Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Battling for the Buddha

by William Dalrymple

Religious disputes were to India in the Nineties what strikes were to Britain in the Seventies: more than annoying irritations, they define the sickness of a nation and an age.

The first, and still the most serious, of such squabbles flared up in 1989. In that year India's resurgent Hindu party, the B.J.P, embroiled itself in what was then a local dispute over the Mosque of Babur at Ayodhya. The controversy - which in time became as baffling as the most unfathomable Hindu myth - revolved around a claim by Hindu fundamentalists that the mosque had been raised by the first Mughal Emperor on a site previously occupied by a great Hindu temple. This supposed temple was, in turn, said by the B.J.P to be built over the birthplace of the blue-skinned God, Lord Ram.

Historically, this was all most unlikely. The mosque, despite its name, was not in fact built by the Emperor Babur. There was no archaeological evidence to indicate that a temple had ever stood on the site. Moreover, scholars were unanimous that Ayodhya, Ram's legendary capital, was probably situated in an entirely different place to the small modern town bearing the same name. But in India, matters of fact rarely impinge on matters of faith. After four years of riots and demonstrations, the massacre of around five thousand Muslims and the fall of three governments - a period in which Hindu holy men dominated India's politics to an extent unknown since the second millennium B.C - the dispute reached its denouement in December 1992 when pick-axe wielding Hindus finally reduced the mosque to a pile of rubble. The rioters were cheered on by the Parliamentary leadership of the B.J.P who watched the entire performance from the comfort of a special platform.

Awakened by this heady scent of fundamentalism wafting through the Indian air, cudgels were soon taken up by the Jain community. Jainism is a gentle philosophy akin to Buddhism which, with hippy-like abandon, espouses non-violence, vegetarianism and total nudity: to this day Jain monks go about (as they put it) 'sky-clad'. Although Jains make up only 2.5 million of India's total population of 880 million, the community has an importance out of all proportion to its numbers. This is due to its astonishing wealth: forbidden for religious reasons from pursuing military or agricultural careers (the latter involves ploughing and the possibility of massacring unknown numbers of earthworms) the Jains have traditionally turned to trade. For centuries they have controlled the Indian diamond market, and as a result become per capita by far the richest sect in the subcontinent.

Just as the Hindus complained that the Muslims had occupied their sacred soil at Ayodhya, so the Jains claimed that they had suffered a similar indignity at the hands of the Hindus. At Udaygiri, the Mountain of the Sunrise in Orissa, the first century B.C monarch, Raja Kharavela, had excavated a Jain cave-monastery honeycombing the sacred mountain. In the sixth century A.D the complex was captured by Hindus who turfed out the monks and converted the image of Mahavira (the Jain's founding divinity) into an image of Vishnu.

So things remained for 1,400 years until, in 1991, the Jains suddenly decided that they wanted their caves back. Letters were written, hunger strikes organised, but despite the intervention of Ashok Jain, India's biggest media tycoon, the Brahmins who occupied the Udaygiri caves refused to move. The dispute currently remains deadlocked, awaiting a decision by the Ministry of Culture in whose files all the claims now lie - and will probably long remain.

Not wishing to be left behind by India's other warring religious communities, the supposedly peace-loving Buddhists stepped into the fray a year later. The Buddhists were upset because the Mahabodhi temple in Bodh Gaya, the site of the Buddha's Enlightenment, was controlled not by the monks of their religion but by a nearby monastery of aggressively anti-Buddhist Hindu monks. According to Buddhist mythology, Bodh Gaya is not only the most sacred spot on earth but the very navel of the universe. It was only fair, argued the Buddhists, that they should be allowed to control their Holy of Holies.

The Buddhists were also extremely critical of the Hindu's guardianship of the Bodh Gaya temple. They accused the Temple Management Committee of furtively selling off several ancient Buddhist idols and of surreptitiously converting others into Hindu Gods: one year, a set of five superb Gupta-period Buddha images were suddenly rechristened the Pandava brothers and declared to be idols of the five semi-divine heroes of the great Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. These meditating Buddha images now lie dressed up in tinselly warrior garb similar to that worn by the brothers in the camped-up version of the epic broadcast on Indian television two years ago.

The Brahmins who controlled the temple remained unmoved by the Buddhists' complaints. Backed up by the big guns of the B.J.P, they declared that the Buddha was really just an extra incarnation of the Hindu God Vishnu and that Buddhism, far from being a separate religion, was no more than an unorthodox sect of Hinduism. They thus had the right, so they implied, to seize control of any Buddhist temple whenever they chose.

Tension at the site finally erupted into violence in May. Led by a Japanese monk, a column of 1,000 Buddhists vowed to 'liberate' the temple and marched into the complex, banners raised. They disrobed 'the Pandavas' and damaged an ancient Buddhist pedestal, claimed by the Hindus to be a Shiv Lingam - a model of Shiva's sacred phallus. Furious at this impertinence, the Brahmins retreated behind the bastions of their monastery and sent out 200 armed gundas [hired thugs] to do battle with the Buddhists. A number of the orange-robed monks were badly beaten before the police intervened.

I had been told that as the hot season progressed, the atmosphere in the temple town was getting tenser by the day. It seemed the ideal moment to pay a visit to the embattled shrine where the gospel of universal peace was conceived.

The mahant of the Hindu monastery was an old man and he was sitting on a tiger skin.

Jagdishanand Giri was thin and emaciated and quite naked but for a thin saffron waist-wrap. A long, grey dreadlock-beard hung down over the slack skin of his chest. On his forehead was daubed the mark of Shiva's trident.

The abbot received me in the throne room at the top of the monastery. Through windows punched into the thick walls, you could look down over the monastery's estates: rich green paddy fields bisected by windbreaks of bottle palms. In some fields there were lines of labourers: the serfs that the monks kept to harvest their crops, and herd their goats and cattle.

The abbot indicated that I should sit on a straw mat at his feet. He said: "If the Buddhists continue to make trouble, my men will prevent them staying in this town."

"But this is their temple also," I said. "They built it."

The abbot stared at me for a minute without blinking.

He said: "There is no logic to their case. These Buddhists are all foreigners: Sri Lankans, Tibetans... They have no business to be here. The temple is my place, my property. In it is my God."

"And which God is that?"

"Lord Shiv is my God - and the Lord Buddha also. But as far as power is concerned, Shiv is the more strong. He can destroy the world in a blink of his eyelids."

The abbot grunted.

"This is the country of the Hindus. If the other religions are to be here, they must be... restrained. In this matter," said the abbot, "there can be no compromise."

It had taken seven hours to get to Bodh Gaya from Patna. In the Buddha's day, this journey would have taken the traveller through the heartland of classical Indian civilisation. Today the same journey took you through the Badlands of Bihar, the most backward and criminalised country in India: despite the fantastic fertility of the alluvial soil, all the villages seemed locked in impossible poverty.

But then straight ahead, dividing the horizon, rose the great pyramid-spire of the Mahabodhi temple. Its shape floated above the ripening paddy like a cathedral rising from the stripfields of mediaeval Europe. Drawing closer, you could see the clutter of centuries of Buddhist veneration: stupas, Buddha images and incense-blackened shrines. To one side rose the monasteries of the different Buddhist congregations: the gilt dragonsback profile of the Thai monastery and the bantering white walls of the Tibetan dharmasala.

The crowds within the temple complex reflected the international spread of Buddhism. At the back of the temple, near the Throne of Enlightenment, a group of red-robed Ladhakis were lost in meditation; beside them two Bhutanese in short green dressing gowns stood rooted, eyes closed, heads bent. Every so often there would be a flash of yellow silk as a group of Burmese monks circambulated the shrine, prayer wheels spinning.

But inside the sanctuary, past the police picket, Hindus suddenly outnumbered Buddhists. A pundit in a white lungi was bowing before the disputed Shiva lingam; nearby, a group of pious Hindu ladies were arranging a marigold garland over its domed head. All the women had their backs pointedly turned against the gilt Buddha which filled the rear wall. A Ladahki monk who had been venerating the statue picked his way past the ladies as if through a patch of thistles.

"You don't get on with the Hindus?" I asked.

The monk grimaced: "We try to live together," he replied. "Buddhists should be patient. But the situation here is impossible."


"There are always problems. The Hindu priests sell the old statues of Lord Buddha or go up to the rich Buddhist pilgrims and beg for money. Then they use this money for their Hindu rites. We feel very unhappy when this happens."

"But are the Brahmins actually hostile?"

"Of course. They threaten us and tell us to get away from Bodh Gaya. Several of our monks have been beaten up. But I train myself to ignore these threats. What they say and do is their business. My business is with my own soul."

I asked: "Do you think the Hindus will eventually succeed in driving you all away?"

"They are trying to," said the monk. "But it is not possible. They have tried before. We are still here."

The monk was referring to a period of history which few Hindus are aware of, and which the B.J.P is keen to forget. Every child in India knows that when the Muslims first came to India that they desecrated temples and smashed idols. What is conveniently forgotten is that during the Hindu revival of the first millennium A.D, many Hindu rulers had behaved in a similar fashion to the Buddhists. Because of this persecution, the philosophy of the Buddha, once a serious rival to Hinduism, had virtually died out in the country of its birth.

Several Rajas went out of their way to destroy Buddhist temples and murder monks: Harsha Deva, a single Kashmiri Raja, boasted that he had destroyed no less than four thousand Buddhist shrines. Another raja, Sasanka of Bengal, went to Bodh Gaya and cut down the Tree of Wisdom under which the Buddha had received Enlightenment. According to Buddhist tradition, Sasanka's "body produced sores and his flesh quickly rotted off and after a short while he died." Certainly it was the Raja's forcible conversion of the Mahabodhi shrine into a Shiva temple that had caused the current dispute.

Before you can begin to attack a people it is necessary to demonise them. By constantly telling pious Hindus that the Muslims desecrated their temples but suppressing the fact that contemporary Hindu rulers behaved in a similar fashion to the Buddhists, the B.J.P are guilty of deliberately distorting history. This sort of selective use of the past has resulted in many of the worst horrors of the twentieth century: in order to commit their different atrocities, the Turks lied about the past of the Armenians, the Germans about that of the Jews, and the early Zionists about that of the Palestinians. In India these historical distortions have already led to the loss of thousands of Muslim lives; those who remain are increasingly regarded as aliens within their own country.

The reclaiming of lost sacred sites - the attempted righting of past wrongs - has opened a Pandora's box which in a country with as fraught a history as India will never again be easily closed. But to judge by the growing list of disputes and the astonishing effect that the Ayodhya affair has had on B.J.P's popularity- in 1989 the party held 2 seats in the Indian Parliament, now it possesses 119 - it seems unlikely that Indian politicians will be willing or able to let sleeping Gods lie. In such a situation, the future for India's religious minorities looks extremely grim.

The only hope is that the Indian people will cease to dance to the tune played by fundamentalists. As I was leaving the Mahabodhi Temple I saw something which perhaps provides a small glimmer of hope that this could happen. An orange robed monk and two teenage boys were squatting on their hams in front of the temple sanctuary. The monk was teaching the boys a mantra: he would sing a phrase and the boys would repeat it. The boys were Hindus; the monk was a Buddhist.

"Do your parents know about this?" I asked.

"Yes," replied one of the boys. "They do not mind."

"Even though you are learning Buddhist prayers?"

"My father says that all Gods are the same; it is just that people call them by different names. I call my father Papa and my cousin calls him uncle: two different names but my father is only one man."

"It is true," said the first boy, nodding vigorously. "It is silly to fight about these things."

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