Managing religion in colonial India: the British Raj and the Bodh Gaya temple dispute.

Author:Copland, Ian


Deep in the heart of the lawless and poverty-stricken Indian state of Bihar, what promises to be one of the twenty-first century's grandest cultural enterprises is taking shape. At Bodh Gaya, about a hundred kilometers south of the state capital, Patna, Buddhist monks and laymen from around the world are hard at work, in concert with Indian and foreign architects and engineers, on the Maitreya Project--a meditation park whose centrepiece will be a seventeen-story building topped by a statute of the Buddha taller than New York's Statute of Liberty. The scale and cost of the Maitreya Project marks it as a very modern manifestation of religions piety. Nevertheless, its inspiration is ancient. It comes from the Buddhist tradition that identifies Bodh Gaya as the site where, sometime around 530 BCE, a young man from a princely family named Siddhartha Gautama found "enlightenment" (bodhi) while sitting under the spreading branches of a pipul tree--and became the Buddha.

Legend has it that the pipul tree survived the Buddha by more than two centuries. This is not implausible, given what we know of the stamina of the ficus species. Indeed a Bo-tree still flourishes on the same spot today, reputedly of the lineage of the original tree--and this one is already some 120 years old, having been nurtured into life towards the end of the nineteenth century by a British official. (1) At any rate, the Bodhi tree has been reverenced by Buddhists ever since, and either within the Buddha's lifetime, or shortly after, pilgrims started to flock to Bodh Gaya in search of spiritual nourishment. Initially, they probably had to be housed in roughly constructed rest houses, but soon these gave way to pukka stone-built monasteries, many endowed by pilgrims from Ceylon (Sri Lanka), which evolved into a vibrant center of Theravada worship and study. The Chinese pilgrim Fa-hsien, who visited early in the fifth century CE, found three large monasteries, replete with monks from far and wide, in the vicinity. (2)

Some time after this--possibly around the beginning of the sixth century--a great temple was raised in the shadow of the sacred tree. It was styled--appropriately--the temple of "Mahabodhi" ("Great Enlightenment"). Since then the original structure has been demolished, rebuilt, and extensively renovated many times. Nevertheless, this uncertain provenance matters little to the Buddhists. For them, the Mahabodhi temple represents a visible and concrete link to the religion's Founding Father.

Today, though, Buddhists no longer exercise exclusive dominion over the Mahabodhi temple. They are forced to share the site with Hindus, who have included images of some of their gods and heroes--such as the five Pandava brothers of Mahabharata fame--into the temple and its precincts, and have appropriated the Bo-tree into their worship as a vehicle for propitiating ancestors. (3) Indeed, a movement is currently afoot, led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) in alliance with some state functionaries of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and supported by locally based Hindu sannyasis, to evict all foreign Buddhists from Bodh Gaya and to restrict access to the complex by Indian Buddhists. William Dalrymple, visiting Bodh Gaya in 1993, was told by the mahant (abbot) of the Shaivite monastery there: "If the Buddhists continue to make trouble my men will prevent them staying in this town.... They have no business to be here. The temple is my place, my property. In it is my God.... This is the country of the Hindus. If then other religions are to be here, they must be restrained." (4) This openly hegemonic campaign by the VHP and the BJP has led to several violent clashes in and around the temple between their followers and mobs of angry Buddhists--most notably in May 1992 when two thousand Buddhist pilgrims from Maharashtra took it upon themselves to cleanse the temple of Hindu artifacts and assaulted several Hindu purohits (priests) in the process. (5)

How did this iconic shrine slip from Buddhist control? The temple was designed to last--and it did. But less than two hundred years after its construction, Buddhism in north India began to decline. One reason may have been its emphasis on the value of renunciation. While this concern with austerity probably struck a chord with the very virtuous, it could have intimidated those looking for an easy road to salvation. For the latter, Hinduism offered a friendlier alternative in the shape of the emerging cult of bhakti (devotion to a personal god). Another factor may have been the syncretism that permeated Indian grassroots society and culture at that time--and still does to some extent. Unaccustomed to seeing beliefs and rituals as fixed, bounded systems, ordinary Indians tended to look upon Buddhism as just another Hindu sect, the Buddha as just another--possibly inferior--deity in the very extensive Hindu pantheon. Fa-hsien observed, with some puzzlement, Hindus joining in Buddhist processions; and the reverse also seems to have occurred. (6) Significantly, when the Tibetan traveller Dharmasvamin visited the Mahabodhi temple in 1234, he saw inscribed on the main door what can be identified from his description as an image of Mahesvara, or Shiva, although he failed to grasp its significance. (7) Later, the cagey brahman authors of the Puranas fostered and legitimized this misconception by spreading the rumor that the Buddha was no more or less than the ninth avatar of Vishnu. However, Buddhism did not help its cause in this respect by embracing, in its last phase, tantric or magical practices which, even if they were not borrowed from Hinduism--a suggestion vehemently rejected by Buddhist scholars (8)--made the religion look increasingly like the original article. Third, the decline of Buddhism was probably helped along by the growing impression--again, doubtless fostered by hostile brahmans--that Buddhist monasteries were sites of corruption, and that their leisured inhabitants, the monks, were becoming an insupportable burden on society. Fourth, it has been suggested in a recent study by Romila Thapar that Buddhism lost ground to (especially) Shaivite Hinduism because the unworldly monks who constituted the backbone of the faith were ill-equipped to take advantage of the new economic opportunities that were unfolding at the end of the first millennium. For example, the agricultural opportunities opened up by the advent of improved irrigation technology and the massive land-clearing of the north Indian forest wilderness. Likewise, Thapar thinks that the elaboration that took place, during the Puranic period, of the ubiquitous and all-encompassing caste system (partly as a foundation for state formation) also made it harder for caste-denying Buddhism to compete. (9) Be that as it may, it is generally accepted that what was left of Buddhism, at least in subcontinental South Asia, did not survive the devastating Muslim conquests of the late twelfth century which destroyed virtually all of its monasteries (including that of Nalanda, then probably one of the two or three greatest repositories of knowledge in the whole of Asia) and most of its major shrines, Bodh Gaya among them.

The first British official to observe the Mahabodhi temple at close quarters was Francis Buchanan while conducting his pioneering survey of the Patna and Gaya districts in 1811. Buchanan was chiefly struck by the temple's appearance, which he described as "in the last stages of decay"; but his eye was "also caught by the unexpected sight of numbers of Hindus worshipping there. (10) Mentioning this to his brahman guide, he was told that, regardless of its origins, the temple had long since passed out of Buddhist ownership. By the end of the century, Calcutta-based Hindu nationalists were stridently asserting, ostensibly on the basis of solid archaeological evidence, that it had always belonged to the Shaivites and that the Buddhists had merely "managed" it for a short while. (11) Such travesties are today a staple of VHP propaganda.

Fixing the moment when the Mahabodhi temple slipped out of Buddhist control is not all that difficult. When Dharmasvamin visited the site in 1234, he found the structure in ruinous condition and only a handful of monks still in residence. (12) Odds are, even this small remnant had departed by the middle of the thirteenth century. Determining when it became the property of the Hindus, however, is more complicated. As noted above, the temple main doorway bears an insignia of Shiva dating from at least the early twelfth century, suggesting that a process of religious reappropriation was even then underway. But did Shaivite worship at Bodh Gaya continue after the Buddhists had scattered? Given what we know about the resourceful and tenacious nature of Hindu folk cults, the notion is not implausible. Yet the only really solid evidence we have that Hindus continued to frequent the place after the iconoclastic Muslims had swept through, is a round stone that was discovered nearby during the mid-nineteenth century by the Archaeological Survey of India. Incised with a representation of the feet of Vishnu, the stone has been dated to 1308. (13) Against that, local Hindu tradition attests that the site was an unoccupied, overgrown wilderness when, at the end of the sixteenth century, a wandering ascetic named Gosain Ghamandi Gir, a member of the Giri sect of Shaivism, happened across it and claimed it for a refuge. If this story is true, Hinduism did not so much replace Buddhism at Bodh Gaya, as colonize a long-deserted ruin. (14)

At any rate, there is no question that the latter-day Hindu colonizers of Bodh Gaya made the most of their opportunity. Ghamandi brought in other sect members and together, the tradition goes, they "cut down the woods." (15) Some years later, a successor oversaw the construction of a monastery near the temple. Hereafter, the leaders of the Giri community at...

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