The Bodh Gaya Agitation: Random Reflections

published on January 4, 2010

By Dharman Dharmaratnam

Media reports in my native Sri Lanka indicate that Indian Buddhist monks have initiated a fast unto death campaign in Bodh Gaya. The agitation is intended to obtain full control over the management of the Maha Bodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya. Ram Vilas Paswan and his Lok Janshakti Party have pledged support to this end. The National Minorities Commission is poised to intervene and has requested a meeting with the Governor of Bihar to resolve the issue.

The Mahabodhi Temple Management Act of 1949 provides for four Buddhist and four Hindus to sit in the Temple Management Committee with the Gaya District Magistrate as its ex-officio chairman. The agitating monks want this Act rescinded.
Ram Vilas Paswan and his party failed to win any seat in Bihar at the last general elections. The latest move appears to be an effort to restore his political standing in light of the upcoming state elections.
The current temple at Bodh Gaya was likely constructed in the late Gupta period in the 6th century CE (common era). It was renovated under the Pala dynasty in the 9th century CE. The temple was abandoned during the Muslim invasions of the 12th century.

Mendicant Saivite monks moved into the by now deserted premises in the 16th century CE. The Sri Lankan Buddhist activist, Anagaraka Dharmapala, established the Mahabodhi society in 1891 CE to lobby for the restoration of Buddhist control of the shrine. Nehruvian India accommodated his demand by enacting the Mahabodhi Temple Management Act of 1949. A Buddhist role in temple management was recognized without removing the Hindu presence. The agitating neo-Buddhist monks now seek to over turn this legislation and remove any Hindu presence in temple administration.
There are several examples where ownership of Hindu temples passed onto Buddhist control. I would highlight just two.

Kathirkaamam or Kataragrama in southern Sri Lanka is a forest shrine of unknown antiquity dedicated to the Hindu god Kartikeya or Murukan. It is in reality a cluster of religious shrines dedicated to Kartikeya, the Buddha, Vishnu, Ganesha and Devi all adjacent to each other in the deeply Sinhalese south of the island.

The medieval Sinhalese chronicle, the Rajavaliya, links the temple to the founder of the Sinhalese race – Vijaya in the 6th century BCE. Another late poem – the Kanda Upata claims that the Hindu temple had been constructed by a Sinhalese king in the 2nd century BCE. These are unverified accounts.

What is likely is that the temple complex existed in the 11th century CE when the Sinhalese resistance moved south in the face of the Chola invasions. A later Sinhalese king Sitawake Rajasinghe, who successfully fought the Portuguese in the 16th century CE, adopted Saivite Hinduism to consolidate his military efforts. He awarded custodianship of Kathirkaamam to Saivite Hindu monks. Several North and South Indian sanyasins made this pilgrimage site their home in the 18th century CE. As this area had no year round Tamil Hindu presence, temple management gradually passed on to Buddhist hands in the 19th century. Independent Sri Lanka removed the Ramakrishna Mutt from the vicinity of the temple complex in 1970.

Angkor Wat in Cambodia is the largest religious edifice in the world. It was built and consecrated to the Hindu god Vishnu in the 11th century CE. The Khmer kings, largely Hindu since the 7th century CE, adopted Theravada/Hinayana Buddhism under Sri Lankan influence in the 13th century CE. A weakened Khmer empire collapsed immediately thereafter in the face of a vigorous Thai onslaught. Cambodia was decimated and the Angkor Wat complex abandoned. Buddhist monks moved into the deserted premises much later in the 16th century CE. Their presence continues to this day.

The two cases illustrate that temples initially constructed under one religious tradition were subsequently abandoned due to political exigencies. This enabled another religious persuasion to enter the scene and assume administration of the shrine. This is not necessarily an instance of religious usurpation but a reflection of the changed demographic equation on the ground.
Bihar is governed by a NDA-led coalition led by Nitish Kumar with BJP backing. Nitish Kumar, despite his stellar development record, can not win the next state elections without BJP or Congress support given the complex caste equation. This said, Ram Vilas Paswan is desperate to revive his political constituency.

A newly revitalized BJP under its new leadership should not agree to any change in the Mahabodhi Temple Management Act of 1949 unless the issues of Varanasi (Gyanvapi mosque) and Mathura (Aurangzeb’s mosque) are also resolved in a constructive and enlightened manner to the satisfaction of all parties.

The Bodh Gaya case can not be unilaterally bull dozed by political stunts and gimmicks. Varanasi and Mathura occupy the same presence in the Hindu psyche as does Bodh Gaya to Buddhists.

The effort to reopen the case by neo-Buddhists, Ram Vilas Paswan and the National Minorities Commission is intended to deny Hinduism any presence in the temple management. This fits in with the ‘minoritization’ of the Indian political space since 2004.

The concept of a fast unto death campaign is not Buddhist. It is a Jain concept – Sallekhana – which was adopted by M.K. Gandhi in his political struggle. The Buddha would have disapproved of a hunger strike. The sole requirement of a Buddhist monk is to seek enlightenment, not engage in political hate campaigns.

The intellectual discourse in India today chooses to ignore the destructive nature of neo-Buddhist politics in India. Hinduism is instead maligned as having usurped the space occupied by other religionists. While it is now legitimate for minority religions to mobilize politically on religious grounds, Hinduism is denied similar prerogatives on the secular pretext. A firm response is therefore needed not to give in unless broader issues relevant to the Hindu agenda are also addressed.

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