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Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Do we have the moral right to claim credit for championing Buddhism?

A certain amount of jingoism is alright. 

Recent history or economic competitiveness justifies our eagerness to rise to the defense of our motherland, laudable. But… do we ever introspect before jumping to claim moral high-ground?  

There is no denying the fact that Buddha lived here or that we have not forgotten his principal teachings. The Hindu religious beliefs and practices today have more in common with his teachings than the Brahmanic religion which had preexisted. No wonder, the founder of the six branches of latter Hinduism, Sankara, was called Pracchanna Buddha (Buddha in disguise). 

When the Tibetan theocracy had a crisis we had immediately embraced them. Was it an entirely altruistic act? Or had it sprung from our love for the religion which had disappeared from this country a millennium ago? Yes, we may say it’s neither. It was a simple act of a good neighbor. Great!

That act alone holds us in good stead today and, gives us a reason to boast. 

While we are blowing the trumpets about the Global Buddhist Congregation at New Delhi, shouldn’t our attention be drawn towards some of our failings too? Here, I’m not talking about the abuse and persecution we had meted out when the teachings of Buddha became no longer fashionable or feasible in an environment of war, political fragmentation and general unrest which characterized the medieval times. It was not only here. Across a large swathe of Central and Western Asia the socio-political compulsions had dictated that we adopt violent, sectarian faiths. It’s a historic truth. And, any burden of guilt, if you carry, its fine; but any compulsion is unreasonable. Luckily, Buddhism had survived, where geography allowed isolation.

Asokan Inscription at Sannati
But… with the coming of modern age, when the likes of Cunningham and Marshall exposed our collective consciousness to that phase in history, in which the people of this country, our ancestors, nurtured and propagated a tradition which was systematically erased in later times; we had recognized a prize, a crutch for our wounded self esteem. We had grabbed at it with both hands to prop up our immediate agenda – no doubt symbolically – to validate our secular and egalitarian credentials.

We had drawn what we needed. Period 

If you say that… 
‘with knowledge must come, responsibility’; 
and now that we know that our country has the custody of a heritage,
Shouldn't we be accountable to the millions of people who cherish it?  

We just provide lip service and nothing tangible. Of course, the sites and monuments associated with the faith give an opportunity for the enterprising amongst us, to wangle an extra dollar or yen from the faithful. Alright, but where it is not allowed by law, the political and administrative apathy is amply evident.

Portrait of King Asoka (ranyo asoka inscribed on top)
Examples? There are many. 

One that comes to mind is Kanaganahalli or Sannati, a Buddhist site discovered in 1993-94. 

It is a short distance from Yadgir, a district headquarter town in Karnataka. 
Trial excavations by archaeologists took place over a couple of seasons and were completed in 1996-97, exposing a wealth of material - architectural, sculptural and thousands of written words. 

Fourteen years! 

Still the report is awaited. Will it ever see the light? 
Buddha alone knows! 
While the various agencies involved are busy fighting turf wars, the site and the sculptures lay exposed to the elements.

Among the sculptural material is a carved limestone slab. Portrait off a king called Asoka. You may ask, ‘how in Buddha’s name do you know?’ Let me show you. Do you see the scribble on top of the picture?  They are letters in Brahmi, the original Indian script. His name ‘Ranyo Asoka’ was inscribed at the top of his portrait to squelch your doubts. 

And, it’s the only such specimen.

It is laid out under a Neem tree.

There he rests; the greatest ruler of the Indian Subcontinent, whose contributions to the Buddhist faith are matched only by its founder Gautama Buddha himself and probably by the philosopher, Nagarjuna. 
Sannati is only one such example. 

When I visited the site, 

The shade provided by the Neem tree was the only convenient place for a half a dozen security men to have their lunch. Poor souls! where else will they go to? Haven't we read in our history text books, that there was a king called Asoka, who had planted trees to provide shade to the common folk? 
Now, he shares the shade still!
And, the stone portrait of the king also served as their dining table. 



  1. Devanampiya Piyadasi Laja Vvamhaiva. Did it not take a Britisher to decipher this? When I saw the Cholan bronzes at the MET in NY, I felt happy that at least they exist and preserved in a glorious state albeit in a foreign country, unlike Asoka who lies under a neem tree in his motherland!!!! Million mutinies again and again!

  2. We are currently doing a documentary for the History channel about famous emperors and are seeking images of Ashoka. I would greatly appreciate it if you could let me know as soon as possible if you would be interested in letting us use your images of Kanaganahalli as we are on a very
    tight deadline.

    Claire Musica
    Research Assistant
    Prometheus Entertainment

  3. Claire,
    Please check mail... sent a few pictures.

  4. Sai, is a brilliant historian. But has his convictions (judgements) which change when he gets convinced of other facts. Recently, he told me Ramamurthynagar was truth and hence Ramayana. But not the Ramayana of the past. Wait fir a few more. Years, Said and his quest for truth will reveal the facts.

  5. Hi Sai,

    I am working for a consultancy called Lord Cultural Resources, based in Mumbai. We are working on a museum in Bihar, a section of which focuses on Buddhism in Bihar. I am researching images of the Sannati panel as at present it is the only known image of Ashoka. I wonder if you might be willing to share some images of the panel from your visit there please? We would, of course, get back to you for appropriate permissions if we use them. I look forward to hearing from you.

    Best wishes

    Supriya Menon
    Visual Researcher
    Lord Cultural Resources

    1. I have some pictures but if you want to use them in public domain you may require ASI's permission. Suggest you contact them. Sorry for responding late. All the best with Patna project.