Tangled Branches

Wednesday July 26, 2006

Mahabodhi Temple

There’s a bit of a storm going down at the moment over at Bodha Gaya with the recent report that the Bodhi Tree, which is said to mark the place where the Buddha reached his awakening, has been vandalised. According to the Bangkok Post, the tree – which is said to be a direct descendent of the original Bodhi tree, and which is at the centre of the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Mahabodhi temple – was reported vandalised on the 20th of July, leading to an outcry by local monks (see the report here). The plot thickened when Bhante Anand, President of the Akhil Bharatiya Bhikkhu Mahasangh (ABBM), an Indian organisation of Indian Buddhist monks, claimed “We have information that the branch was sold to some Japanese for money in connivance with the temple management committee” (see the report in the Hindustan Times ). Meanwhile, the chief priest at the temple Ven. Bodhipal has claimed that there has been no vandalism, and that the apparently missing branch is merely an old cut from an official pruning of the tree some thirty years ago. Still other reports say that the branch was pruned back in the seventh century. An inquiry has been organised, and and expert group has been sent to the tree to try to establish the facts.

It seems a lot of fuss over a branch, but passions run high at Bodh Gaya, and there is a long history of political and religious tension surrounding the site. The current Bodh Gaya temple management committee is made up of nine members, the majority of whom must by law be Hindus, a state of affairs that is rooted in the long history of the temple and its incumbents.

To get the full story, it is necessary to go back a bit. The temple was built some time around the fifth century, and thrived until the twelfth century and the coming of Islam to Northern India. By the end of the thirteenth century, Buddhism had gone into sharp decline and the temple was abandoned. It was in 1590 that a wandering Saivite sannyasin by the name of Gossain Ghamandi Giri turned up at the temple, set up a small monastery and gathered a group of followers around him. He also managed to buy much of the land in the surrounding area. Gossain was recognised by his followers and – some say – by the Moghul rulers in Delhi as a Mahant, a saintly leader, and the lineage of Saivite Mahants assumed de facto if not de jure temporal and spiritual jurisdiction over the site until the nineteenth century.

In the nineteenth century that Buddhist world began, as a result of improved international transport systems as well, to wake up to Bodh Gaya’s existence as a real place in India. From 1819 to 1837 King Bagyidaw of Burma worked to reawaken interest in the site and donated funds for the site’s restoration. However this task was complicated by the distance of Bodh Gaya from Burma and the fact that the Mahants considered themselves, not without reason, to have jurisdiction over the temple. Later in the century the British, with their avid concern for archaeology, set about restoring the temple, and pressure from the British Indian government grew to have the temple returned to Buddhist hands.

In 1885 the poet, scholar, editor and opium enthusiast, Edwin Arnold visited the temple. Arnold had achieved fame for his epic poem The Light of Asia, which documented the Buddha’s life and awakening. Arnold wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph under the title East and West, A Splendid Opportunity arguing that it should be returned to Buddhist control.

It was at this point that Buddhist activist, Anagarika Dharmapala took matters into his own hands. On February 25th 1895, Dharmapala went to the temple with a stone sculpture of the Buddha, climbed up to the second storey and entered the inner chamber. Once inside, he set up the image on an altar and calmly arranged flowers, incense and candles in front of the Buddha figure. Then Sumangala, the monk who had been his mentor in earlier life, turned up and began a ceremony to consecrate the shrine: not a simple act of religious worship so much as a political statement. As Sumangala was beginning the ceremony a group of men – supporters of the Saivite Mahants – entered the room and disrupted the ceremony, snatching away the Buddha image and dumping it outside the temple to lie the grass in the morning sun.

Dharmapala fought a protracted legal battle for control of the temple which ended eventually in defeat in 1906. An uneasy compromise was reached and remained in place for over forty years. Then in 1949 the Bodh Gaya Temple Act made the state government responsible for the temple and provided for a committee that, although it should include Buddhists, would be predominantly Hindu (the make up of the committee, the Act said, should be four Buddhists, four Hindus, and a chairman from the local government who should also be a Hindu). The act was implemented in 1953 and has been in place ever since. This has not been a satisfactory conclusion for everyone: currently there is a movement amongst the growing Indian Buddhist community to return control of the temple to an all-Buddhist committee.

So these are tangled branches indeed. It is hard not to see recent events in Bodh Gaya in the context of this fraught history. There are, I suspect, two issues here. The first is that of the branch: has a branch been removed? If so, by whom? And how should the tree be protected? The second issue, which perhaps is rumbling away in the background, is the larger one: the question of who should have control over the temple?

With regard to the first of these issues, it seems to me that to respond to an event that may or may not happened with “hurt and anger” seems, to put it mildly, a little premature: surely a more sober, careful and patient exploration of the facts is in order. And to term something vandalism when close inspection cannot demonstrate whether it has taken place or not is to use unnecessarily inflammatory language.

With regard to the second issue, things are more serious. There is a very real danger of divisiveness that comes from such claims to historical rights. Historical claims are easy enough to justify, but at the same time the path of rummaging through history to seek justification for any desired states of affairs in the present is potentially endless, and thus endlessly divisive.

When it comes down to the practice of the buddha-dhamma, I can’t help thinking that it is more important to nourish the roots of practice than to fret over the fate of a single tree, or over questions of its stewardship. Bhikkhu Bodhi writes that it is through the practice of ethics that this can be done. Through a concern, that is to say, not with my rights – historical or otherwise – but rather with the responsibilities that I bear towards others:

The vigour of the spiritual life, like the vigour of a tree, depends upon healthy roots. Just as a tree with weak and shallow roots cannot flourish but will grow up stunted, withered and barren, so a spiritual life devoid of strong roots will also have a stunted growth incapable of bearing fruit. To attempt to scale the higher stages of the path it is essential at the outset to nourish the proper roots of the path; otherwise the result will be frustration, disillusionment, and perhaps even danger. The roots of the path are the constituents of sila, the factors of moral virtue. These are the basis for meditation, the ground for all wisdom and higher achievement.

UNESCO temple site
Mahabodhi Temple Site

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#1 · Ric

22 July 2006

What would Buddha do? I think not squable over something so material as a building or a tree.

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