not to the place where they are now found, but to the difference of time at which they were originally composed. Not one of the books mentioned above is either northern or southern. They all claim, and rightly claim, to belong, so far as their place of origin is concerned, to the Majjhima Desa, the middle country. It is undesirable to base the main division of our subject on an adventitious circumstance, and especially so when the nomenclature thus introduced (it is not found in the books themselves) cuts right across the true line of division.
The use of the terms northern and southern as applied, not to the existing MSS., but to the original books, or to the Buddhism they teach, not only does not help us, it is the source of serious misunderstanding. It inevitably leads careless writers to take for granted that we have, historically, two Buddhisms - one manufactured in Ceylon, the other in Nepal. Now this is admittedly wrong. What we have to consider is Buddhism varying through slight degrees, as the centuries pass by, in almost every book. We may call it one, or we may call it many. What is quite certain is that it is not two. And the most useful distinction to emphasize is, not the ambiguous and misleading geographical one - derived from the places where the modern copies of the MSS. are found; nor even, though that would be better, the linguistic one - but the chronological one. The use, therefore, of the inaccurate and misleading terms northern and southern ought no longer to be followed in scholarly works on Buddhism.
2. Our ideas as to the social conditions that prevailed, during the Buddha's lifetime, in the eastern valley of the Ganges have been modified. The people were divided into clans, many of them governed as republics, more or less aristocratic. In a few cases several of such republics had formed confederations, and in four cases such confederations had already become hereditary monarchies. The right historical analogy is not the state of Germany in the middle ages, but the state of Greece in the time of Socrates. The Sākiyas were still a republic. They had republics for their neighbours on the east and south, but on the western boundary was the kingdom of Kosala, the modern Oudh, which they acknowledged as a suzerain power. The Buddha's father was not a king. There were rājas in the clan, but the word meant at most something like consul or archon. All the four real kings were called Mahā-rāja. And Suddhodana, the teacher's father, was not even rāja. One of his cousins, named Bhaddiya, is styled a rāja; but Suddhodana is spoken of, like other citizens, as Suddhodana the Sākiyan. As the ancient books are very particular on this question of titles, this is decisive.
3. There was no caste - no caste, that is, in the modern sense of the term. We have long known that the connubium was the cause of a long and determined struggle between the patricians and the plebeians in Rome. Evidence has been yearly accumulating on the existence of restrictions as to intermarriage, and as to the right of eating together (commensality) among other Aryan tribes, Greeks, Germans, Russians and so on. Even without the fact of the existence now of such restrictions among the modern successors of the ancient Aryans in India, it would have been probable that they also were addicted to similar customs. It is certain that the notion of such usages was familiar enough to some at least of the tribes that preceded the Aryans in India. Rules of endogamy and exogamy; privileges, restricted to certain classes, of eating together, are not only Indian or Aryan, but world-wide phenomena. Both the spirit, and to a large degree the actual details, of modern Indian caste-usages are identical with these ancient, and no doubt universal, customs.
It is in them that we have the key to the origin of caste.
At any moment in the history of a nation such customs seem, to a superficial observer, to be fixed and immutable. As a matter of fact they are never quite the same in successive centuries, or even generations. The numerous and complicated details which we sum up under the convenient, but often misleading, single name of caste, are solely dependent for their sanction on public opinion. That opinion seems stable. But it is always tending to vary as to the degree of importance attached to some particular one of the details, as to the size and complexity of the particular groups in which each detail ought to be observed.
Owing to the fact that the particular group that in India worked its way to the top, based its claims on religious grounds, not on political power, nor on wealth, the system has, no doubt, lasted longer in India than in Europe. But public opinion still insists, in considerable circles even in Europe, on restrictions of a more or less defined kind, both as to marriage and as to eating together. And in India the problem still remains to trace, in the literature, the gradual growth of the system - the gradual formation of new sections among the people, the gradual extension of the institution to the families of people engaged in certain trades, belonging to the same group, or sect, or tribe, tracing their ancestry, whether rightly or wrongly, to the same source. All these factors, and others besides, are real factors. But they are phases of the extension and growth, not explanations of the origin of the system.
There is no evidence to show that at the time of the rise of Buddhism there was any substantial difference, as regards the barriers in question, between the peoples dwelling in the valley of the Ganges and their contemporaries, Greek or Roman, dwelling on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. The point of greatest weight in the establishment of the subsequent development, the supremacy in India of the priests, was still being hotly debated. All the new evidence tends to show that the struggle was being decided rather against than for the Brahmins. What we find in the Buddha's time is caste in the making. The great mass of the people were distinguished quite roughly into four classes, social strata, of which the boundary lines were vague and uncertain. At one end of the scale were certain outlying tribes and certain hereditary crafts of a dirty or despised kind. At the other end the nobles claimed the superiority. But Brahmins by birth (not necessarily sacrificial priests, for they followed all sorts of occupations) were trying to oust the nobles from the highest grade.
They only succeeded, long afterwards, when the power of Buddhism had declined.
4. It had been supposed on the authority of late priestly texts, where boasts of persecution are put forth, that the cause of the decline of Buddhism in India had been Brahmin persecution. The now accessible older authorities, with one doubtful exception, make no mention of persecution. On the other hand, the comparison we are now able to make between the canonical books of the older Buddhism and the later texts of the following centuries, shows a continual decline from the old standpoint, a continual approximation of the Buddhist views to those of the other philosophies and religions of India. We can see now that the very event which seemed, in the eyes of the world, to be the most striking proof of the success of the new movement, the conversion and strenuous support, in the 3rd century B.C., of Asoka, the most powerful ruler India had had, only hastened the decline. The adhesion of large numbers of nominal converts, more especially from the newly incorporated and less advanced provinces, produced weakness rather than strength in the movement for reform. The day of compromise had come. Every relaxation of the old thoroughgoing position was welcomed and supported by converts only half converted.
And so the margin of difference between the Buddhists and their opponents gradually faded almost entirely away. The soul theory, step by step, gained again the upper hand. The popular gods and the popular superstitions are once more favoured by Buddhists themselves. The philosophical basis of the old ethics is overshadowed by new speculations. And even the old ideal of life, the salvation of the Arahat to be won in this world and in this world only, by self-culture and self-mastery, is forgotten, or mentioned only to be condemned. The end was inevitable. The need of a separate organization became less and less apparent. The whole pantheon of the Vedic gods, with the ceremonies and the sacrifices associated with them, passed indeed away. But the ancient Buddhism, the party of reform, was overwhelmed also in its fall; and modern Hinduism arose on the ruins of both.