'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Buddha, Pizza and India

Let me begin with Pizza, the second item listed above(*). A quote from Wikipedia:

The 'Pizza Effect' is a term used especially in religious studies for the process by which cultural exports are transformed and reimported to their culture of origin,[1] or the way in which a community's self-understanding is influenced by (or imposed by, or imported from) foreign sources.[2] It is named after a chronology of the history of pizza that notes, roughly, the development of modern pizza among Italian-American immigrants (rather than in native Italy where in its simpler form it was originally looked down upon), and its export back to Italy to be interpreted as a delicacy in Italian cuisine.

The article goes on to say: "it was Westerners who created the rational *protestant Buddhism* of modern Sri Lanka and then mistook it for an indigenous Sri Lankan product, and so also did a Sri Lankan Buddhist spokesman, Anagarika Dharmapala, sell this protestantized Buddhism back to West when he appeared at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893.

On 'protestant Buddhism', Wiki says: "Buddhist modernist traditions often consist of a deliberate de-emphasis of the ritual and metaphysical elements of the religion, as these elements are seen as incommensurate with the discourses of modernity. Renunciation of worldly matters, devotional practices, ceremonies and the invocation of bodhisattvas among other traditionally widespread practices are often perceived as culturally contingent, therefore rather dispensable, sometimes inconvenient or impracticable. A number of Buddhist Modernist traditions, especially during the colonial period, have also been characterized as a defensive reaction against the threat of Western hegemony, wherein Buddhist Modernists attempted to protect their native Buddhist traditions from modernist attacks by presenting their traditions as being more commensurate with, and often transcending, modernity".

And now, let me get the post proper going from, as usual, my childhood in Kerala.

My first introduction to Buddha and Buddhism was a Hindu Nationalist one - via Amar Chitra Kathas. These volumes present Buddha with great pride as the greatest of *Indians* and with equal pride as the greatest of *Hindus* - indeed, nothing less than an Avatara of Vishnu. Needless to say,given my own Hindu background, such a picture was quite ... pleasing! Although no one in my family circle actually worshipped Buddha, he was held in a vague but real reverence - he still is.

The first alternative picture came from 'Aitihyamala' the classic collection of Keralan tradition. The articles on 'Pallibana Perumal'and 'Sanghakkali', present Buddhism as a troublesome and devious heresy which was gotten rid of with great effort and suffering. Here is a telling statement, reminding the reader: "As everyone knows, Vishnu took the Buddha form only to misguide and ruin the enemies of the Vedas" (Note: Much later I saw that this traditional 'pied piper' role of Buddha vis-a-vis the heretics is mentioned in Britannica too). I clearly remember wondering "What was so wicked about Buddhism that folks wanted it out?"

A teacher, who taught us Kerala history at High School struck a more serious blow. The gist of what he said was: "Kerala was once strongly Buddhist. There was no caste discrimination and other evils. But then, the Brahmins and orthodox Hindus hatched a plot to get rid of the egalitarian and peaceful Bhikshus - they started ritual slaughter of animals and singing of ribald songs in front of Viharas and other similar scandalous practices and sometimes even killed a monk or three. The peace-loving Buddhism could not withstand this concerted attack and soon got totally stamped out! Most Hindu holy places in Kerala - Vadakkunnathan temple, Kodungallur temple, Sabarimala, Gurvayur...- (and even in India at large) were originally Buddhist centers and were snatched from them."

Surprised, indeed shocked, I cross-checked the teacher's statements and soon found he was not being original at all. Such descriptions of Savarna wickedness abound in standard narratives of Kerala history. Some details would differ - the Jains were sometimes brought into the picture in a supporting role as peaceable collaborators to Buddhists and victims of Hindu reactionaries(**).Sankaracharya sometimes would get a look-in as a major Hindu troublemaker (I recall an article that described him as "the one man who banished the noble and universal doctrine of Buddhism from India and established a heartless Brahminism in its place"). Sometimes there would be accusations that Kerala's infamous Untouchability practices began as an apartheid against Buddhist communities which persisted even after they were forcibly Hinduised... But the broad story remained the same.

And such stories were often backed by serious evidence from all over India. The ancient Tamil classic 'Periyapuranam' proudly talks of attacks made by fanatical Siva worshippers on anyone who does not toe their line, with Buddhists and Jains sometimes clearly mentioned (Details: the intolerance shown in this work is robustly mutual and Jains are more often the anti-heros than the Buddhists; of course, the Saivas always win!). In AP, among traditional Hindus, 'Buddhavataram' was a word used to refer to a good for nothing loafer. I suspect even the Hindi 'Buddhu'(idiot) must have had its origins as a religious slur.

But then how did Buddha rise again from obscurity/ridicule to reverance? The simple answer is 'Pizza effect'. The colonial experience not only made the aspiring builders of a Hindu nation feel inadequate about the achievements of their forebears, what with western judgements that "they have no history or sense of history"; the Brits also rediscovered our Buddhist past and said such nice things about whatever they discovered - in a few quick strokes, India got a great man of deep antiquity (Buddha), great architecture and art from pre-Christian times (Sanchi, Ajanta,..),... And we got Ashoka, great (and forgotten) emperor and vitally from the Hindu viewpoint, a sort of 'counterweight' to all those Muslim emperors who ruled India.

Of course, one vital step needed to be taken: to assert with Swami Vivekananda that Buddha was first and foremost a Hindu reforming his inherited faith - just as Jesus was a Jew reforming and perfecting Judaism. With his inimitable chutzpah, Swamiji declared: "the Jews did not understand Jesus. But the Hindus understood Buddha and adopted his lessons even better than those who call themselves Buddhists!" (some legends even say Vivekananda claimed to be the reincarnation of Buddha, in which case it might not have been just a coincidence that he and Anagarika Dharmapala both came into limelight at the very same venue in Chicago!).

In the matter of a few decades, Buddha made a glorious comeback to India. And Buddhism followed(***); and that set in motion another interesting process: over the years, several eminent Indians, ranging from those seriously unhappy with Hinduism to those vaguely uncomfortable with their Hindu backgrounds, explored and/or embraced Buddhism, a faith that appeared free from all of Hinduism's ills - examples range from Dr. Ambedkar and D.D.Kosambi to Pankaj Mishra (studied Buddhism and published plenty on the Master, always referring to him as 'the Buddha'), Balachandran Chullikkad (formally converted to Buddhism, quoting Hindu ill-treatment of scavengers), Priyanka Gandhi (often referred to in the media as a 'practising Buddhist') and Kancha Ilaiah ("I do hate Hinduism!"). The following is a quote from a biography of Ambedkar which we studied in the final year at school (state-run syllabus) - this book, while often (understandably) anti-Savarna and sometimes anti-Hindu, has the following succinct assessment of Buddhism: "Buddhism is based on love for fellow-humans. It enshrines compassion. It exalts Equality. And it is Indian".

That brings me to one intriguing mystery: If one were to say Buddha is the least criticised among the Masters, there may just about be some disagreement - there is certainly competition from Jesus and maybe Socrates (Note: Bertrand Russel compares these three gentlemen and says Jesus ranks a little below the others in moral quality, proving his 'result' by assertion). But there can't be any doubt on this: Buddhism is, by light-years, the *least criticized religion* in the entire modern world. And its utter freedom/immunity from criticism surprises me one hell of a lot. The contrast with Hinduism, which is often attacked not only *for* its caste practices but *as nothing but a synonym for institutionalised untouchability* (or with the various Christian churches, which are often under attack for deviating from Jesus' teaching by many who revere the Master above all or Islam for that matter) is stark. Just compare the reverence received by the present pope (or even John Paul II) from non-Catholics and that received by the Dalai Lama from non-Buddhists!

Against such a setting, consider the following well-known historical facts:

1. 90 percent of Japanese have some kind of association with Buddhism. But while Jap Buddhism is credited with Zen, Haiku, rock gardens, tea ceremony and so many subtle and delicate cultural contributions, it is never held to have had anything to do with Japanese imperialism and countless associated atrocities, beginning with the the rape of Nanking (and according to at least some accounts, the Japanese army's treatment of the Indian populace of Andamans was a scandal, even by World War II standards) or with Japan cultivating elaborate economic contacts with the former racist regime in South Africa.

2. In overwhelmingly Buddhist Kambodia and Vietnam were perpetrated some of the worst massacres of the 20th century. But the blame goes to extreme Communism or American imperialist goondaism, as the case may be, but never to Buddhism.

3. In Sri Lanka, the Buddhist clergy was often in the vanguard of Sinhala assaults on the Tamil population (allegedly, some monks even changed the solemn assertion of faith in Buddha's teaching to the war cry: "Yuddham Saranam Gacchami!"). But here is what Britannica says: " There is no record of Buddhists persecuting followers of other religions. ... In Sri Lanka, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam coexit. It could be due to the innate tolerance of Buddhism which sees Buddha, Jesus and Allah as aspects of the same divinity." The mostly Buddhist Sinhala community has had caste-based discrimination for long - and just as in India, the associated inequities have been widely exploited by Christian missionaries (see the Wiki article on 'Caste in Sri Lanka'). But then, Sinhala caste system could only be a product of Tamil Hindu influence - because Buddhism is egalitarian!

4. Over the years, thousands have perished in riots in Burma's Arakan region between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims. Even if the entire blame for the violence is to be handed out to 'Muslim provocation', what about the atrocities and human rights violations committed by the ruling military junta - Burma is 90 percent Buddhist?

6. China, which has had a solid Buddhist presence for millennia, must be the country which inflicted violent deaths on the highest number of its own people, not just in numbers but in proportions (Rwanda might offer some competition). Some of this Chinese violence has recently been directed at Tibetan Buddhist monks but there are versions of history (one of which is associated with N. Ram) which say the pre-Communist Tibet was a cruelly medieval feudal society with the Lama-led clergy ruling the roost. Vikram Seth has recorded a Tibetan saying "I would not want to be ruled by priests (although) being ruled by the Hans (the dominant Chinese ethnic group) is not much better!". Chinese history also gives us an example of a (quite violent) Buddhist secret revolutionary organization - the 'White Lotus' which inspired, among other events, the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

I add a personal anecdote. A medical student from Bhutan, a very Buddhist country, was heard saying: "We do eat meat, including the yak. But we don't kill the animals, we are Buddhists you know. There is a special set of low-class people who do butchery."

A concluding note: Narratives on the eclipse of Indian Buddhism have been useful ammunition against Hindu nationalist allegations of Muslim aggression and iconoclasm and the conversion attempts by Christian Evangelists: "You guys were quite mean to the poor Buddhists! So just give up all those fancy claims of Hindu tolerance and stuff. It is not just the Abrahamic religions that indulge in fanatical intolerance." Fair enough, but I do seriously doubt if the alleged Savarna persecution of Indian Buddhism really ever was such a horrible one-way traffic - I certainly don't think the monks and Buddhist laity of ancient Kerala were lily-livered enough to just roll over and die/convert when a few animals were slaughtered or obscene songs sung - Buddhism has seldom been particular about vegetarianism and several sects of Buddhism have practised 'obscene' Tantrik rites (****). Neither am I convinced that the Buddhism of ancient India was egalitarian or socialist in the modern sense - more likely, Indian Buddhism was largely an urban, mercantile movement, pretty much like Jainism still is. Buddhism's modern emergence as a refuge for Dalits appears to have been Ambedkar's inspired innovation which had little serious basis in historical fact (although it could well have had a basis in Buddha's core teaching).


(*) 'Tlon, Uqbar and Orbis Tertius' begins with a description of 'Uqbar' and not 'Tlon'!

(**) Ancient Kerala gives us an example of Buddhist-Jain give and take. The authors of 'Silappatikaram' and its sequel 'Manimekalai' were a Jain and a Buddhist monk respectively and close friends (Tradition says so). I know of no other episode of happy coexistance, let alone serious collaboration, between practitioners of these two rather similar faiths. Even this example is legendary and open to dispute - and Tams could say "Yet another Mallu attempt to appropriate the authors of the greatest Tamil classics!"

(***) In what is perhaps a strange historical loop, the Guruvayur temple, which adopts an absurdly reactionary stance on admitting those whose Hindu-ness is in any kind of doubt, recently welcomed the Buddhist Mahinda Rajapaksa, saying, "Buddhists are our own people". And among the elephants owned by this temple is a young tusker named 'Siddharthan'!

(****) I would like to point here to an article by the outstanding Keralan scholar N. V. Krishna Variyar on the 'History of Buddhism in India' (in part, an analysis of the work of Lama Taranatha, a Tibetan monk/historian of the 16th century) where he cogently argues that both the tantric sacrifice of animals and use of obscenity in esoteric religious formulae were very likely Buddhist innovations. The monks worked out an entire secret dialect called 'Sandhabhasha'; works in it were literally full of utter obscenities but with the aid of a dictionary known only to insiders, their cryptic spiritual messages would be revealed. And this trick was often employed the other way - perfectly bland images and phrases were sometimes used to convey profane meanings!

Using obscene and offensive language to write secret works on sorcery was a very widespread practice. 'Aitihyamala' says that the legendary Christian priest and sorceror Kadamattathu Kathanar "composed many treatises on black magic but they are all written in a rather foul and filthy dialect"!