Bodh Gaya: where the Buddha was Enlightened
The Muslim conquest of India brought about changes there as dramatic as those brought in Europe by the destruction of Rome by the Huns. The most tragic of these changes was the virtual disappearance of Buddhism. At the end of the 16th century, Abul Fazl was able to write that Buddhism could be found nowhere in India, although he says when he went to Kashmir he “met with a few old men of this persuasion but saw none among them learned…” However, contrary to popular belief, Buddhism was not completely dead in India. Tiny scattered pockets of Buddhists continued to cling to their faith or more usually a corrupted version of it. Remarkably, some of these Buddhists even managed to make pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya. Visits by several groups of chiefs and their wives from Sindh during the early 14th century are known from inscriptions they scratched on the paving stones in the chamber of the Mahabodhi Temple [ 40. VIEW IMAGE ]. During either the 15th or 16th century a lone pilgrim from what is thought to be Multan, came to Bodh Gaya, and after doing his devotions in crumbling and overgrown temple, wrote a short record of his visit on the old stone railing. It reads:
Homage to the Buddha. Let the merit which is acquired by Jinadasa, a learned man who came from the mountainous country Parvata, by means of visiting (this place) to behold the Mahabodhi (image) reigning in its glory as the supreme Lord, go first of all to his parent. Having done this act of merit it is here written (by the scribe) Sangatta [ 41. VIEW IMAGE].
The last Indian Buddhist known to have visited Bodh Gaya was the monk Buddhagupta. Born in South India during the last half of the 16th century, this indefatigable monk had already visited Afghanistan, Kashmir, Ladakh, Sri Lanka, Java, the Laccadives and even East Africa before he made his pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya. He seems to have spent some time at the deserted temple meditating and performing pujas before setting off again on his travels. Next he visited Nepal, Tibet, Burma and northern Thailand, after which he disappeared from history. From around the same period, the second half of the 15th century, comes the last mention until modern times of a Sri Lankan monk visiting Bodh Gaya. A monk named Dharmadivakara, apparently a Mahayanist, came to Bodh Gaya and then decided to go on from there to Wu Tai Shan in China. While at the sacred mountain he met some Tibetans who invited him to their country where he travelled and taught widely. However, the strain of several long years of travel, the strange food and the cold climate all proved too much for poor Dharmadivakara for we read that on his way back to Sri Lanka he disrobed in Nepal and later died in India.
The desire to visit Bodh Gaya, but the inability of most Buddhists to do so, especially after the advent of Muslim rule, resulted in replicas of the Mahabodhi Temple being built in several Buddhist countries. A very good copy was built in Pagan in the early 13th century. This temple was in all likelihood based on plans brought from India by the mission sent by King Kyanzittha [ 42. VIEW IMAGE]. Although not a temple as such, a stupa in the form of the Mahabodhi Temple was built in Tibet in 1452 to enshrine the remains of a famous lama. In 1472, King Dhammacetiya of Pegu sent a large contingent of craftsmen under the leadership of a Sri Lankan merchant to Bodh Gaya to worship at the temple and also to make plans of it:
“In order that those who live in Hamsavati might have great happiness, he had monks who were endowed with the burdens of study and meditation embark at Bassein, together with skilled masons, painters and builders, much treasure, royal letters written on gold under the authority of his seal, and ambassadors of greater and lesser rank to whom he entrusted many presents, and hence sail with expedition to Bengal to visit the Bodhi Tree at the centre of the world where the Buddha overcame Mara. When all the monks had reached the site of the Bodhi Tree and the presents had been offered, the painters made models of all the sites according to their distances and dimensions and brought them back to the place where the King dwelt”.
The outcome of all this was a magnificent temple in Pegu called Shewgugyi. It is difficult today to determine how faithful this temple was to the original as it is now in a ruined state. In 1473, the Chinese built a copy of the Mahabodhi Temple just outside Peking and yet another in 1748. This first temple, called Wu Ta Szu, was based on plans provided by a Tibetan monk, or according to another account, on a gold and diamond studded model belonging to a monk from India [ 43. VIEW IMAGE]. In the 16th century, a Nepalese layman named Abhayaraj went on a pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya and made both plans and a small model of the temple. On his return, he used these to build a replica called the Mahabuddha Vihara in Patan. This beautiful temple with its delicately moulded terracotta bricks was badly damaged during the 1934 earthquake but rebuilt soon afterwards. Thailand has two copies of the Mahabodhi Temple, one in Chiang Rai built some time between the 16th and 18th centuries, and an earlier one, the Mahabodharama, Wat Jet Yot; built by King Tilokaraja (1443-1487). The Jinakalamali says that the king not only built a replica of the Mahabodhi Temple but also tried to recreate all the man-made and natural locations around it:
King Tilokaraja, having heard the Sri Lankan monks expound the doctrine relating to Bodhi Trees, desired to plant one, and upon looking for a place for that purpose, discovered the site of the Mahabodharama. In 817 of the Little Era, the year of the Boar (1455 AD), he founded a monastery for the Mahathera Uttamapanna, northwest of Chiang Mai, on the banks of the Rohini River, on a charming knoll. That same year, he planted a Bodhi Tree, a sapling grown from the tree at the foot of Deva Mountain which had come from a seed gathered in former times from the southern branch (of the Bodhi Tree at Anuradhapura in Sri Lanka) by monks who went to Simhala (Sri Lanka). The planting of this sapling earned for the new monastery the name Mahabodharama. After it was planted, the king had everything around it made in conformity with the surroundings of the Bodhi Tree where Mara was defeated, including the railing and the seven special locations.
Walking around the Mahabodharama must have been the closest one could get to the atmosphere and the environment of Bodh Gaya without actually going there [ 44. VIEW IMAGE].
Sometime between the last half of the 16th and the first half of the 17th centuries, a wandering Saivite ascetic named Gossiain Ghainandi Giri arrived in Bodh Gaya and decided to settle down there. In the following centuries, Ghamandi’s hermitage grew into, a large monastery (math), and his successors the Mahants (abbots) into a powerful and dubious influence in Bodh Gaya. The Giris are one of the orders of the monks established by the great Hindu reformer Sankara in the 9th century. The name of each order suggests the geographical location its members are supposed to reside in. So the Vanas are supposed to live in forests, the Puris in towns and the Giris on hills and mountains. Each of the ten orders are also supposed to be a part of a whole and co-equal but, as one would expect from a Hindu institution, inequalities have emerged. The Giris are looked down upon by the more ‘orthodox’ orders as being lax and even to some extent impure. Giving his impression of the Giris at Bodh Gaya in the last century, Mitra wrote:
“The monks lead an easy, comfortable life, feasting on rich cakes (malpuya) and pudding (mohanbhog), and freely indulging in the exhilarating beverage of bhanga. Few attempt to learn the sacred books, and most of them are grossly ignorant. The present Mahant is an intelligent man, but not particularly well versed in the Sastras”.
A book recently published by a Giri monk lists the 52 major Saivite Maths in India in order of the esteem in which each is held. The Bodh Gaya Math is towards the bottom at number 36. The establishment of Ghamandi Giri’s monastery was not the beginning of a Hindu presence at Bodh Gaya. An inscription dated 807 mentions the setting up of a stone lingam there by the son of a stonecutter named Kesava [ 45. VIEW IMAGE]. Some scholars have suggested that the story told to Hsuan Tsang about the temple being built by a brahmin on the advice of Mahesvara is evidence of early Hinduization at Bodh Gaya. But this theory is quite unconvincing. Buddhist legends and hagiographies are full of stories about brahmins who converted to Buddhism on the advice of Hindu gods. This ‘skilful means’ for demonstrating the superiority of Buddhism goes back to the time of the Buddha himself. Even Kesava’s inscription indicates nothing more than that there were Hindus living at Bodh Gaya, possibly employed by its monasteries, who wanted their own shrine to worship in, and that, with typical tolerance, the Buddhists had no objection to this. However it is true that at a late date the Bodhi Tree did become one of the places that Hindu pilgrims to Gaya began to visit, and if pilgrims came there to worship it would only be a matter of time before Brahmins would move in to supervise their worship and extract fees from them.
By the end of the 18th century, the Muslim rulers of India were starting to give way to a new conqueror, the English. Already entrenched in the sub-continent, some Englishmen were taking time off from military affairs and trade to explore India’s many antiquities. It was in 1785 that Bodh Gaya first came to the attention of these early explorers of the Indian past. A translation of what was thought to be an inscription found by Francis Wilmont at Bodh Gaya was made by Sir Charles Wilkins and published in the scholarly journal Asiatick Researches. The inscription told of a certain Amaradeva who worshipped the Buddha and built a temple at Bodh Gaya and therein “set up the divine footprint of Vishnoo, for ever purifier of the sins of mankind, the images of Pandoos and of the descendants of Vishnoo and in a manner of Brahma and the rest of the divinities.” The date of the inscription was equivalent to the year 949 AD. No later visitors to Bodh Gaya ever saw this inscription and scholars came to the conclusion that it was a forgery. Discussing it in 1878 and speculating on its origins, Mitra wrote:
Its date, the era Vikramaditya 1005 = to AC 949, would suggest the idea that the characters used in it were Kutila. If so, it is difficult to conceive how either Mr Wilmont or Sir Charles Wilkins could read it, as the key to that alphabet had not then been discovered. It is obvious, therefore, that Mr Wilmont must have seen the inscribed stone, which he requested a pandit of monastery to decipher for him, and that worthy, unable to do the needful, composed a rambling story of his own, in which he not only glorified his own religion, but worked into it references to all the leading remains of the place … The date he put on it was hit upon at random.
It would not be the last time that the Giris of Bodh Gaya would be guilty of deception.
In 1773, Bhutan’s defeat in a short war with the British resulted in Tibet’s Panchen Lama writing a letter to the Governor of Bengal, Warren Hastings, offering to mediate a settlement. Hastings decided to take advantage of this first friendly contact between British India and Tibet to explore the possibilities of trade and sent a mission led by George Bogle to visit the Panchen Lama. Bogle’s record of his visit sheds some light on Tibetan interest in Bodh Gaya during the 18th century. Just prior to Bogle’s visit, the Panchen Lama had sent nine monks and three laymen led by Tung Rampa to Sarnath and Bodh Gaya. The Maharaja of Varanasi, Chete Singh Bahadur, welcomed the Tibetans, gave them letters of introduction for their onward journey, palanquins and attendants and they were able to reach Bodh Gaya in a fortnight. When the party, minus three monks who had succumbed to the Indian heat, returned to Tibet, the Maharaja sent an envoy with them to present gifts to the Panchen Lama. Among these presents were a watch, elephant tusks and a model of the Mahabodhi Temple. The Panchen Lama informed Bogle that he was interested in establishing a temple in India, probably for pilgrims who might now feel it safe to come because of the Pax Britannica. In his report to Hastings Bogle wrote:
“About seven or eight hundred years ago, the Tibetan pontiffs had many monasteries in Bengal, and their priest used to travel to that country in order to study the religion and language of the Brahmans, and to visit the holy places in Hindustan. The Mussulmans, upon conquering Bengal, plundered and destroyed their temples, and drove them out of the country. Since that time there has been little intercourse between the two kingdoms. The Lama is sensible that it will throw great lustre on his pontificate, and serve to extend his fame and character, if he can, after so long an interval, obtain a religious establishment in Bengal, and he is very solicitous on this point. He proposes also, to send some of his gylongs (monks), during the cold season, to wait upon you in Calcutta, and afterwards to go on pilgrimage to Gaya and other places …”
Nothing ever came of the Panchen Lama’s desire to build a temple in India despite British readiness to help. Shortly after Bogle’s visit, Tibet decided to cut itself off from the outside world and rebuffed all attempts by the British to make further contact. However Bogle’s account of his interview with the Panchen Lama shows that the Buddhists of Tibet had by no means forgotten Bodh Gaya, that they still held it in esteem and that they still desired to go there on pilgrimage.
In the half century after Bogle’s journey to Tibet, a whole string of British artists, surveyors, travellers and amateur archaeologists visited Bodh Gaya. The first of these were the famous artists William and Thomas Daniell, who arrived in 1790 as a part of their tour of North India and made some quick sketches of the niches on the temple. The next visitor was Francis Buchanan, who came during the survey of Bihar and Patna which he was commissioned by the government to do in 1811. With his detailed description of the temple and its surroundings, Bodh Gaya finally begins to reemerge into the light of history after being in the shadows for nearly 400 years. But what re-emerged was not the magnificent temple attended by monks that Huien Tsang and Dharmasvamin saw, but a crumbling ruin that was slowly being pulled down by people in the area in need of brick and stone for building:
The great shine, or mandir, is a slender quadrangular pyramid of great height, much resembling that of Koch, but its summit is broken and a part hangs over in a very singular manner. This spire is, on the three sides surrounded by a terrace about 25 or 30 feet high, and the extreme dimensions of which are 78 feet wide by 98 feet long, and one end of this terrace towards the cast has covered the porch; but that has fallen, and brought down the part of the terrace by which it was covered … The porch has always been small, and since it fell some persons have cleared among the ruins, and constructed a gate of the fragments, the shine or cavity in the mandir that is on a level with the ground, and the entrance to which was through the porch, is small and covered with a Gothic arch, the plaster work on which has been divided into small compartments, each containing an image of a Buddha. The whole far end of the chamber has been occupied by a throne of stone (singhasan) in a very bad taste and which has been disfigured by a motley row of images taken from the ruins and built on its front so as to hide part of the deity. This is a monstrous misshapen daub of clay … There is however, current tradition of the original image having been gold, and of its having been removed by the Muhammedans, so that the present image is supposed to have been made after the sect had undergone persecution and could no longer procure workmen capable of making a decent substitute. Above this chamber are two others, one on the level of the old terrace, and the other still higher; but with these the falling of the porch has cut off all communication. Several of the people, however, in the vicinity remember the porch standing, and have frequently been in the chambers, a stair from the terrace leading to the uppermost. The middle chamber has a throne, but the image has been removed, and, if there ever was an image of gold, this was probably its place. The terrace enlarges behind the temple towards the west, and forms an area, on which is growing the Pipal tree … The tree is in full vigour, and cannot in all probability exceed 100 years in age; but a similar one may have existed in some other place, when the temple was entire.
Visitors to Bodh Gaya during this time who left pictorial records of the temple include James Chichely and James Crockett, both officers in the Bengal army and the famous artist Sir Charles D’Oyly [ 46. VIEW IMAGE]. In 1847, the first attempt at an archaeological investigation was done at Bodh Gaya, although it was more like curio hunting than what we think of today as archaeology. Captain Markham Kittoe dug around the temple and unearthed parts of the railing and several statues, some of which were left lying there, while others were carried off to museums. He also made an album of drawings of some of the sculptures. Another archaeological investigation was undertaken in 1861 by Major Mead under the direction of Alexander Cunningham. No reports of either this or Kittoe’s excavations were ever published, thus depriving us of much valuable information concerning the temple’s history.
All the accounts of these and other visitors to Bodh Gaya right up to the 1880 restoration prove beyond doubt that the Giris and their Mahant took no care of, or had any interest in, the temple. The pinnacle was broken, the tower crumbling and the front porch and the second storey chamber above it had collapsed [ 47. VIEW IMAGE]. So much rubble had accumulated around the temple that one had to actually descend into the main chamber and every rainy season it filled with stagnant water. Buchanan mentioned that the shrines around the temple had been demolished to provide bricks for construction work at the Mahant’s monastery.
An English civil servant on holiday at Bodh Gaya in 1866 wrote in his note book: “The temple apparently fast falling into ruin. It is a great pity that such a fine, old and picturesque looking building could not be preserved”. About a decade later, Sir Richard Temple saw the withered Bodhi Tree and commented that it was “in harmony with the fate which has overtaken the structure.” Statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas were scattered over a wide area and were often put to very mundane uses. In 1891, Anagarika Dharmapala wrote: It was most painful for me to witness the vandalism that was taking place there constantly, unobserved doubtless by those who would shudder at the sight. The most beautiful statues of the teacher of Nirvana and the Law … are still uncared for and quietly allowed to perish by exposure. Wandering alone in the bamboo groves to the cast of Lilajan I came across statues plastered to the walls of an irrigating well … Stones carved with Buddha images are to be found used as weights to the levers for drawing water. I have seen ryots (farmers) in the villages surrounding the temple using admirably carved stones as steps to their huts. I have seen 3 feet high statues in an excellent state of preservation buried under rubbish, to the east of the Mahant’s Baradari.
This neglect was not due to lack of funds on the part of the Mahant. He was amongst the wealthiest landlords in Bihar, as is his successor today. Rather, it was due to indifference. There is also ample evidence that the Mahabodhi Temple was not used by the Hindus for religious purposes until the 1890s. In 1811, Buchanan noted that the terrace on the north side of the temple had been repaired and a stairway built up to it so that “the orthodox may pass up without entering the porch, and thus seeing the hateful image of Buddha”. During the Burmese restorations begun in 1877, numerous statues were moved from where they had been lying and were cemented into the new wall that was built around the temple. The small shrine sheltering the Buddha’s footprints was demolished and the stone itself moved to the Pancha Pandu Temple. The Mahant would never have allowed any of this to be done had the statues or the footprints been objects of worship.
During Beglar’s restorations, the buttress at the back of the temple on which the Bodhi Tree had been growing was demolished and a new tree planted in the ground. Again the Mahant had no objections to these major changes. When Edwin Arnold visited the temple in 1886, he asked a Brahmin if he could have a leaf from the Bodhi Tree. The priest replied: “Pluck as many as you like, sahib, it is naught to us.” Kittoe, Mead, Beglar, Cunningham, Arnold and numerous others all entered the main chamber of the temple, which would never have been permitted had it been used for Hindu worship. Bodh Gaya’s magnificent sculptures were used by local people as doorsteps or grindstones or were carried off by visitors, and this was stopped only when George Grierson made complaints about it to the Mahant.
From the end of the 18th century, the Burmese began to renew the interest they had in Bodh Gaya before this had been interrupted by Muslim rule. A little before 1795, a delegation from Burma had come to Bodh Gaya to collect water from the tank for the Burmese king to bathe in. Other delegations came in 1811, 1823 and 1833. Buchanan mentioned that just before his visit in 1811, a Burmese pilgrim had succeeded in converting one of the Giris to Buddhism. He also noted that although the new convert “now altogether rejects the doctrine of orthodoxy” he was still “accommodated and supported by the Mahant.” Nor were the Burmese the only Buddhists who began returning to Bodh Gaya. Referring to the period just after the Angio-Nepalese War (1814-1816) one English writer noted: When the peace threw open the lower provinces to the Hill states, the people of Nepal, and its hither boundaries, visited Gyah: they exclaimed, on beholding the statues and images, “Why, you have got our gods among you!” These people are followers of Boodh; yet the statues and images in the temples have all been converted to the particular use of Bramah”.
In 1874, Burma’s greatest modern king, Mindon Min (1853-1878), despatched an emissary to Calcutta requesting the Government of India to help a delegation to offer gifts on his behalf to the Bodhi Tree. Later, the Burmese Foreign Minister wrote to the government asking permission to renovate the Mahabodhi Temple and to build a monastery nearby to accommodate 20 monks on a permanent basis. When the Mahant was asked for his opinion about this, he replied that the Burmese could do what they liked so long as several Hindu idols near the temple were not interfered with. In January 1877, the delegation of officials, monks and artisans arrived at Bodh Gaya and immediately set to work. While the faith and determination of the Burmese may have been great, their understanding of the importance of preserving the temple’s original character was not, and inadvertently they did enormous damage. When this situation came to the notice of the authorities, Sir Stuart Brayley, the Secretary to the Government, wrote to Rajendralala Mitra, the respected archaeologist, asking him to visit Bodh Gaya and report on what was being done [ 48. VIEW IMAGE]. The letter read in part:
It is not desired to interfere with the Burmese gentlemen beyond giving them such guidance as may prevent any serious damage being done to the temple, of which there seemed at one time some danger from their laying bare a portion of the foundation; and to arrange for such of the antiquities as are worth preserving being properly taken care of. They are at present building them into walls, and sticking foolish heads on to ancient torsos, etc. Mr Eden (Lt Governor of Bengal) wishes to know if you can make it convenient to pay a visit to Buddha Gaya to inspect the work and the remains collected, and to give advice as to their value and to their disposition, and whether there are any that should go to the Asiatic Society; and generally to advise the Government in regard to the manner in which the operations of the Burmese excavations should be controlled.
When Mitra did visit Bodh Gaya, he was horrified by what he saw. The Burmese were, he reported, “perfectly innocent of archaeology and history, and the mischief they have done by their misdirected zeal has been serious. The demolitions and excavations already completed by them have swept away most of the old landmarks, and nothing of ancient times can now be traced on the area they worked upon.”
When Anglo-Burmese relations deteriorated after the death of Mindon Min, and the Burmese had to leave India, the government decided to take over the responsibility for repairing the Mahabodhi Temple. J.D. Bcglar was appointed to do the job under the guidance of Alexander Cunningham, the first Director-General of the Archaeological Survey. The temple was badly decayed, but enough of the stucco facing on some parts of both the sikhara and the terrace remained for Beglar to know how to repair the parts that were missing. But when it came to the front pavilion, which had been completely destroyed, it was almost impossible to know how it had originally appeared. Cunningham’s advice was that it should be just cemented over to prevent further decay, but just as this was being done a small ancient model of the temple was discovered. Beglar used this fortuitous and timely discovery to justify his rebuilding of the four corner sikharas and the front pavilion as it is today. The discovery of other temple models in later years proved that his restorations were uncannily accurate. Although Beglar’s main intention was to repair and restore the temple, he also did some exploratory digging in and around it. The most important discovery which resulted from this was made in the temple chamber. As the granite pavement within it was uneven it was decided to take it up and relay it. So that this could be done the stone slabs of the altar built over the Vajrasana, which dated from the early Pala period, were dismantled and inside was found a second earlier shrine.
The plaster facing on this second altar, when examined, was found to contain tiny fragments of coral, pearl, precious and semi-precious stones. At its base was also found a clay ball encasing a collection of gold and silver objects together with emeralds, rubies, sapphires, crystal and coral. Also found was a piece of gold foil with the impression of a coin from the reign of King Huvishka (approx. 2nd century AD) on it, indicating that this second shrine could have been erected at about this time. All this treasure was later deposited in the British Museum [ 48a. VIEW IMAGE]. The dismantling of the second altar revealed a third shrine, much damaged, and made from polished sandstone strongly reminiscent of Mauryan stonework. On the front of this shrine were four pilasters exactly the same as those on the Vajrasana depicted in the Bharhut relief. Cunningham believed that the remains of Asoka’s temple had been discovered, and it would be hard to dispute his conclusion. The three altars built one over the other are also strong evidence that there had been at least two predecessors to the Mahabodhi Temple.
Now that the physical structure of the temple had been repaired, the right of Buddhists to administer it and worship in it had to be secured [ 48b. VIEW IMAGE]. In 1886, Sir Edwin Arnold, recently retired editor of the London Daily Telegraph and ardent Theosophist with strong Buddhist sympathies, visited Bodh Gaya. As he stood in the temple chamber, he was inspired to think that here the Buddha had attained enlightenment but at the same time saddened by the lifelessness of the place [ 49. VIEW IMAGE]. Later, when he went to Sri Lanka, he discussed with the island’s leading Buddhists the possibilities of reviving the temple as a living centre of Buddhism:
I think there never was an idea that took root and spread so far and fast as that thrown out thus in the sunny temple-court in Panadure, amid the waving taliputs. Like those tropical plants that can be almost seen to grow, the suggestion quickly became a universal aspiration, first in Ceylon and next in other Buddhist countries.
Unfortunately, this response existed more in Arnold’s imagination than in reality. As later events demonstrated, Buddhism had long since lost its universalist outlook, and most Asian Buddhists knew little of, and cared even less, about anything beyond their own country and culture. They were certainly interested in going on pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya, but nothing more than that. Arnold wrote to various influential figures in the home and colonial administration, and while the idea was generally well received, everyone said the initiative would have to come from the Buddhists themselves.
On January 22, 1891, a cart carrying a young Sri Lankan, Anagarika Dharmapala, and his friend the Japanese monk, Kozen Gunaratana, rumbled along the road that led from Gaya to Bodh Gaya [ 50. VIEW IMAGE]. For much of the distance the two men saw “lying scattered here and there broken statues of our Blessed Lord”. On arriving at Bodh Gaya, they walked to the back of the temple where the young Bodhi Tree planted by Cunningham was growing. As Dharmapala worshipped at the outer Vajrasana he had a sudden inspiration. He described what happened in his diary:
As soon as I touched with my forehead the Vajrasana a sudden impulse came to my mind to stop here and take care of this sacred spot, so sacred that nothing in the world is equal to this place where Prince Sakya Sinha attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree [ 51. VIEW IMAGE].
It never occurred to Dharmapala that the temple might belong to anyone, and indeed, exactly who did own it was by no means clear. The government had spent a huge amount on its restoration and employed a superintendent to look after its grounds, which would not have been done had it been privately owned. On the other hand, the Mahant’s men cadged money from Hindu pilgrims and sightseers as if they owned it. In actual fact, the temple belonged to no one. Like an abandoned ship, it stood there waiting for someone to formally lay claim to it. Three parties were about to do just that – Dharmapala on behalf of Buddhists, the Mahant and a little later, the government.
Dharmapala had vowed that by Vaisakha, four months hence, the Mahabodhi Temple would once again be a properly functioning Buddhist temple. He moved into the resthouse that had been built by the Burmese king and fired off letters pleading for help to Colonel Olcott, the kings of Bhutan and Thailand, the Governor of Ceylon, Sir Edwin Arnold, senior monks in Burma and Sri Lanka, the Lt Governor of Bengal and numerous others. The response was disappointing, and when it became apparent that Vaisakha would pass without him achieving his goal, he reluctantly decided to return to Sri Lanka and try to muster support there. The next four years were ones of ceaseless activity for Dharmapala. He founded the Maha Bodhi Society with the aim of recovering the temple and began publishing a magazine to inform members of the Society’s progress. He visited Burma, Sri Lanka and China in order to raise both funds and support. But Dharmapala found it very difficult to impart his enthusiasm to his fellow Buddhists. Thailand’s King Chulalongkorn failed to keep his promise of financial support, and although the Maha Bodhi Journal was sent free to all Thailand’s English-speaking princes for more than 20 years, they never donated more than a few rupees. The Dalai Lama, who had access to vast resources, allowed himself to be made chief patron of the Maha Bodhi Society but never made a single donation to it. The funds Dharmapala collected during a lecture tour of Burma were later misappropriated by a member of that country’s branch of the Maha Bodhi Society. On being told that the leading temples in Japan were collecting funds for his work, Dharmapala stopped there on his way back from America, only to find that the final sum amounted to a mere pittance.
Even in Sri Lanka, where he received more support than anywhere else, raising funds and finding monks willing to stay in Bodh Gaya proved to be an uphill task. Meanwhile the Mahant, alarmed by the sudden Buddhist activities at the Mahabodhi Temple and aware of the legal ambiguities concerning its ownership, began claiming that it belonged to him. When the government expressed some hesitation over the temple’s legal status the Mahant’s claim suddenly became an emphatic assertion. When the Lt Governor of Bengal, Sir Charles Elliott, visited Bodh Gaya in August 1891 to find out first hand what was going on, the Collector of Gaya, George Grierson, advised him that with potential international interest in the temple it was important not to let it fall into private hands and recommended that it be acquired as a national monument. The Mahant, on the other hand, made it clear to Elliott that he had no intentions of relinquishing his grip on the temple. Being unsure of what to do and anxious to avoid possible ‘religious complications’ with Hindus, the government procrastinated.
On his way back from the Parliament of Religions in 1893, Dharmapala had stopped in Japan where his friend Kozcn Gunaratna had given him a beautiful 700 year old statue of the Buddha to install in the Mahabodhi Temple [ 52. VIEW IMAGE]. For the next two years, the statue sat in the Maha Bodhi Resthouse at Gaya while Dharmapala awaited permission to put it in the temple. Finally, early in the morning of February 25th, 1895, Dharmapala awoke and after a period of meditation, resolved that come what may he would put the statue in the temple and worship it there. He and his helpers arrived in Bodh Gaya just before sunrise and immediately took the statue to the upstairs chamber of the temple and placed it on the empty shrine. He was just about to offer lamps and flowers when the Mahant’s men armed with lathes and clubs burst in. Angrily shouting, they knocked the lamps from one of the monks’ hands and pushed Dharmapala. Refusing to either retaliate or be intimidated, Dharmapala sat down cross-legged in front of the shrine. Soon some Giris came, grabbed the statue, took it downstairs and dumped it under the verandah of the Pancha Pandu Temple. Dharmapala decided to take legal action against the Giri monks. All his friends advised against it, knowing it would only harden the already intransigent Mahant. They were also aware that while the moral right of Buddhists to worship in the Mahabodhi Temple was unimpeachable, their legal right to do so was far less certain.
On March 30th 1895, the Viceroy Lord Elgin arrived in Gaya. He assured the municipal authorities and local Indian dignitaries who assembled to welcome him that his visit had nothing to do with the recent disturbances at the Mahabodhi Temple and shortly afterwards left for Bodh Gaya. Accompanied by a small group of English officers and the solicitous Mahant, the Viceroy entered the main chamber of the temple, but when he emerged “Lo and behold! the Japanese image had disappeared.” Mr Forbes, the Commissioner of Patna, spoke “very distinctly” to the Mahant, who in turn spoke to one of his men, and by the time the Viceroy finished circumambulating the temple the statue had miraculously reappeared. The incident created a very bad impression and must have made the Mahant even more anxious about where the government’s sympathies would lie during the coming court case.
The Bodh Gaya Temple Case opened on April 8th 1895. Three Giri monks and two others were charged under Sections 295, 296 and 297 of the Indian Penal Code, which makes it a criminal offence to desecrate a place or object of worship, to disrupt a lawful act of worship and to trespass in a place of worship. All five were also charged under Section 143, which covers unlawful assembly to commit any of the above offences, and one was also charged under Section 352 for using criminal force against Dharmapala. The case for the prosecution was summarised in the court transcript thus:
The question of who is the proprietor of the Temple is … quite irrelevant to this case, but the prosecution must incidentally challenge the assertion of the defence that the Mahanth is sole and absolute proprietor, and looking to all the facts connected with its repair and guardianship by Government, Dharmapala had good reason for considering Government to be the proprietor, and Government, in taking over the Guardianship, undoubtedly continued freedom of worship to the Buddhists. Assuming, however, for the sake of argument, that the Mahanth was in some sort of possession, and was allowed to enjoy a certain usufruct in taking offerings, such possession was nevertheless subject to the long-standing right of every Buddhist to worship and perform any ceremony in accordance with the tenets of his religion in the temple, and neither Government nor Mahanth is entitled to prevent the full exercise of that right.
The trial was long and involved; however several points that emerged from it are worth highlighting. Witnesses testified that they never entered the Mahabodhi Temple because, as Hindus, they would be defiled if they did. A Hindu pandit from the Government Zillah School testified that although he had visited Bodh Gaya several times, he had never gone inside the temple because “it is a Buddhist temple and Hindus are forbidden to enter such.” One Bepin Behari testified that he had heard “Brahmin priests, accompanying Hindu pilgrims to a pipal tree in the compound, forbid them entering the temple because of it being a ‘Jain one’ “. The court also established that the Hindu worship conducted by the Mahanl in the temple was spurious and was done only “on the pretext of interfering with the dealings of the Buddhists in the Temple and strengthening whatever prescriptive rights he may possess to the usufruct of the offerings made at the Temple”. At the end of the trial, two of the accused were acquitted, while the three Giris were found guilty under Section 296 and sentenced to a month’s imprisonment and a fine of Rs 100. Although technically a victory, the judgment was a blow for Dharmapala. The trial had cost the Maha Bodhi Society RS 22.500, without getting any closer to controlling the temple, and had turned the Mahant into an implacable enemy of the Buddhists.
But worse was to come. The Mahant eventually appealed to the Calcutta High Court, which set aside the convictions. It also found that because Dharmapala had at one time offered to buy the temple from the Mahant, he had thereby sufficiently established, at least for the purposes of the case, that the Mahant did own the temple. The only positive point to emerge from the whole affair was that, after an exhaustive examination of all the evidence, the Court noted that “the question of what the exact nature and extent of the Mahant’s control over the temple is, the evidence addressed in the case does not enable us to determine.”
In 1898, Lord Curzon, British India’s greatest administrator, became Viceroy. Curzon had a highly developed sense of history and of his place in it. As a successor to Asoka, Harsha, Akbar and Hastings, he believed he should do everything in his power to preserve, protect and enhance India’s greatness, including its ancient monuments. During a visit to Mandalay in November 1901, he had been presented with a petition by a group of Buddhists from the Kuthodaw Pagoda expressing concern over the whereabouts of the gifts that the former king of Burma had offered to the Bodhi Tree in 1875. The gifts had consisted of votive offerings, statues, flowers and bowls all made out of pure gold and valued at RS 60,000. Curzon promised to investigate the matter. On his return to Calcutta, he asked the Acting Lt. Governor of Bengal to give him a full report on the matter and thus became acquainted with the situation at Bodh Gaya for the first time. After studying the whole affair with his typical thoroughness, Curzon privately made it quite clear whose side he was on. Like many of the English upper class with an interest in the Orient, Curzon saw the Buddha as a rational reformer, who had an opinion of Brahmin humbug and priestcraft similar to his own. The beautiful temple built on the spot where India’s greatest son became enlightened had, he believed, to be rescued from the greedy, superstitious Brahmins and made a national monument for the greater glory of the British Indian Empire.
In January 1903, Lord Curzon decided to visit Bodh Gaya both to see the temple and also to quiz the Mahant. When the two men met, Curzon asked why the Mahant, a Hindu, worshipped the Buddha. The Mahant replied that he looked upon the Buddha as an avatara of Vishnu. When Curzon pointed out that the Mahant was a devotee of Siva, not Vishnu, all the latter could say was that he was simply following ‘ancient custom’. Curzon left Bodh Gaya confident that the previously intransigent Mahant might now prove to be more ‘malleable’. Not wanting to appear to be personally involved, the Viceroy now got Bourdillon, the Acting Lt. Governor of Bengal, and Charles Olden, the Collector of Gaya, to put pressure on the Mahant. Olden called the Mahant for a meeting and reminded him that several court cases had by no means established his ownership of the temple and that if the government was forced to the remedy of ‘special legislation’, it could go bad for him. Moving from veiled threats to hints of rewards, Olden then suggested that should the Mahant be cooperative, the government might consider granting him some mark of esteem.
He then proposed five terms: (1) that the Mahabodhi Temple be considered a purely Buddhist one, (2) that it be handed over to the government in trust, (3) that the Bodhi Tree be reserved exclusively for Buddhist worship, (4) that the other pipal tree in the northern part of the sacred precincts be reserved for Hindu worship and (5) that the Mahant be considered grounds landlord, and as such, that he continue to receive customary gifts and fees from Hindu visitors to Bodh Gaya. Pointing out that there just happened to be a lawyer in the next room Olden then suggested that an agreement be drafted and signed straight away. The Mahant must have been feeling more than a little intimidated. However, it was an eminently fair agreement, and he promised to give it careful thought. Olden wrote to the Viceroy’s private secretary: “In the end he appeared to agree, and even went so far as to promise that he would do what I might suggest.” But during the two men’s next meeting the Mahant began to haggle, and it soon became clear that he would sign no agreement. Exasperated, Bourdillon decided to try another approach.
A commission was established to examine how and by whom the temple should be administered. Care was taken to select commissioners who had impeccable Hindu credentials so as to placate Hindu opinion but who were at the same time known to be in favour of Buddhist control of the Mahabodhi Temple. The commission was chaired by Hariprasad Shastri, the respected Sanskrit scholar and principal of the Sanskrit College in Calcutta. After meeting for some time and interviewing numerous witnesses, the commission handed down its recommendations. It found that despite the obvious Buddhist origins of the temple and despite the spurious Hindu worship being offered in it, the temple had been abandoned centuries ago and the Mahant had the right to claim it. It recommended that the management of the temple be vested in a board of five Hindus from which Buddhists be excluded. This was not the finding Curzon wanted, and he was extremely annoyed. He was also at the end of his patience, and soon more pressing concerns caught his attention. A genuine effort by Lord Curzon to wrest the Mahabodhi Temple from the Mahant and make it accessible to all had failed. He also failed to ever find out what happened to the gifts Mindon Min had offered at the Bodhi Tree, but few doubted that they had ended up in the Mahant’s coffers.
Dharmapala’s failure to win control of the temple through negotiation and legal action now compelled him to try other means. He began a campaign to win sympathy from liberal Hindus and the newly emerging leaders of the Indian National Congress. Except for Mohendas Gandhi, most men in the Congress hierarchy were secular in outlook and more favourably disposed to Buddhism than Hinduism. In 1922, at the Gaya Conference of the INC, the first substantial steps were taken to get Indian political leaders involved in the issue. The Maha Bodhi Society had prepared its strategy well. Copies of a booklet giving the temple’s history and arguing for its control by Buddhists were distributed to every delegate. The Burmese delegate (Burma was administered as a part of India at that time) raised the issue and proposed that a committee be set up to investigate the temple’s status. Rajendra Prashad, the respected Bihari lawyer, was appointed to head the committee. It was a fortuitous choice. Prashad developed a personal interest in the Mahabodhi Temple issue, and in his role as a leading Congressman and later as independent India’s first president, he did much to further the Buddhists’ cause [ 53. VIEW IMAGE].
One of the other people on the committee was Swami Ramodar Dass, who later converted to Buddhism, ordained as a monk and became famous under the name Rahula Sankrityayan. By the time the INC’s Belgaum Conference convened, in 1924, Prashad’s committee had still not met. However, a delegation of Buddhists from Sri Lanka, Burma and Nepal attended the conference and lobbied its leaders. They met with Gandhi, who was reluctant to have the matter discussed before the Congress, but after long and detailed arguments from the Buddhists, he finally agreed. At first Gandhi’s views on the temple’s ownership were quite unambiguous:
“There is no doubt that the possession of the Temple should vest in the Buddhists. There may be legal difficulties. They must be overcome”.
Several years later, however, he was far less certain that the legal difficulties could be overcome and, sadly, history proved that his doubts were justified.
I can only give you my assurance that everything that was humanly possible for me to do to advance your claim I did and I shall still do. I can only tell you however, that the Congress does not possess the influence that I would like it to possess. There are several difficulties raised in connection with proprietary rights. There are technical, legal difficulties also in the way … However, I can tell you that all my personal sympathies are absolutely with you and, if the rendering of its possession to you was in my giving, you can have it today.
The liberal and pro-Buddhist Swami Viswananda suggested to the Buddhists that if they promised to support a ban on cow slaughter and beef eating in their own countries, one of Gandhi’s pet causes, they would win much goodwill from the Congress delegates. The Buddhists jumped at the suggestion. The Sri Lankan representative, Dr Cassias A. Perera, said that beef eating had been introduced into his country by the British. The Nepalese representative told everyone that in his country the penalty for slaughtering a cow was death. He conveniently forgot to mention that this bizarre law had been passed by Nepal’s Hindu king and that the idea of executing a human being for any reason, let alone for killing an animal, would be abhorrent to a Buddhist. No matter, Gandhi and the other Hindu Congressmen were impressed, and the motion to discuss the Mahabodhi Temple issue was passed unanimously.
It was decided that Rajendra Prashad’s hitherto inactive committee should be extended to become a joint effort of the INC and the All India Hindu Mahasabha, an influential but conservative Hindu body. When the Mahasabha convened in 1925, its 4,000 delegates representing all shades of Hindu opinion were addressed by Dharmapala. As a result, a resolution was adopted calling for Buddhists to have the right to worship in the temple and to have a say in its management. Unfortunately, the general goodwill of the Hindu public was not matched by the Mahant, who refused to have anything to do with the committee sent to negotiate with him. In 1928, the Burmese MLA, U Tok Kyi, tried to introduce a bill that would provide for a management board to be elected by Buddhists from India, Burma and Sri Lanka, with the Mahant as chairman and protecting Hindu rights to worship at the temple so long as blood sacrifices were not offered. The bill was not debated. By this time Anagarika Dharmapala was old and in increasingly poor health. He gradually bowed out of the struggle, leaving the work to his deputy Devapiya Valisinha. Dharmapala died in 1933 without seeing the goal of his life fulfilled.
The skill and success that the Buddhists had in cultivating friendly relationships with most Hindus was well illustrated by what happened at the All India Hindu Mahasabha Conference at Kanpur in 1935. The well-known Burmese Buddhist monk, U Ottama, was elected conference chairman and a large delegation of Buddhists from India, Japan and Burma attended. The Conference expressed its support for the bill before the Legislative Assembly and formed as a second committee to work hand in hand with Prashad’s. Not everyone was happy that an orthodox Hindu organisation should be so generous to Buddhists. While the resolution was being discussed, several swamis rushed at the dais to try to prevent it being passed. The joint committee found it had its work cut out for it. It received a flood of letters from Hindu organisations in Sri Lanka claiming that the Hindu temple at Kataragama had been taken over by Buddhists and requesting that the Mahabodhi Temple should not be returned to Buddhists until the Kataragama temple was returned to Hindus. Prashad was exasperated by how complex the whole issue was becoming and how little cooperation he was getting from the Mahant.
Later, his committee travelled to Bodh Gaya to negotiate with the Mahant. It had been decided not to discuss his existing legal rights but to arrange an amicable settlement but, as stubborn as ever, he refused even to discuss the matter. In desperation and on his own initiative, Prashad offered to ‘buy him out’ but even this would not move him. As this course of action was obviously not going to achieve anything, Devapiya Valisinha urged the Burmese MLA, Thein Maung, to introduce a bill, substantially the same as the one that was rejected in 1928, to the Legislative Assembly. As Burma was soon to be separated from India, after which Burmese would no longer sit in the Assembly, Thein Maung moved quickly. Although the bill was introduced, it was never debated. After years of delay, Rajendra Prasad finally placed his report on the Mahabodhi Temple before the All-India Congress at Delhi on 6th March 1937, and made it clear that its recommendations would be taken up by the appropriate minister as soon as Congress took office under the new Constitution. But just as it looked like a bill legislating joint control of the temple would be introduced, all Congress ministers in the Legislative and State Assemblies resigned in block in 1939, in protest against the British.
As soon as the war ended the Maha Bodhi Society recommenced its campaign by sponsoring a joint Buddhist-Hindu conference in Patna. Jajaratnarayan Lal, President of the Bihar Provincial Hindu Mahasabha, said that he accepted that Buddhists should have some say in managing the Mahabodhi Temple. Rajendra Prashad, chairman of the conference and by then President of the Constituent Assembly, went even further. He publicly urged the Mahant to accept the principle of joint control. A year later, at the Inter Asia Conference in Delhi, delegates from China, Tibet, Nepal, Burma and Sri Lanka urged Nehru, the new prime minister of India, to bring a quick and satisfactory resolution to the problem. He promised to offer “all support for the restoration of Bodh Gaya to Buddhists”. Apart from his personal leaning towards Buddhism, Nehru was anxious that newly independent Asian countries, including his immediate neighbours Tibet, Bhutan, Sikkim, Sri Lanka and Burma, should look to India as a friend. In a letter to his principal private secretary, Nehru expressed his desire that Bodh Gaya should have a “certain international character” and that it would be “a graceful gesture to the Buddhist world” to appoint an advisory committee made up of non-Indian Buddhists to help manage the temple.
Large numbers of pilgrims had been coming to Bodh Gaya since the beginning of the century, and yet nothing was done to provide for their needs or to improve the temple. A Hindu visitor in 1930 had written that “so much dirt had gathered on the floor that the stone flooring had become quite unusable. So great was the dirt that the stench emanating from it was a little hard to endure”. When she sought the Mahant’s permission to clean the temple, he refused to give it. This devout Hindu also noticed that the Mahant tried to discourage Hindus from offering sadhanas at the Bodhi Tree by telling them that it was inhabited by flesh-eating ghosts. Early in 1946, a branch had fallen off the Bodhi Tree, and the Maha Bodhi Society took the opportunity to once again draw attention to the temple’s mismanagement. The situation was becoming an embarrassment to a newly independent India conscious of its image and it was clear that something had to be done.
Finally in 1948, after years of lobbying from the Maha Bodhi Society and, since independence, behind-the-scene pleading and arm-twisting by people like Nehru and Prashad, the draft Bodh Gaya Temple Act was circulated for public comment. The Act would provide for a committee of four Buddhists and four Hindus, with the District Magistrate of Gaya as ex-officio chairman. It was a profound disappointment for Buddhists because, as the chairman would inevitably be a Hindu, it meant that the management committee would always have a Hindu majority. The Maha Bodhi Society organised public meetings amongst India’s tiny Buddhist communities where the Act was condemned as “highly inadequate”. But it was clear that the Act was as good as the Buddhists were going to get, and when it finally passed on June 19, 1949, the Maha Bodhi Society put on a brave face and welcomed it as a “victory”. Less willing to accept a compromise, the Mahant tried to obtain an interim injunction restraining the government from enforcing the Act, although he later gave up such efforts. On Vaisakha Day, 28 May 1953, the ceremonial transfer of control of the Mahabodhi Temple from the Mahant to the new management committee took place [ 54. VIEW IMAGE]. A large crowd turned up to see the historic ceremony, and the President and Prime Minister of India, together with leaders of all Buddhist countries, sent messages of congratulations. As the historic moment approached a procession of monks preceded by an orchestra of lamas led the participants to the dais. The Mahant chanted Sanskrit hymns, Dr H. Saddhatissa chanted Pali gathas, everyone stood in silence and then, at exactly 5.30 pm, the deed of control was handed over. Almost immediately, the new management committee began making improvements and long overdue repairs. The state government laid on electricity and water, and plans were made to build a museum and a resthouse for pilgrims. Many of these improvements were in preparation for the Buddha Jayanti in 1956, which the government of India planned to celebrate in full and during which hundreds of thousands of people were expected to visit Bodh Gaya and other sacred places.
Despite being an avowedly secular state, India celebrated the Buddha Jayanti with as much enthusiasm as many Buddhist countries, mainly due to the personal interest of Nehru [ 55a. VIEW IMAGE]. It sponsored an international conference of Buddhist scholars, a special travelling exhibition of Buddhist art, published two books, produced a film and issued a stamp to commemorate the event. Indian Railways offered generous concessions for pilgrims, and the Bihar State Government commenced publishing the Pali Tipitika in Devanagari script. At Bodh Gaya itself, the highlight of the year’s celebrations took place between the 23rd and the 25th of May, when thousands of Buddhists from all over the world participated in a special puja while an aeroplane sprinkled flowers over the temple. Later in the year, on the 25th,of December, the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama arrived in India to a tumultuous welcome. Three days later, carefully watched by their Chinese minders, the two prelates delivered sermons and conducted pujas under the Bodhi Tree. [ 55. VIEW IMAGE].
In 1966, a Draft Master Plan for the development of Bodh Gaya was published which envisaged acquiring 300 acres around the temple for parks and the undertaking of complete archaeological excavation of the area, all at a cost of RS 1,700,000. It was a bold and imaginative plan which would have preserved a peaceful rural atmosphere around Bodh Gaya and guaranteed rational urban development. But years passed with nothing being done, by which time the changing situation required a revised plan which, decades later, looks like it will never be implemented.
During the 1980s, resurgent Hindu fundamentalism began to change the face of Indian politics which in turn indirectly precipitated a series of unfortunate events at Bodh Gaya. In 1991, the Janatha Dal candidate, Laloo Yadav, became Chief Minister of Bihar, the state in which Bodh Gaya is situated. Yadav was a member of the scheduled caste community and had never disguised his hostility to orthodox Hinduism. Early in 1992, he circulated a draft copy of a bill whose purpose was to replace the 1949 Bodh Gaya Temple Act with a new Bodh Gaya Mahavihar Act which would hand management of the Mahabodhi Temple to Buddhists. The bill also proposed to ban Hindu weddings being solemnised in the temple and the immersion of Hindu idols in the tank, both recent practices. The first proposal was welcomed by Buddhists although the other two were not; Buddhists have never advocated limiting Hindu worship in the temple. While many believed that the proposed bill was meant to be a slap in the face of orthodox Hinduism and a way for Yadav to win voles from the newly politically aware low caste communities, it nonetheless highlighted unresolved Buddhist grievances about Bodh Gaya. For years there had been persistent allegations of theft of both funds and antiquities from the temple, and Buddhists on the management committee had long complained that their suggestions for improvements to the temple were routinely voted down by the Hindu majority. When the Mahant became aware of the bill, he vowed to oppose it by “all means at my disposal”. He was supported by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the party that drew support from Hindu fundamentalists, and suddenly Bodh Gaya became drawn into the volatile world of Indian party politics.
On 16th May, Vaisakha Day, arguments and threats escalated into violence. There are conflicting accounts of what happened but reliable sources say that events unfolded thus. A group of between 150 and 200 Ambedkarites (outcast converts to Buddhism) arrived in Bodh Gaya to celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment. They were accosted by the Brahmin in the Pancha Pandu Temple, who routinely demands money from visitors. They refused and he insulted them. That such people are still subject to Brahmin contempt when they visit the most sacred shrine of the religion they have adopted in order to escape that very type of treatment, must have been particularly galling. They returned the brahmin’s insults and a brief scuffle broke out. The Ambedkarites then entered the Pancha Pandu Temple, tore off the Hindu vestments that were draped on the Buddha statues and then marched to the Mahabodhi Temple itself and tried to break the Siva lingam placed on the floor. Fears that the trouble at Bodh Gaya might trigger serious riots, like those caused by the recent dispute over the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya, were quite out of proportion, but troops were posted around the temple just in case. The problem and its solution were well summed up by the editorial in The Hindustan Times on 2nd June 1992:
The Bodh Gaya Temple, whose antiquarian past is shrouded in mystery, is associated with Lord Buddha’s message of harmony and peace, and as such holds a pride of place among Buddhist shrines all over the world. Yet it was an irony that the Buddhists did not have any say in the temple management, which remained in the hands of the Mahant of the area, whose strong-arm methods against agricultural labourers spawned a powerful popular movement in the seventies and the eighties and who, incidentally, owns vast tracts of land, far in excess of the ceiling fixed under the law. It required the persuasive skills of national leaders like DR Rajendra Prasad and enactment of the Bodh Gaya Temple Act, 1949, to get the temple freed from the Mahant’s clutches and involve the Buddhists in its management. Even under the Act, the temple management remained, in effect, in the hands of the Hindus, much against the wishes of the Buddhists. Some of the Janata Dal leaders whose antipathy towards the upper castes is scarcely concealed, found in the temple issue an opportunity to consolidate their position among the backward classes, more so the neo-Buddhists, both within and without the State. Thus was brought in the draft of a Bill seeking to hand over the management almost entirely to the Buddhists and banning Hindu sacraments in its premises. With certain Hindu organisations jumping into the fray, the once peaceful temple is heading towards trouble. It is a reflection of the changing times that the Hindus and Buddhists, who have for centuries worshipped shoulder to shoulder at the temple, are being pitted as adversaries. And that too in the name of a temple from where the message of universal love and peace emanated. It would be a travesty of justice if the Buddhists were not to enjoy a pre-eminent position in the management of the temple. But even they would not deny the right of worship to those Hindus, who regard the temple as sacred. The dispute can be resolved without much difficulty through talks between the leaders of the two communities in a give-and-take manner.
How things will unfold at Bodh Gaya remains to be seen, but it is unlikely that a dispute which has already dragged on for nearly a hundred years can be settled “without much difficulty”. Either way, Bodh Gaya’s power to fascinate and move visitors and its importance as a focal point for Buddhist devotion will remain unchanged. May it be so forever.
Copyright 2007 © Ven. S. Dhammika. All rights reserved.