The God Who Was Lost!
Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta
Buddhism and I have a strange relationship. I grew up listening to the stories of Emperor Ashok and later on when I could, reading about Gautam Buddha in the old Amar Chitra Katha books. Reading about Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism and how Buddha was actually considered to be part of the Hindu Gods' pantheon, because the 'Enlightened One' was considered to be a reincarnation of Vishnu. Growing up in Bhopal, I was also exposed to Buddhist artifacts in various tourist locations, as our local area has an ancient history of Buddhist kingdoms and pilgrimage sites (more on this later). But this was a strange journey for me and this essay is another weird combination of a book review, a photo essay and some thoughts about Buddhist history.
But typically, history in India is not taught from the perspective of the historians, the archaeologists, numismatics, the linguistic experts and so on and so forth. There are many reasons for this. For one, for most of India’s history, history has been a battle ground (if you excuse the pun). What the war of independence is for somebody, is the great mutiny for another (a previous essay on this). Then the fact that for a very long period of time, India was ruled by foreigners and history is usually written by the rulers, for the rulers. So if you wanted to know about Buddhism, it was a bit difficult.
But some aspects have rekindled the interest I have in Buddhism. The Dalai Lama is obviously somebody who is the apostle of non-violence and a hero to me (not least for his enchanting giggle) which obviously has emerged out of Buddhism. Second was another hero, namely Ambedkar.Ffor all his faults, he was a brilliant man who created a constitution which all Indians can be proud of. We do not give sufficient credit to that document. In my opinion, it is much more important than all the religious books. He obviously converted to Buddhism as a reaction against the Hindu Caste System (a previous essay here). But there is now a strand of Dalitism. This is not the place to go into the rights or wrongs of this, but it primarily is against Hinduism and its caste system (don't worry, it is seriously incoherent and I have never read anything that makes any less logical sense). But for example, many Dalit intellectuals have relied on colonial historians such as Arnold Toynbee to make their argument that Hinduism is bad (see here, here and here).
This concept that Hinduism is a civilization and is doomed to failure is wrong on both counts. The concept of civilization as a social identity construct is seriously flawed. Man draws his identity based upon several strands (see Amartya Sen's argument here), gender, language, religion, region, country, sports club, and so on and so forth. So for somebody to even think that there is something called as a Hindu civilization is seriously one dimensional. Second, think about the 5000 odd years of history of this religion, one of the oldest religions. It has evolved so much that one would be hard pressed to identify today’s Hinduism with what was there in say 2000 BC or 1000 BC. And finally, even if you do consider that it is one and the same, the fact that Hinduism has survived for 5000 years tells you that its actually in no danger of collapse, so this basic intellectual framework of Toynbee is not really advisable for the Buddhists to rely on.
But there were a bunch of other British and Colonial historians, linguists, archeologists, military personnel and the like, who from the 1700’s, have been poking around in India to determine where and how Buddhism emerged. For a very long period of time, the west and India as it so happens (with the incorporation of Buddha into the pantheon of Hindu Gods) there was no distinction between Buddhism and Hinduism. On the western front, the great Buddhist Kingdoms of Afghanistan were overpowered by the arrival of Islam and now its rubble (remember the dynamiting of the Bamiyan Buddha’s by the Taliban and the persecution of the Hazaras who were reputed to be Buddhists before converting to Shia Islam?)
Anyway, between the Muslim invasions and the Hindu resurgence, nothing was heard or known about Buddhism in the west. Charles Allen, in his lovely book, The Buddha and the Sahibs, describes how a band of often lonely white men (and a couple of females), over 250 odd years, started to dig, decipher, investigate and uncover the history of Buddism lost in the mists of time. From Afghanistan to Sri Lanka, to Burma to Nepal to Tibet and all inside, Charles Allen writes a fascinating story about these orientalists, their associations (The Asiatic Society and the Theosophical Society) and how their struggles gave the world so much information about Buddha and Buddhism. Taking a well deserved potshot at that incomprehensible tome, Orientalism, it has seriously rejuvenated a body of work which is currently very popular. Mind you, the large sections of corpus of western scholarship in this area is totally aghast. The very idea of somebody actually claiming that it took orientalists to actually study and bring forth knowledge of the orient is shocking to them. Hence this book is not reviewed to that extent nor referred to that much.
Anyway, not that important, because besides arcane corners of the academic world, these worshipers of Edward Said are ignored. For anybody who wants to break out of that stultifying cult, you can't do better than to read this book. For one, it supports my argument that all history, science and knowledge is open to all, without worrying about the age, sex, religion, race of the researcher. Moaning about Orientalism is about as stupid as moaning about Jewish Intelligence or the fact that Hindus had invented Zero or it was a Christian who first noticed gravity.
Now returning to the book/ It is very good. It talks about how these white men struggled to piece together this giant multi-dimensional mystery, taking clues from old sanskrit books, talking to religious leaders in various temples and monasteries, deciphering and then translating old sanskrit and pali books to make them available to the wider public. They decoded and cracked the variants of the Brahmi language, one of the oldest languages in India, dating back to the 6th century BC. Don't get me wrong, this is not about Buddhism the religion, but its about the men who investigated the history of its birthplace. While I found his assertion that the Gita was part of the Ramayana rather than the Mahabharat a bit confusing, the book has lots of wonderful photographs and descriptions to make those little issues immaterial.
But reading it finally gave me another view of how widespread Emperor Ashok’s empire was. Absolutely massive and wide ranging. In some ways, it was even bigger than the Mughal Empire.
Can you see the bottom-most text called as Sanchi? That’s just next to my hometown of Bhopal. A couple of years back, we were enjoying a winter vacation there. As you would appreciate, if you are in your hometown, you end up visiting the local attractions hundreds of times and you never end up appreciate them. It's like my mother in law, she grew up in Agra and for her, the Taj Mahal is very commonplace, as she has visited it literally hundreds of times. It was the same for me with Sanchi.
It's perhaps when you get older, that you get a chance to appreciate those local attractions more. I whined and moaned till the family decided to humour me and we all piled into two cars and off we went. It's about a 50 km drive on a pretty good road actually. Quite surprising as it happens. On the way, we crossed the Tropic of Cancer which is signposted.
On the way, one of the main north-south railway lines are crossed and the railway crossing was closed. So we were forced to wait. And one of the most typical Indian sights was on the left. Here’s a gentleman, having a nice nap on one of the Milestones on the State Highway. I just find this image so evocative. Welcome to India!
The actual stupas are up on a hillock. At the bottom between the town and the hillock, there is a neat little museum with a nice small park. Here’s a pipal tree with a sign in front, called as Creation in time wheel. Obviously, the connection is that Gautam Buddha attained enlightenment while meditating under a pipal tree. We were not allowed to take photographs of the museum artefacts so that was a bit of a shame. Also, it was disappointing, why on earth can't the Museum authorities put in more explanation of the various sculptures, ornaments and other nice pieces?
But as you come out of the museum, you can see the tip of the stupa in the background in the middle.
Also, on the side of the road, guess what I found? spicy chanas. Before anybody could tell me off, my hand was inside my pocket, money exchanged hands and I quaffed a rather large quantity of chana. Ah! Heaven! Beyond this is a papad seller and across the road was a guava seller. Needless to say, I checked out ALL of them. (oink oink). There is something just brilliant about eating road side food, it's the awesome combination of dust, dirty oil, smoke and spices. Nowhere else, does it taste anything like it, I tell you. Anyway, we piled back inside the cars and drove up the hillock and parked.
Right outside, you can see a memorial temple made by pilgrims from Colombo and on the right, you can see another pipal tree, surrounded with the typical Buddhist railings and with prayer flags fluttering in the wind. Did you know that the prayer flags are not meant to carry prayers up to the Gods? But they are meant to use the wind horses to scatter the printed mantras and prayers for goodwill and compassion across the surrounding place. Interesting, no? And as it so happens, this concept of prayer flags is very Tibetan, not Indian nor Sri Lankan at all.
Below are some photographs of the very intricately carved gates. The Great Stupa, the big one, was made by the great Emperor Ashoka way back in 250 BCE (approximately). This amazing emperor is supposed to have built about 86,000 temples and stupas across the country. One of the greatest men of India indeed. Somebody was joking when I said that India owns Afghanistan. As it so happens, Ashoka ruled over a kingdom which extended up from Afghanistan down to deep Deccan and as far east as Bangladesh. But anyway, the carvings show the history of Buddha and lots of carved jataka tales
If you observe the central pillar closely, you will see an inscription on it in a strange language, Ashoka Brahmi. Most of the horizontal or vertical pillars have these inscriptions. They are nothing profound, but are in fact donor cards. Just state who gifted that bit. And check out the sculptures on the right, they resemble me - rather my potbelly.
The above and below photographs show the intricate carvings. One has to remember that these are well over 2 millenea old and are still crisp and clear. They have been restored a bit, but still. Amazing work!
Here’s a story of the tree (the tree stands for Buddha) and even monkeys worshipping the sacred tree. Remember the monkey tale from the Jatakas? I was not able to take a photograph, but here’s the story with another photograph of the particular panel.
On the left, one can see the second Stupa with its solitary gate (the Great Stupa has 4) and on the right, a load of smaller stupas.
But this completely bewildered me. It was the first time I ever heard about Buddhists worshiping the Naga Gods. Can you see the statue of the Naga God in the left photograph? The temple itself is of Buddha, as can be seen from the right hand side photograph. So what’s the connection between Nagas and Buddhists? That too in the middle of the country? As it so happens, Nagas were considered to be the guarantors of adequate rainfall and agricultural productivity. Hence, the Buddhists would go about merrily worshiping them. Here’s a good reference site if you wanted to check out dams, irrigation, Nagas and the rest in Sanchi
And finally, you have the middle corridor and one of the staircases to climb up to the middle corridor which encircles the stupa.
Then you move up the hillock where there is a monastery which is practically in ruins. They have stacked up the stone work columns in rows. Can you see the checkerboard pattern on the right? Pretty impressive, no?
Can you see the notches on the flagstones? Those were for iron staples which would lock the flagstones together to make it into a pucca floor. On the right, you can see a stone work window and a narrow passageway which would allow one to circum-perambulate the temple. There is also a little imp trying to hide from Baba.
There were two statues of Buddha, an outside statue, which had lost its head and the second one inside the sanctum which was better preserved. Unlike the first statue, which was made out of sandstone, the second one was made out of granite.
I am not sure if you can see the carvings on one of the flagstones but it's supposed to be ancient graffiti. Apparently this part of the monastery was for the trainee monks and they, the little rascals, would spend their time carving into the stone floors. Glad to see that things do not change, eh?
Here is an example of a doorway to one of the side shrines. The guide told us that those two figurines at the bottom were of Ganga and Jamuna, the two sacred rivers of Hinduism. When I gave him a skeptical look and asked, why on earth would you have river goddesses from Hinduism being depicted in a Buddhist temple? I did not get a good answer. Also, I have to admit that the smaller carvings were quite risqué. The guide said that they were offering and accepting votive offerings, but hey, I can identify a couple in love and flirting when I see one. Anyway, we headed back down to the mid layer.
Here’s the Great Stupa. The archaeological department has done a good piece of work to maintain the surroundings, I must admit. It is well maintained with a broad pavement around the stupa. Here’s grandpa the engineer who suddenly decided to calculate the amount of materials required to construct the Stupa with his grand-daughter assistant.
Heading down to the Stupa 3, you can see a rock hewn water tank on the left and another monastery in the distance. Also one of the monastery cells on the right hand side.
Heading down, there is a strange boulder on the way. It is cut in half and hollowed out. Apparently, with a very straight face, the guide said that this was Buddha’s cup. Some cup and some lips, eh? Anyway, belting down a rocky path, we soon spotted the third stupa.
And here’s the famous Ashoka insignia. Can you recognise the images shown? The circle on the top with the 24 spokes is the Ashoka Chakra. While the Ashok Pillar below it is topped by the Emblem of India. That is how well India respects one of its most illustrious ancestors. This stupa is not as richly decorated as the previous two, mind you. It also does not have any gates.
There is a modern Buddhist temple just outside the fence which surrounds the Stupas. I found it deeply ironical. The temple architecture, its detailing, the scupltures, the paintings were like comparing chalk and cheese. The modern architecture was simply unsuitable for the surroundings. It felt awkward, as it was shabby, manky, and really very disappointing. To consider that this Chetiyagiri Vihara actually contains the remains of Buddha’s two disciples, Sariputra and Mahamoggallana, is rather shocking. But as a factoid, do you know that certain elements of Buddhism believe that Sariputra was reborn as Laxman to Buddha’s rebirth as Ram? Now that’s an interesting turn for the books. So the next time, a Buddhist complains that the Bhagwat Purana is claiming Buddha as an incarnation of Vishnu, you can comment mildly that it is difficult to keep track of incarnations and you are simply following Buddhist tradition :)
Anyway, looking back across the valley, its a very peaceful place. You can see a train haring down to Bhopal. One can really imagine to be actually back in Ashoka’s time, sitting on the blocks and meditating, while overseeing the peaceful work of God. It is indeed a beautiful place.
But all good things come to an end and just like the birds in the sky, we were following the power lines back home in the evening. And that’s where the rumination started. What a wonderful place this is. I could sit back and think of the white men digging through the dirt to uncover our history. The hundreds of thousands of men who built the tens of thousands of Buddhist monuments across this country. How ideological battles have been fought between Hinduism and Buddhism, between Orientalism and Occidentalism, between Dalitism and (not sure what…). In the end, you end up with such wonders in front of your eyes. If you can, do visit Sanchi and read Charles Allen’s book. Gives you such peace of mind.
Full slide show here.
The God Who Was Lost!
- » Published on March 03, 2009
- » Type: News
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- » This is part of a regular feature, With a Grain of Salt.