In January 1793, William Jones (28 September 1746 – 27 April 1794) delivered his annual address to what was to become the Bengal Asiatic Society. In his address, he announced for the first time that he had conclusively discovered the date and Greek and Sanskrit name of an ancient Indian king (Chandragupta) as well as the location of his capital. This opened the doors for a synchronized history of what the British knew about the ancient Greco-Roman world and what they were discovering for the first time in Sanskrit texts in India. His identification of the cities and rivers mentioned by a Greek accounts and Pliny’s Geography connected again with the common historical consciousness of a group of men trained in the Classics and Arrian’s accounts of Alexander the Great as a matter of course.
As luck would have it, Chandragupta (340 BC – 298 BC) was one of the first empire makers in India, and with the help of his adviser of Arthaśāstra fame, he founded the Mauryan empire, and Askok was his grandson. He broke whatever illusion of Bactrian Greek rule might have possessed after 80 years of weakened rule until the last Greek kingdom in the Punjab fell away. The manual of state that his adviser, Chāṇakya, is alleged to have written the Arthaśāstra. This text was a famous as guide to war, the creation and maintenance of a secret policy, taxation policies and even agriculture and forensics including ways to test corpses for possible poisoning. As a text it was lost for more than a thousand years before a manuscript was
rediscovered in the Library of Mysore by a librarian there, Rudrapatnam Shamasastry who published it in 1909. Since then, several more have been uncovered. Chandragupta had been known west of India through a Greek corruption of his name as well as the identities of those lost Greeks ruling in the Hindu Kush and Punjab. The inscriptions his grandson left would allow Jones to real to the world that there had been another religion in India, that of the Buddha, and in pursuing this mystery Bodhgaya was rediscovered once more at the site of the Buddha’s nirvana. I say it was rediscovered as an inscription found there notes its discovery by a Vaishnavite in the 10th century who had it restored and a shrine built at the place for the Buddha, “to be adored by the most praiseworthy men of the earth.”
Jones had trained as a Persian scholar, and he had at that point been studying Sanskrit for only six years, the third Englishman to do so. He had, a few years earlier than his discovery of the relative dates of Chandragupta, also announced that Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, and perhaps Old Persian, all had a common source and hence discovered
the Indo-European family of resembling languages. He produced several important Sanskrit translations, but also his team of contacts who would send him copies of inscriptions on old temples, ruins and rocks, the translations of which were key to unlocking these historical puzzles. Some of his conjectures were wild, such as the Buddha was a conquering Ethiopian who had imported Egyptian religion to India with him or that Manu could be identified with the Noah of the Levant and Arabic peninsula traditions but he was much like a man trying to map a new country just by walking around. What many Western scholars did thereafter was often just as laughable as they tried to piece together the life of the historical Buddha and their understanding into a practice that was fast emerging as the awareness of a world religion away from Rome and its offspring.