Revisiting India’s Buddhist past

Courtsey: The Indian Express
courtesy of The Indian Express

During a recent excavation in Bihar, ‘Krimila’, a religious and administrative centre, was unearthed. A comprehensive report by this newspaper tells the story of the history of the region and its influence on the world through its Buddhist records.

The 2020 Ayodhya verdict brought binary reactions. Incidentally, the supporters of both the Hindu and Muslim narrative looked straight past another version of history — the tolerant Buddhist past. To investigate the Buddhist past is to supplant both Hindu (Brahminic) and Islamic history, for they contributed to the erasure of Buddhist richness from the land.

Buddhas messenger Ashoka had done a great service to his Dhamma. It was perhaps the only faith in the subcontinent to grant respect to variant beliefs, unlike the invaders who had razed precious intellectual sites to destroy idolatry. The invaders made no difference between Brahminic or Buddhist sites. For them, monotheism was the only message.

As a result, among others, Nalanda University received a mortal blow from Turkish leader Bakhtiyar Khalji who served Qutb al-Din Aibak, referred to as ‘jahansoz’, which roughly translates to ‘world burner’. The Sultan razed the generous past of the Buddhist cosmology. Bakhtiyar is said to have asked his men to enquire if Nalanda carried a copy of the Holy Quran. Reportedly upon finding that it did not, he ordered the destruction of the Great Monastery.

Thus, a centre of high learning and scientific scholarship was turned into ashes in 1193–34. It is reported that the three-storey university and its nearby areas burnt for several months, ejecting dark smoke. Bakhtiyar was also instrumental in the burning down of Somapura, Jagaddala, Vikramashila, and Odantapuri monasteries. However, some historians such as D. N. Jha argue that the credit of descecrating Nalanda cannot be attirbuted to Khilji as he never went there. Jha argues Nalanda received fatal blow from fanatic Hindu rulers who were inimical to Buddhism. Other Historians such as Charles Allen have maintained that Khalji was responsible for Nalanda’s burning.

However, in the 14th Century, Firoz Shah preserved Hindu pillars for their sheer magnanimity and beauty. These pillars, known as Lath, were Ashoka’s pillars and were venerated by Hindus as Shiva’s Lingam.

Pre-Islamic story of India received a similar fate at the hands of Brahminic rulers who devised strategies to ignore and eventually destroy the memory of Buddha’s kingdom. That is why it is no accident that Samrat Ashoka’s legacy remains not fully known. The great king was actually the unifier of India who ruled for 40 years. His messages carried forward Buddha’s Dhamma. It had laws and regulations meant to protect and redirect resources for what we today call the Welfare State.

The ‘welfarism for all’ was subverted by Brahmin general Pushyamitra who founded the Shunga dynasty through his anti-Buddhist regicide. It laid the foundation for destruction of Buddhist shrines, monasteries, icons and history.

D. N. Jha presents an evidence from Divyavadana a post-Mauryan Buddhist-Sanskrit text

Brahmin colonisation of Buddhism was continued by Adi Shankaracharya in the 9th century. He made Hinduism accessible to all and not only to the esoteric and non-quotidians. Babasaheb Ambedkar also pointed out this limitation of ascetic Buddhism, which divorced itself from Buddha’s gospel of serving society beyond personal practices.

One of the best ways to identify how history is twisted and reproduced to serve the purpose of dominant savarna castes is to go to the base of the architectural structures of sacred sites. The most famous temples in India, Pakistan, and Nepal originally used to be Buddhist places of learning and worship.

This colonisation of Buddhist heritage is evident in the inaccessibility to the sanctum sanctorum of temples. Dr K Jamnadas evocatively argued for a Buddhist story of Tirumala Balaji shrine. The enormous amount of gold and other ornaments hide the face and body of Balaji, he said. Why would a stone sculpture of god need any decoration when statues are usually covered in clothes, like that of the Buddha?

This was partly the reason why invaders attacked temples, for their wealth and capital. Jyotirao Phule exemplifies this contradiction in The Farmer’s Whipcord showing how Brahmins enjoy the loot of the ignorant farmer.

Whatever we have today in Brahminism is a twisted history of Buddha’s work. Here are a few examples that depict the colonization of Buddhism by Brahminic Hinduism: Badrinath of Uttarakhand, Jagannath, Purneshvara, Kedareshvara, Kanteshvara, Someshvara and Angeshvara temples of of Puri, Ayyappa of Sabrimala, Vitthal of Pandharpur, Nageshwarnath temple in Ayodhya, Bhaskareswar temple in Bhubaneswar, Baba Lath Bhairav of Varanasi, the Pandav Leni (Caves), Kamakshi temple of Kanchipuram, Bhuteshwar and Gokarneshwar temple of Mathura, Siddheshwar temple of Bankura to just name a few. To contain the protest of followers against this onslaught, Buddha was assimilated into the Hindu Pantheon. Thus, he became avatars of Vishnu. That is why Vishnu temples celebrated as Hindu shrines are originally Buddhist.

Even the sacred location Bodh Gaya has been morphed. Ashoka recorded the name of the place as ‘Sambodhi’. The name Bodh Gaya denigrates enlightenment of the Buddha. Gaya means “gone away,” instead of having it Bodh Aaya as in coming of enlightenment, it says Gaya, Rajendra Prasad Singh, author of Boudh Sabhayata Ki Khoj pointed out.

Revisiting Buddha’s past is to pay a tribute to our ancestors who were tied to the Dhamma.

This article first appeared in the print edition on February 7, 2021, under the title “Revisiting India’s Buddhist past” at the Indian Express. Suraj Yengde, author of Caste Matters, curates the fortnightly ‘Dalitality’ column

Author ‘Caste Matters’, co-editor ‘The Radical in Ambedkar’ | Senior Fellow, Harvard Kennedy School | Associate, African & African American Studies, Harvard.