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Buddhism, Bhakti and the VHP - I

By Gail Omvedt

It is not simply a question of the VHP's problem with Buddhism. Hindutva's supporters today have to falsify even the bhakti movement.

WHEN MAHENDRA Bodh, Madhya Pradesh's Home Minister, chaired an "International Conference on Buddhism" in Bhopal on November 22 and 23, BJP legislators tried to disrupt the proceedings, charging out of the Assembly hall, shouting slogans and overturning a bookstall. Their charge was that a book being sold had slandered Ram and Sita. The VHP leaders including Giriraj Kishore and the Union Minister, Uma Bharti, quickly jumped to the cause of defending the gods from heretics. Ms. Bharti compared the Chief Minister, Digvijay Singh, to Ravana who had become a traitor to his supposed upper caste origins, while other Hindutva leaders argued that if a Buddhist conference was to be held at government expense, then why not a "Hindu conference"?

The effort got a fitting reply. Mr. Digvijay Singh in his inimitable style noted that the actions of "my friends in the Opposition" had shown "the naked face of fascism". While "they are proud of this sort of thing", he said, "we will meet violence with non-violence and deal with them in our way". The goondaism of the BJP legislators' actions contrasted starkly with the theme of peace and justice stressed by so many speakers at the conference, from Buddhist monks and intellectuals to foreign dignitaries from Sri Lanka, Japan, Taiwan and Tibet. The conference organiser, Tulsi Ram of JNU, charged the Hindutva forces with neglecting the criteria of truth and pointed out that they had not only demolished the Babri Masjid but encroached on the main Buddhist temple at Bodh Gaya, the place of the Buddha's enlightenment.

He also responded to the criticism that the Madhya Pradesh Government had spent Rs. 10 lakhs for holding a Buddhist conference by recalling the crores of rupees spent by the New Delhi Government for the Kumbh mela in Allahabad two years ago. Finally, it was revealed that the book in question had been published in Uttar Pradesh with government permission at a time when the BJP was in power.

Further, if Buddhism is part of Hinduism as the VHP has claimed for so long, why should it be so clearly disturbed by a Buddhist conference? In the end, the Hindutva forces ended up looking violent and unreasonable, while the message of the Buddha was heard from many sources inside and outside the hall: "Never in this world can hatred be appeased by hatred; it will only be appeased by non-hatred — this is the ancient law." The VHP these days generally appears confused about what a "Hindu identity" really means. Buddha, to the orthodox, has for centuries been considered an avatar of Vishnu. However, in 1999, a "joint communique" in the Mahabodhi society office at Sarnath signed by "Vipassanacharya Goenkaji" and the Shankaracharya of Kanchi announced, among other things, that "due to whatever reason some literature was written in the past in which the Buddha was declared to be a reincarnation of Vishnu... In order to foster friendlier ties between the two communities we decide that whatever has happened in the past should be forgotten and such beliefs should not be propagated." Perhaps the VHP has officially decided now that Buddhism is not, after all, a part of Hinduism and that is why it feels free to attack its conferences. Certainly, whatever the stories about a Buddha avatar, the Hindutva forces have never felt the least kinship with or love for the Buddha.

The question of violence has been an important dividing line. Buddhism was never absolutely non-violent, even for monks, and many stories contrast the psychological orientation of Buddhism — unintended killing does not count — to the extreme asceticism of the Jainas. As for lay devotees, the "chakravarti" king was expected to provide seeds for farmers, salaries for government employees, investment funds for merchants and, above all, wealth to the destitute — but he was also expected to exercise police power to protect the conditions under which people produce and accumulate wealth. Ashoka never gave up his army, nor for that matter did he stop capital punishment — he only mitigated it by granting frequent pardons. However, the Buddhists did critique the "kshatriya dharma" and the tranquil, calm image of the Buddha contrasts with the new stress on Hindutva militancy. Feminists also will remember, from the time of the smashing of the Babri Masjid, the violent slogans of Sadhvi Ritambhara ("ek dhaka-aur do!") and their justification: "All our goddesses are armed." Interestingly enough, this claim that armed gods and goddesses lead to effective warfare is belied by the fact that, as military historians agree, the caste division of Indian armies weakened them heavily in the face of invasions, while Buddhist-influenced countries such as China and Japan are hardly known for military weakness!

It is not simply a question of the VHP's problem with Buddhism. Hindutva's supporters today have to falsify even the bhakti movement, especially that section of it represented by Kabir, Ravidas, Mira, Tukaram and many others who are the popular face of Hinduism today to the masses of Indians. The bhakti movement in northern and western India flourished during the 15th-17th centuries, a period which came after two centuries of Hindu-Muslim cultural symbiosis. Sufis became active especially in northern and eastern India during the 12th and 13th centuries, later in the Deccan and south India. This led to a cultural cross-breeding that brought remarkable developments in music and literature, for instance Amir Khusrau, the greatest Indo-Islamic poet in the Persian language, later considered the first Hindi poet, born in India and expressing pride in his native land throughout his poetry. In religion, it helped the emergence of a radical bhakti movement. And bhakti Sants did in fact accept much of the traditional scriptures and the authority of the Brahmans. But this was clearly not true of the radicals of this movement.

Can the Kabir who wrote the following ever be acceptable to Muslim-hating Hindutva supporters?

Jete aurat mard upaane, so sab rup tumhaaraa,

Kabir pongaraa Allah-Ram kaa, so guru-pir hamaar.

"Wherever women and men are born, all are forms of yourself,

Kabir is the child of Allah-Ram, He is my guru and my pir" (Bijak, Shabd #97).

And Kabir's words are repeated today in the songs of street theatre groups such as Sahmat:

Hindu kahai mohi Ram piyaaraa, Turuk kahai Rahimaanaa,

Aapus me do lari lari muuye, marm na kahu jaanaa.

``Hindus say Ram is beloved, Turks say Rahiman,

They die fighting each other, never knowing the essence.'' (Shabd #4)Those familiar with Kabir will know that while he took the name "Ram" as a symbol for the absolute, he rejected again and again the divinity of the "historical" Ram and the ten avatars — and even in regard to Ram as absolute he could at times sound radically humanistic:

Zhagada ek baDhaa Raja Ram, jo niruvaare so nirvaan,

Brahma baDhaa ki jahan seaayaa, veda baDhaa ki jinhaa upjaayaa,

i man baDhaa ki jehi man maanaa, Ram baDhaa ki Ramhi jaanaa,

Bhrami-bhrami Kabir phire udaas, tirth baDhaa ki tirth kaa daas?

``It's a great quarrel, King Ram, he who solves it is free from bonds:

Is Brahma greater or his origin? Are the Vedas greater or who created them?

Is the mind greater or what it honours? Is Ram greater or one who knows him?

Kabir, detached, wanders the earth - is the holy place great or the devotee'' (Shabd #112).

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