By Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse
India and Nepal gave the world one of its most precious resources—the Buddha.
Yet neither country truly values this extraordinary legacy, let alone takes pride in it. In the Buddha’s own birthplace and homeland, his teachings are marginalised, his wisdom is unappreciated, and his legacy is invisible in society.
The pervasive neglect of this treasured inheritance is an inestimable loss. After all, few products from this region have ever been so widely valued and respected, or travelled as far and as successfully, as the teachings of the Buddha.
Yes—yoga, curry, basmati rice and Bollywood have their global influence. But Buddhism has transformed whole societies in China, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, Japan and more, is fast penetrating the Western world, and continues to touch the hearts and minds of millions around the world.
And yet, amazingly, this intense global interest is barely evident in the lands where the Buddha himself was born, became enlightened, and taught. It is unfathomable that neither governments nor the vast majority of people here in India and Nepal truly cherish the Buddha today or hold him in their hearts and minds as one of their own.
This lack of concern for their Buddhist heritage is both a leadership failure and an endemic societal blindness.
In Nepal, interest in Buddhism only seems to be roused when someone claims the Buddha was born in India, at which time the Nepalese zealously declare their own country as his birthplace—even though neither Nepal nor India existed as entities 2,500 years ago.
In India the blindness extends from the failure of India’s educated elite to learn about, appreciate, and preserve their country’s Buddhist heritage all the way to those who make a living selling Buddha’s pictures and bodhi beads at pilgrimage sites, and to the fake monks and charlatans who score donations from unsuspecting Buddhist pilgrims.
And this disregard for Buddhism is manifest everywhere, like at the bookstore at Varanasi airport—the gateway for countless pilgrims to the sacred site of the Buddha’s first teaching—which carries not a single book on Buddhism in the midst of its rich Hindu and Indian collection.
And it is manifest even at the most sacred Buddhist shrine in the world, the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya, where the Buddha became enlightened, which remains under majority Hindu management—a situation akin to having the Vatican or the Kaaba in Mecca run by a majority of Buddhists, or a Jewish congregation run by mostly Protestants.
Secularism and political correctness in India:
It is not easy to explain this wilful neglect. To some extent the plight of Buddhism in India today may be a legacy of the country’s long colonial history, which seems to have led to a wholesale embrace of secular values at the cost of forsaking India’s own profound spiritual heritage.
One recent example is the supposed revival of Nalanda, the world’s oldest and greatest Buddhist university, which predated the founding of Oxford University by 650 years. The project’s first Chancellor, Amartya Sen—in the name of a firm “distinction between religious studies and the practice of religion—indicated he would tone down any Buddhist or spiritual teaching in favour of a secular curriculum. Indeed Prof. Sen writes about Nalanda with no mention of its Buddhist heritage.
India purports to value its heritage, but in practice acts more in accord with Western, worldly, materialist and non-spiritual values than with the profound wisdom its traditions have bequeathed to the world. And so, while India proudly claims its place as the world’s largest democratic country, the Buddha remains a stranger to most Indians. Indeed, India’s educated intellectuals know more about Marx and Marxism than about Buddha and Buddhism.
Western secular political correctness is on display even at the entrance to the Nalanda ruins, where the historical marker fails to mention that the university and its huge, invaluable library were actually destroyed in 1193 by Muslims on religious grounds because its texts did not uphold the Qur’an. The government prefers to tell visitors simply that the destroyer was a man by the name of Bakhtiyar Khilji.
Diluting the truth and watering down historical facts in the name of secular political correctness serves nobody.
On the contrary, denying reality and burying the truth actually nurture extremism, even in traditionally non-violent cultures like Burma where Buddhists have acted violently towards Muslim neighbours.
Imagine the anger and accusations of anti-Semitism that would erupt in New York City if the government and scholars actively toned down the history of the Holocaust. For that matter, imagine how Indians would react if officials and scholars toned down past British exploitation and misdeeds in India.
Scholars, journalists, panelists and experts will do more to serve peace and harmony today by telling the truth about the Muslim destruction of Nalanda and other Buddhist icons—historically in India and recently in Afghanistan—than by hiding it.
Western and Indian apologists for Islam argue that they are promoting tolerance, and that other religions have also engaged in destructive behaviour, like the Christians during the Crusades. They also have a habit of praising Buddhists for their generally non-violent response to provocation.
This form of apparent tolerance is more akin to a sophisticated political correctness than to genuine tolerance and open-mindedness. Imagine covering up a brutal assault by praising the victim for not retaliating and by diverting attention to other assaults.
By contrast, telling the truth, which includes naming the assailant, is essential to nurture true love and compassion, which in the Buddhist view is inseparable from wisdom. Such honesty would do much to temper the impulse for revenge and retaliation, and even to reveal the truly heroic and courageous nature of non-violent response. In fact, that’s precisely how Indian historians salute Gandhi’s greatness and fearless non-violence—by exposing, not covering up, British brutalities during India’s Independence struggle.
In the case of the Hindu and Muslim destruction of Buddhism in India, however, India has unfortunately opted for a more cowardly political correctness. It has given in to the pressure of violence and intimidation, but has failed to reward non-violence with any protective action. Thus, while the Delhi airport decks out a special terminal for hajj pilgrims, there is no comparable support for Buddhist pilgrimage sites in India.
Only two religions matter in India:
However, secularism alone cannot explain India’s wanton neglect of its Buddhist heritage, as witnessed by ongoing Hindu-Muslim sensitivities that show religion still does matter in the country. Hindus, for example, are incensed by the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi occupying the site of an ancient Hindu temple, and they even destroyed the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in order to build a Hindu temple; Muslims in Bengal and in neighbouring Bangladesh and Pakistan have attacked Hindu temples.
Yet India has no compunction about refusing to allow Buddhists to run the holiest of their sites, completely brushing off the fact that Bodhgaya is to Buddhists what Mecca is to Muslims. And so, perhaps it is not just secularism at play here, but rather that when push comes to shove, the only religion with influence in India has to be fanatical and violent—whether its adherents are orange-clad or green-clad.
In fact the demise of Buddhism in India is attributable to both the country’s major religions, with Islam in effect finishing off what Hinduism began. Thus it was Brahmanic pressure from the 5th century onwards that converted so many Buddhist temples into Hindu places of worship, with Muslim invaders then destroying what remained.
The legacy of this ancient religious imperialism remains evident today not only in Hindu management of Buddhist sacred places but is even enshrined in the Constitution of India itself. There, Article 25 declares that “reference to Hindus shall be construed as including a reference to persons professing the Sikh, Jaina or Buddhist religion, and the reference to Hindu religious institutions shall be construed accordingly.”
Whatever the historical antecedents, today’s sad reality is that the governments and people of Nepal, India, and Bihar are notoriously poor hosts to the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who come here every year to pay homage and respect to the life and teachings of Gautama Buddha. From the top echelons of leadership to the lowest beggar syndicates in the streets, there is no evidence of any inclination to accommodate, help or be kind to these pilgrims from afar, beyond extorting money from them in every conceivable way.
To be fair, we cannot blame the woes of Nalanda, Bodhgaya, or Sarnath entirely on non-Buddhists.
Mahayana chauvinists and Theravada elitists also operate in their own worlds, and the Buddhist temples around Bodhgaya rarely join in solidarity on any issue less mundane than obtaining an electric line or improving water supply. Rather than celebrating their common heritage in shared teachings, meditation, devotional rituals and festivals, they often seem more intent on promoting their own sects and drowning out each other’s prayers with their own particular liturgies on blaring amplifiers.
In response to my criticisms of India’s lack of care for its Buddhist heritage, my Hindu friends are quick to note that Buddhism is essentially part of Hinduism and that Buddha was an avatar of Vishnu. Regardless of philosophical issues, that argument falters on simple human, social and emotional grounds, since Hinduism’s gains, glories, and leverage are never shared with Buddhists.
Neglect of Buddhism is India’s loss:
Whichever way one looks at it—whether merely through the worldly lens of business, politics, national pride, export opportunity, foreign policy or for deeper spiritual reasons—the pervasive neglect of its Buddhist inheritance is truly a sad loss for India.
Even from a purely secular, business perspective, places like Bodhgaya and Lumbini are potential gold mines. Just within my own short stay recently in Bodhgaya, two foreign heads of state visited the Mahabodhi Temple to pay their respects.
Indeed, foreign dignitaries, army generals, and other notables regularly come to Bodhgaya not for any conference or negotiation but simply to pay homage, not to mention the thousands of pilgrims who come on a daily basis from all over the world—Europe, Russia, south and southeast Asia, China, the Americas, Australia and more.
And if some politics are inevitable, India actually holds a foreign policy trump card, because Bodhgaya and the other Buddhist pilgrimage sites in the country are assets that transcend all sectarian and political divisions, including on sensitive issues like Tibet. After all, these pilgrimage sites are sacred to all Buddhists of every tradition—without exception—and thus remain eternal reminders of the elemental truths the Buddha taught.
From a simple export value perspective, compare the quality of India’s rich Buddhist heritage and the respect it commands worldwide to the embarrassingly shoddy quality of so many of India’s other products—from postage stamps that don’t stick to door latches that don’t fit. How sad that India does not cherish, let alone market, one of the greatest creations it has ever produced—the stainless teachings and wisdom of Gautama Buddha.
And even from the point of view of simple national pride, it’s worth remembering that neither Vishnu nor Shiva would attain Indian or Nepalese citizenship today because they are gods. By contrast the Buddha was an actual human being from their own land, whose wisdom, teaching and example continue to touch the hearts and minds of millions around the world, including in the land of India’s arch-nemesis, China. It is almost incomprehensible that neither India nor Nepal today shows any vested interest in his legacy.
A matter of attitude:
Given this pervasive disinterest and neglect, it is not surprising that any real improvements in Bodhgaya and other Buddhist sacred sites are largely the initiative of foreigners or Tibetan refugees, who usually have to bribe their way at every step to get anything done.
The Indian government and people’s lack of regard for such generous contributions from abroad is well illustrated by a recent incident in the impoverished region of Dhungeshwari, where the Buddha practised austerities for six years before attaining enlightenment.
There Delhi bureaucrats imposed a massive Rs 9 million fine on a school started by a Korean Buddhist monk for 500 local disadvantaged children, and thereby forced the school—unable to pay the fine and cut off from outside funds—to close temporarily.
When the school went to court—a brave action, especially in Bihar—to appeal the unjust ruling, a high court judge to his credit quashed the fine and publicly upbraided the Government of India for penalising a Buddhist-run school that was helping India’s poorest and doing what the government itself should have been doing.
In this rare case, justice was eventually served. But the lengthy bureaucratic harassment that preceded the judgment points to a larger attitudinal problem in India’s perspective on Buddhism altogether.
One component of that attitude stems from caste issues that are still so
powerfully dominant in India today.
Millions of Buddhists in the state of Maharashtra, who were brought to the Buddhist path by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, are less committed to the teachings of the Buddha than to their wish to be free of the stigma of their low caste status. Important and understandable though that wish is, such a social and political agenda may not be helpful either to their own spiritual path or to Buddhism altogether.
Thus, a highly educated Indian friend accompanying me to my daily meditation at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodhgaya was recently quizzed by the Indian security guards as to why he was coming there every day, and was he an authorised guide. Assuming that Buddhism was either for foreigners or for the lowest caste Indians, these security guards could not fathom what the interest of an educated high-caste Indian might be.
And if this puzzlement exists at the very entrance to Buddhism’s most sacred shrine, there may be little hope for a change of attitude towards Buddhism in Indian society or in the Indian national psyche at large.
India and China play the Buddhist card:
Recently India has started to show some signs of mild interest in relating to its Buddhist heritage, particularly in the Himalayan region, largely because China is so actively providing support for Buddhist sacred sites on the other side of the Himalayas.
In that regard, it’s worth recalling statistical estimates that about 20% of Chinese are Buddhists, compared to less than 1% of Indians in the land of the Buddha’s enlightenment—a percentage that has not changed in centuries. In fact, China has by far the largest Buddhist population in the world (amounting to more than half of all the world’s Buddhists), while India’s Buddhists amount to less than 2% of the world’s total.
In contrast to the long history of neglect of Buddhism in India, China celebrates a number of historic and iconic Buddhist scholars and patrons.
For example, the Chinese revere Xuanzang, to whom Buddhists are indebted for keeping record of the most sacred sites of the Buddha’s life and enlightenment. And the patronage of generations of Chinese dynasties and emperors (like Emperor Ming in the Han dynasty, Emperor Wu in the Lang dynasty, and Empress Wu Zetian in the Tang dynasty) has ensured the survival of Buddhism outside the land of its birth.
And this patronage is not just ancient or historical. Even today it’s revealing to observe the sheer magnitude, detail, and scale of care and veneration lavished by China—a supposedly atheist country—on the preservation of the Buddha’s finger bone at Famen Temple in Xi’an, for example, compared to the sub-standard way the Buddha’s relics are treated at the National Museum in New Delhi, where even the reliquary was a donation from Thailand.
Of course we will never forget that the Chinese destroyed Buddhist temples, texts and teachers, both in the 1950s and during the Cultural Revolution. But those actions, over a very short time period, were politically not religiously motivated, and a strong revival of Buddhism is now underway in China.
This is in sharp contrast to the historical Brahmanic persecution of Buddhists and the subsequent centuries-long decimation of Buddhism in India by the Muslims, from both of which Indian Buddhism has never recovered.
Yet, rather than emulate Buddhism’s resurgence in China, India—ever suspicious of Chinese spying—still erects bureaucratic barriers for many of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese Buddhists eager to visit India on pilgrimage each year. But India should understand that just as an Indian Hindu might feel more comfortable with a British Hindu than with an Indian Muslim, Sri Lankan or Ladakhi Buddhists regard these visiting Chinese pilgrims simply as fellow Buddhist brethren.
And just as Muslims, destitute, colonised or downtrodden in their own lands, might take pride as fellow Muslims in Saudi Arabia’s power and wealth, or like Jews around the world might take pride in Israel, so Buddhists in Bangladesh, Indonesia, and other places that suffered foreign invasion, or in small, poor countries like Bhutan, might rejoice in China’s emergence as a superpower.
In sum, rather than succumbing to old fear-driven habits and suspicions, India might learn from and even join with the Buddhist renaissance in China by proudly proclaiming its own land, heritage and sacred sites as the birthplace and source of the Buddha’s enlightenment, wisdom and teachings.
Returning Buddhism to its rightful place:
In this article, I’ve tried to point to some possible historical, political, strategic, religious, philosophical, caste and other explanations for this region’s heedless squandering of its rich and profound Buddhist heritage. But, whatever the reasons to date, the bottom line is that it doesn’t have to be this way.
A conscious shift of view, not difficult to achieve, could not only acknowledge but take tremendous pride in the legacy of a man whose contribution to humankind remains unsurpassed.
In this materialist era in which greed is literally destroying the earth on which our survival depends, the need to hear and contemplate the Buddha’s truth on the interdependent nature of all reality is more pressing than ever. At the policy and behavioural level, such contemplation might even temper excess consumption, prevent further resource depletion, preserve endangered habitats, and leave the planet in a habitable condition for our children.
What exceptional satisfaction and esteem India and Nepal could enjoy in the world today if they were now to take full ownership of the life and teachings of one of the most remarkable and brilliant human beings ever to walk the earth.
With relatively little effort, the extraordinarily rich ancient heritage of India and Nepal could merge with expanding current needs and interests in the world to leave an unparalleled legacy to all beings and to the earth itself.
This article may sound harsh in some of its critique, but nothing milder will do if we are to see the fundamental shift in attitude and view now needed to return Buddhism to its rightful, precious, and crucial place in the history, culture, and tradition of India and Nepal.
*Article first appeared in Huffington Post and can be seen here. Re-printed with permission from author.*
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse is a world-renowned Buddhist meditation master, teacher, and author of best-selling books on Buddhist philosophy and practice (What Makes You Not a Buddhist and Not for Happiness). He has lectured at Oxford University, UC-Berkeley, and Beijing University, founded and leads a 100-year global initiative involving nearly 200 scholars and translators to translate all the Buddha’s teachings into English, and heads monasteries and meditation centres on five continents. He also founded and heads charitable organizations engaged in both Buddhist and humanitarian work, and has made three highly acclaimed films.
Feature Photo: Hartwig HKD/Flickr
Editor: Dana Gornall